Camille Paglia is a loved-hated force in the world of feminism. She considers herself a first-wave feminist whose exemplars are the likes of Amelia Earhart and Katharine Hepburn. Her controversial advocacy has both enlightened and enraged at least a couple of generations of feminist leaders by her inimitable way of thinking, writing, and speaking about how women should (or shouldn’t) pursue equality. While I never agree totally with just about anyone, a lot of her philosophy aligns with my own outlook and experience. In particular, her feminism of “personal responsibility” is the most raw but also the most consummately equal in the end, if by equal we mean equal rather than specially protected.
Feminist goals for equality ultimately only matter at the level of the individual woman. Can she choose freely, unhindered by systemic constraints, to follow her desire? Some constraints are released through legislative acts, which is arguably what in-the-street activism best helps advance. But what about the stuff that isn’t on the books? What about the attitudes people hold about women and equality? Those cannot be coerced or legislated. These days — after many legislative and practical successes for women (at least in the West) — it’s fair to ask if the best path forward is more of the indignant activism of pussy-hat protests and slinging bare breasts in the streets, or arbitrary fairness standards imposed upon institutions that leave a woman uncertain whether she earned her own place or if she is facelessly filling a legislated spot. How will these tactics lift attitudes about women above the unwanted view of them as primarily their body parts or as plot dots in a graph of cynical quotas meant to reassure with pseudo-equality?
Perhaps some of the most significant, and possibly most overlooked, contributions to the advancement of equality for women are the quiet, determined, consistent efforts of countless women who have simply stepped forward into their desire and carved their own paths to equality among the men. One such example is the Canadian stonecutter, Heather Lawson, who believes you prove that you can do by just doing. She affirms that her pursuit was and is for herself — an individual woman. Her story also underlines the inherent impotence of “token” woman programs to deliver true equality. In her view, the benefits of her personal achievement for women as a group, or to feminist goals, is a beneficial byproduct — not the main point. Have a look at her work…
This is not a case for discarding useful collective action. But it’s time to also promote more individual action which, accumulating one-by-one over time, has great potential to not only make each woman responsible to her own equality, but to convincingly revise attitudes, through example, winning a far more sure and lasting than legal victory — one of hearts and minds. It may be a harder way and have a longer arc, but it is more real and more sustainable.