I’ve been doing some light reading lately, specifically Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. I’m aiming to fill a few holes in my knowledge of the women’s movement(s), which somehow my education has thus far neglected. I blame the men!
In the book, Collins notes that "Feminist" just means someone who supports equal rights and opportunities for women. But there have been very few periods in American history when it didn’t end up being linked to images of cranky man-haters in unfashionable footwear” (331). Even in this joking aside, Collins’s focus on these negative emotions really struck a chord in me. As much as she paints it as a stereotype, I do wonder how much of a problem excessive negativity poses for the feminist community.
I read a number of feminist blogs, which I enjoy very much. They bring up many interesting questions and keep me updated on news of particular interest to women. That being said, at times, the posts all start to sound the same. Frequently, one will introduce some sort of complaint, some previously-unacknowledged-as-sexist behavior or horrifying event from small town America. Occasionally, they promote a woman who has done something particularly noteworthy—but not often.
I usually agree with the writers. I do see the problems, I think they are real, and I want to change them. Nonetheless, after reading so many posts, it’s hard to resist the urge to turn off my computer—or at least, to use Google Reader’s skip feature. When constantly reading about these issues, how does one avoid compassion fatigue?
Supporting equal rights for women—to what extent does this require an active and constant dissatisfaction with the world? When and where can we make space for more positive discussions? Does this avenue prevent further conversation by putting into words what we already know—how spectacular women truly are?
I’m starting to notice the former instinct in myself, and I can’t say I like it very much. I walk around looking for feminist problems in the hope I might find one worth discussing. The academic side of me protests that I am simply problematizing an issue in (I hope) an interesting way. And yet, I wonder if this constant search for problems will ultimately lead to happiness. Perhaps this is an issue particular to the blogosphere, and our own 24-hour news cycle.
I am not suggesting that we ignore the problems, or even that we stop looking for them. But I would like t o take a few minutes to focus on something more positive. For instance, the new bill that the Senate just passed, the Food Safety and Modernization Act. Apparently, the bipartisan committee that staffed it was composed largely of women. What an accomplishment (both what they did, and who did it)! I’m curious about the particular traits these women had that made compromise possible, in one of the only bipartisan products in recent memory. How we might capitalize on these characteristics in future work?
Such a conversation, starting from a positive observation, could easily provoke an interesting discourse. And yet, these moments occur so rarely. Why is this? And more importantly, how can we change it? How can feminist writers use positive stories about women to question society, in lieu of negative ones? Might this bring us a breath of fresh air, a respite from negativity and fatigue? After all, we can always take up the problems again afterwards—with a renewed sense of energy, power, and accomplishment. With this feeling banishing our compassion fatigue, we might actually find some solutions.