Last week, I took a brief trip to Rome to do research for my next novel, somehow due way sooner than I could have ever imagined. So many things came up on this trip that I’d intended to write to you about. About inspiration and art and the importance of leisure. About how I accidentally stayed on what some might call the noisiest street in one of the noisiest cities, and how it made me feel so alive. I was going to talk about how for five days in this metropolis, I saw nary a rat, and I can’t help but wonder if credit is owed to all the cats. (I think the mayor of NYC could boost his approval ratings with a stray-cat resettlement program.) I wanted to tell you about the ridiculous “Brooklyn branded” amenities bag I received on the airplane, decorated with a “map” that mysteriously placed Bensonhurst and Prospect Lefferts Garden next to one another and filled with products made everywhere but Brooklyn.
But alas, I got halfway through writing and realized that I can hardly seem to look past two subjects: the looming demise of Roe vs. Wade, and Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala appearance. I hope to write about all those other things in the weeks to come, but for now, I’ve been thinking a lot about “the battle of the sexes.” It was an idiom in the popular vernacular of my youth, but its origin lies in a highly publicized 1973 tennis match. The retired player Bobby Riggs challenged the top female tennis star of the time, Billie Jean King, to a $100,000, winner-take-all match. Whether for show or sincerely, Riggs spent the summer publicly playing the role of male chauvinist pig, staging press events where he would utter statements like: “She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability [to win]” and “Women belong in the bedroom and kitchen, in that order.” Meanwhile, King spent that same summer toiling for equal pay for women at the U.S. Open before ultimately winning the match against Riggs.
The moment, as far as pop-culture history goes, was a huge one. The match came amid the crescendoing second wave of public discourse, activism, and action in the women’s-equality movement, including the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, issued in January of that same year. Riggs’s challenge was about more than one man versus one woman—it took the legitimate, primal-scream moment women were having and flattened it into sport, in order to provide a level of male catharsis and comprehension. The difficult and complex work of unraveling a patriarchal, racist, and oppressive society becomes, literally, a zero-sum game between binary genders. The match helped establish the idea that a woman’s gain must equal a man’s loss. I sometimes wonder if this is not the moment when we women allowed men to take the reins and define American feminism in terms that not only they understood, but that we were conditioned to better understand as well. Feminism was defined not by improving the quality of life of women and therefore families, but by climbing hurdles and amassing “victories.”
As second-wave feminism bled into a third, women seemed to rack up nothing but wins. First, in the ’70s, women saw a series of legal victories in addition to Roe: Title IX was passed (1972), housing discrimination was outlawed (1974), the pregnancy-descrimination ban was passed (1978). And then, in the ’80s and into the ’90s, a series of firsts: our first female senator elected without a male relative holding the position before her, our first Supreme Court justice (1981), our first woman in space (1983), the first female vice-presidential candidate on a major ticket (1984), the first female secretary of state (1997).
1992 was hailed as the “Year of the Woman,” with more women elected to political office than at any other time in history to that date. And what did we do with all this newfound equity and power? We began our pursuit—one that continues to haunt us—of “having it all,” a phrase popularized by Helen Gurley Brown, the former editor of Cosmopolitan. By the ’90s, we could “do it all”: have the careers of men, be riot grrrls, get elected to office, but still be feminine enough to play by the rules and marry the guy of our dreams and have kids (just a little later!).
Recently, for research for said next novel, I bought a ton of women’s magazines from this era. August 1997 Vogue: “The Suit Issue.” March 1997 Marie Claire: “What Men Think About Your Look”; sitting just above, “Get a Better Body for Sex.” June 1998 Vogue: Sandra Bullock was “Cool, Candid, Confident” in the same issue as the annual “Wedding Album” of fantasy bridal looks. Feminism, by this point, had traded in its quest for “liberation of women” to fully pursue parity with men, all while attempting to remain appealing to them. In short, both professionally and privately, we were chasing victories defined on male terms. (Little defines this era so clearly as feminists confidently siding with Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair.)
Since then, the language may have changed—there were the sexual-empowerment aughts where we could have “sex like men” (think: Sex and the City), then the career-empowerment teens (think: #Girlboss). But ultimately, each decade finds us led by a feminism that has abandoned ameliorating the struggles of our collective lives as women in lieu of chasing individual wins on playing fields drawn up by men. Many women are exhausted from the repetitive act of “battling” for a right to equity, proving that we can still “win” against all odds.
I bring this up because we are in a moment of crisis for women’s rights in this country, one defined in no small part by a woman who I consider the perfect by-product of what I’ll call “patriarchal feminism”: Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett is just a few years older than me, reared on those same magazine headlines and chaotic promises of “post feminist” America. Whether she thinks of herself as a feminist or not doesn’t really matter. The “battle of the sexes” was about parity with men, and we are left to grapple with the fact that in fighting for parity with men, we have opened the door for women to be empowered to reinforce the patriarchy.
And, as mind-blowing as it might seem to most of us, in certain circles Barrett is considered a feminist icon. In 2020, Erika Bachiochi wrote in Politico that Barrett’s anti-abortion stance is an embodiment of a “new kind of feminism, a feminism that builds upon the praiseworthy antidiscrimination work of [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg but then goes further. It insists not just on the equal rights of men and women, but also on their common responsibilities, particularly in the realm of family life. In this new feminism, sexual equality is found not in imitating men’s capacity to walk away from an unexpected pregnancy through abortion, but rather in asking men to meet women at a high standard of mutual responsibility, reciprocity and care.” Bachiochi’s argument, however punitive and outside the realm of reality I might personally find it, positions Barrett as simply seeking a different route toward parity of the sexes.
But Barrett’s position on reproductive rights aside, we all must admit: On paper, she is a poster child for feminist victory. She has managed to balance a husband, a family, and a top-notch career not bound by any ceiling, glass or otherwise. Much like another “feminist icon” I’ve been thinking about lately: Kim Kardashian.
Whatever your feelings about her, Kardashian is another woman who has seemingly won the elusive prize that patriarchal feminism has been dangling in front of us: having it all. She runs a billion-dollar business and has beautiful children and a love life, all of it created while being sex-positive and designing shapewear that she claims celebrates and highlights curves. And yet, this woman with absolutely nothing to prove to anyone recently boasted about starving herself for three weeks to fit into the dress of another, more retrograde female icon. Someone on Twitter asked, “Did feminism just die and I missed it somehow?” But when I saw it, I thought, No, that is the promise of feminism: constantly in battle, even with our own bodies, our own shapes, to “win” at a game whose parameters for victory are set by men.
This is not an effort to blame feminism, but an attempt to implore women and allies of women who are justifiably outraged and panicked about a potential repeal of Roe to change the conversation. We need to walk away from the tennis court where we’ve been lobbing this ball back and forth with men of power and the women who support them for decades, winning some sets, but now, it seems, losing the match. The language of feminism is not working for us, not in the arena of the patriarchy or even in our own private lives.
As I’ve written before, I truly believe the time has come to expand how we think and talk about what a pro-woman America would look like. We need to regroup and reframe our language away from “defending” the individual and toward protecting the collective. Because yes, protecting women’s reproductive rights benefits me, but equally important is that a pro-woman reproductive policy benefits us all: men, children, our economy, and our national security.