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Dear New York Times: Caitlyn Jenner Is Not The Wrong Kind of Feminist


Feminism wasn’t supposed to have fine print. I didn’t get that memo. I feel sorry for the women who did.

Image source: Vanity Fair

With apologies to my mother, who ardently supported the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, I solemnly proclaim that feminists got it wrong again in their reaction to Caitlyn Jenner.

Feminist Elinor Burkett, who may be remembered for her own Kanye moment at the 2010 Oscars, wrote an editorial in the New York Times called “What Makes a Woman?”

The gist of her article is that Caitlyn Jenner (and Laverne Cox for that matter) are not women because they have not been forced since birth to endure the disadvantages of being female.

Image source: Vanity Fair

“They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.”

You know what? Neither have I.

If Burkett and the many, many feminists commenting in support of her article wish to elevate negative experiences to the apotheosis of Womanhood, that’s their right. But it’s also their loss.

Not once in her entire article did she mention the power to create life in our bodies or the superpower of making milk to sustain that life. Creating and sustaining life. How do those two awe-inspiring acts get left out of an article called “What Makes a Woman?”

[sharequote align="center"]Elinor Burkett is upset Caitlyn is getting a lot of attention for being the wrong kind of woman.[/sharequote]

Personally, I don’t care what Jenner and Cox call themselves as long as they don’t expect me to change what I call myself. It is America, after all. Knock yourself out.

I owe my mother another apology, because feminists didn’t get everything wrong. I have options my grandmother never dreamed of, even without the Equal Rights Amendment. But there’s a problem when only 23 percent of us want to call ourselves feminists.

Carly Fiorina gets it.

In response to a boy who asked her what feminism is, she said, “Feminism began as a rallying cry to empower women … But over the years, feminism has devolved into a left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men.”

And we come full circle back to Caitlyn Jenner.

Elinor Burkett is not upset that Caitlyn Jenner used to be Bruce Jenner; she’s upset that Caitlyn Jenner isn’t a feminist. No self-respecting feminist would be caught dead on the cover of Vanity Fair with corset and come-hither stare because that kind of woman is pleasing to men. Elinor Burkett is upset that Caitlyn is getting a lot of attention for being the wrong kind of woman.

If Caitlyn had appeared in a flannel shirt and Birkenstocks, I doubt we would have seen the same hue and cry. At least not from feminists.

A woman who relishes, enhances, or flaunts the male-pleasing aspects of femininity is seen as a sell-out by third-wave feminists. The right kind of woman to them is one who doesn’t need to please men, the kind of woman who needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

The power women gained through feminism is now being used by feminists against women who don’t tow the party line. Make-up? Pink nail polish? Stay-at-home mom? Horrors.

That’s why these women are so upset. It isn’t really that another Kardashian on another magazine cover materially affects how women are treated in the world. It’s that these women don’t respect that kind of woman. Kind of the respect problem feminism was meant to fix. Ironic.

Liberation wasn’t supposed to have fine print: You can be free only if you compete with men for resources; if you present as sex kitten-y, shame on you. That’s no longer allowed.

I didn’t get that memo.

I feel sorry for the women who did.

Feminism was supposed to be about expanding women’s options, not eliminating certain options as unworthy. Very intelligent, very competent, very driven, successful women can still be stay-at-home moms and sex kittens. It isn’t either/or. And I hasten to add that sex kitten is in the eye of the beholder. We don’t all look like Caitlyn Jenner, with or without Photoshop, but any of us can embrace that aspect of ourselves.

Feminism derailed when it banished sex kittens to the trash heap, and feminists themselves were often caricatured as unattractive, unfeminine women. Nobody won.

If that’s all the power third-wave feminism brought us—that we are reduced to nothing but sex kittens if some of us present as sex kittens—what was the point?

The saddest part of all is the absolute dead-end feminism will be if it persists in making the perfect the enemy of the good.

I can’t think of any other arena—dieting, marriage, career, friendship, childrearing—where it’s efficacious to fixate on the negative. What we focus on, we get more of. By all means, let’s keep progressing, but could we please look up the track now instead of down?

It would take a radical feminist to see things this way, but Elinor Burkett actually views transgender women (i.e., “people who haven’t lived their whole lives as women”) as just a tricky, tricky way for men to keep defining women.

That makes me wince.

Despite the fireworks of transgender awareness going off around us, maybe one in one hundred people has gender dysphoria. Elinor Burkett is concerned that about two million transgender women will blow it for 160 million women-born-women (the ones whose periods started on the subway).

What self-respecting feminist gives so much of her power away? I wince again.

Maybe it’s time to put feminism per se on the shelf. Carly Fiorina says she wants to reclaim feminism as women choosing the lives they want to live. I don’t know if feminism can be reclaimed. The word is inextricably bound with scarcity mentality, with the idea that women are at the mercy of men and must compete directly with them, on their terms, to gain anything.

Maybe we need something better. Maybe we need original thinking for 21st century women.

Twenty-first century women can choose the life we want to live and honor the entire continuum of Womanhood. We move up and down it over the course of our lives, sometimes more sex kitten, sometime more mom, sometimes more CEO, but always all woman.

We look up from our navel gazing to consider the plight of women and girls in the world who would kill to trade the realities of their lives for worries about breast size and employment opportunities.

We take seriously our ability to influence others, through our hands that rock the cradle and through our votes that elect a president.

We aren’t threatened by new or different expressions of Womanhood because we’re secure in our own expression. No one can take away the power we have, so we don’t need to challenge anyone else’s.

We need a new vision.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull was raised to peck for food in the sand and huddle for warmth in the fog. He could have dedicated his whole life to becoming the best pecker and huddler. But he had a vision that took him to the brilliant blue sky and the thrill of flying for speed. His original thinking broke through barriers of consciousness and possibility. And once he broke through, he brought all the other gulls with him.

Donna Carol Voss is an author, blogger, speaker, and mom. A Berkeley grad, a former pagan, a Mormon on purpose, and an original thinker on 21st century living, she is the author of “One of Everything,” the story of how she got from where she was to where she is. Contact:

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