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What is a 'feminist moment'?

Is Britney Spears' shaved head, or the killing of an Iranian girl during a protest, really a 'feminist' moment?
Heather Michon is not so sure.

With the end of the Aughts (or whatever we're going to call this malodorous decade) behind us, List-mania is upon us. The Best. The Worst. Etcetera.

Of all the lists I've read so far, my vote for "Most Perplexing" is the one put together by the online magazine Double X entitled "The Most Memorable Feminist Moments of the Decade."

Now, feminism is a philosophy with many different definitions. For some, it starts with mass male castration and moves on to total world domination. For others, it's a desire for self-empowerment which demands little from the outside world. For me, it's that which moves women -- or seeks to move women -- beyond the boundaries their cultures have defined for them.

Whether political, spiritual, cultural or bloodthirsty, I do know one thing: none of them involve Britney Spears.

That's where the Double X list starts, with Brittany's chart-topping Oops...I Did It Again in May 2000. It ends with Jenny Sanford and Elin Woods filing for divorce on this month. Seriously.

While one has to admire a list comprehensive enough to include both Sonia Sotomayor and Trader Joe's, the logic of the list was a little hard to follow.

All the great political moments, the women who were the first to lead their states or their nations, got mentions.  But sandwiched in between pop culture and commercial moments, these great accomplishments seemed trivial

The list very quickly turns into a brain-twister.

Not to harp on poor Britney, but was her head-shaving breakdown in February 2007 really a "feminist moment" -- or the sad little cry for help from a young woman pushed too far, too fast in a industry that thrives on the hyper-sexualization of her gender? Same with Miley Cyrus, whose sheet-draped appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair in April 2008 (listed just before Hilary Clinton's concession speech in June) is descibed as "officially ending her innocence"  Really?

Does the act of being killed make one a feminist hero? Benazir Bhutto's 2007 assassination and Neda Agha-Soltan's murder during the Iranian protests this summer both make the list. But during her different tenures in office, even  while she used the language of feminist to burnish her image in the West, Bhutto did little to help the women of her country, even when she had the power to do so. And Neda's political viewpoint on anything other than the outcome of the Iranian elections is unknown.

Does the "how" matter? Oprah Winfrey became the first African-American female billionaire in history in April 2004. She's a savvy businesswoman, a great actress, a philanthropist, an empowered woman. At the same time, it's hard to overlook the fact that she made a lot of her money and gained a lot of her power by pushing a message that you, Everywoman, can be rich, happy and thin through "manifesting" and regular colon cleanses.

And what do we do with the publicly betrayed wives?  Donna Hanover, Dina Matos Mcgreevy, Silda Spitzer, Elizabeth Edwards, Jenny Sanford, Elin Woods....I know I'm forgetting some others.

Does deciding to leave their husbands (Hanover, Matos, Sanford, maybe Woods) make them feminists? Does staying in a marriage (Edwards, Spitzer) make them traditionalists? Or, has the decision to stay or depart a marriage moved beyond feminism, since a woman's marital status is less of a defining factor of her role in society than it was in the past?   
There are no "right" answers on a lot of these questions. But if the last couple of years has taught us anything, it is that we need a robust, ongoing debate on the role of women in society if we are to continue to move beyond our boundaries.

Heather Michon is an essayist and historian. She blogs here  


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