Paula Kamen's New 'Strain' of Female
By Laura Donnelly, Fri., March 22, 2002
Back in December, possessing a sense of entitlement new to even third wave feminists, U.S. Air Force Pilot Lt. Col. Martha McSally told Fresh Air listeners she was flat-out suing the Secretary of Defense. Her beef with Donald Rumsfeld pertained to a federal mandate instructing her to wear a head-to-toe Islamic abayah robe when leaving Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, where, as the first woman to ever fly a U.S. combat mission, she was stationed in America's war on terrorism.
At home in Chicago, where she is a visiting scholar at Northwestern University, Paula Kamen sat riveted listening to McSally's chastisement of a patriarchy so embedded it was unable to see the ridiculousness of such an order. (Saudi government imposes only that non-Muslim female visitors dress conservatively.)
Kamen, author of a pervasive and candid analysis of current female sexuality, Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution (Broadway Books, $13.95), which is new in paperback, says McSally's brazen, unapologetic discourse is germane to a new "strain" of female.
Lauded by iconic feminists like Susan Faludi, bell hooks, and Naomi Wolf and described as "an exhaustive and complex survey of what young women want" by The New York Times, Her Way is the organic sequel to Feminist Fatale: Voices From the "Twentysomething" Generation Explore the Future of the "Women's Movement" (1991), Kamen's first book tackling the current sutured connotation of feminism.
An essayist whose zealous smatterings of feminist commentary have appeared in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and Ms. Magazine as well as dozens of anthologies, Kamen attributes the origin of Her Way to a kismet stop in Austin on a speaking tour for Fatale.
"Austin really figured into the chime of the book," she recently told the Chronicle. "I was asked to speak at a conference at UT in the early Nineties and sort of started the book's premise there. I interviewed four couples, NPR-listening yuppies who were struggling to have more equal partnerships. They talked about the trade-offs [of relationships], how they moved several times for jobs for both partners. There was confusion of whose task was what."
That feedback compelled Kamen to launch a more comprehensive set of interviews in Austin focusing on women who were students, lived in low-income housing projects, were homeless, wealthy, religious, atheist and some in dire situations, like one of her respondents who had to send her children away to make a living. Kamen chose a sample that's indicative of the whole culture of women, taking into consideration women of color and of lower socioeconomic status, a failure of some earlier feminist studies.
Voicing a new mantra of sexuality, her respondents were libidinous and confident and no longer apologetic about their desire to have or not have sex. Kamen noted an absence of shame and inhibition, alarming to her at times since such bravado was sparse as recent as 10 years ago, when she herself was a "twentysomething." Her digging transformed itself into a text; she not only discovered themes, but advocates, too.
"I often brag that I've been thanked in the introduction of a good book about sex," says Susan Hays, who is a lawyer and founder of Jane's Due Process, a nonprofit advocacy center promoting the fair application of the judicial bypass option of the Texas parental consent notification law. Hays met Kamen through Liz Carpenter, former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, who attended Kamen's signing at Book Woman this time last year, when Her Way was published in hardback. Since Molly Ivins, Spike Gillespie, and Girlstart founder Rachel Muir were also at that reading, it's no wonder Kamen refers to "the staggering generosity of Texas feminists."
"Paula really nailed it," Hays says. "When I read her book I felt a sense of eureka. She articulated what has been kicking around in my head for years. We don't talk about [sex] enough and in the right ways. ... Paula brings men and young women [into the discussion], which is better for everyone," she says.
Muir, whose Web site focuses on empowering girls through math, science, and technology, says that the reception Kamen has received among Texas women isn't surprising. "Texas women are strong, the geography dictates this, for one," she points out. "Texas is on the frontier and it's huge and I think this makes women in Texas very pioneering. They have a strong sense of resiliency, independence, and overcoming obstacles. They are tough."
From Chicago, Kamen explained firsthand how a phenomenon in women's sexuality originates.
Austin Chronicle: So much has happened since Her Way was originally published. What kind of light has September 11 shed on feminist issues?
Paula Kamen: Feminism isn't such a fringe issue now. If anything, the war shows you feminism is about human rights and is of mainstream interest right now, along with protecting human indignities and freedoms, aligned with American ideals. Laura Bush has been condemning the Taliban for their treatment of women, this from someone whose most controversial opinion was "go to the library and read." And, on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno let his wife, Mavis, speak, a member of the Fund for Feminist Majority, a group more radical than N.O.W. that has been the vanguard on criticizing the Taliban since they took power in 1996. Needless to say, it has been a living nightmare for everyone, but the result is that attention is being paid toward American women and women in more oppressive cultures.
AC: Do you mean that America is taking ownership of its own sexism?
PK: Though I am more to the left, I am agreeing with Republicans who talk about how America stands out in its freedom and human rights. But, there is still hostility toward the morning-after pill, RU486, the abortion pill and women continue to be used as political footballs. Bush does have more women in upper-level positions than his dad; a woman in the cabinet was a nonissue with Bush Sr. And, some of his cabinet is not toeing the official party line. Colin Powell was on MTV talking about condoms and Bush's crusade to replace comprehensive sex education with abstinence was deemed ineffective by Surgeon General David Thatcher, whose "Call to Action" study confirmed abstinence programs don't work. Despite Thatcher's findings, Bush is trying to boost a $125 million-a-year abstinence campaign to $300 million. It's an invisible threat that has an effect nationally. This is sort of the mixed effect of the war. It highlighted women's rights, but also took away coverage from many other issues. Also, there isn't much investigation by the media criticizing Bush; most of what I find out is from list servers, not the regular media.
AC: Independent of 9/11, what changes have you witnessed in the culture of women's sexuality in the U.S.?
PK: The movement against acquaintance rape is the first major move to challenge the male design of the sexual revolution. In the Seventies, women got permission to say "yes" to sex, but the negative result was that they stopped being able to say "no." Using the paradigm of the Seventies, saying "no" would be anti-sex, anti-revolution. Consensus communication in the Nineties and today changed this. But, this control of consent was accused of ruining the romance in sex. The movement of giving permission for women to say "no" and to have sex more on their own terms was considered total lunacy in the early Nineties. It was as controversial as sexual harassment. Conservatives and feminist writers like Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia were labeling these notions as Victorian and prudish. I felt it was an issue of control that was good for women. To me, what were thought to be anti-sex decisions were actually human respect issues.