This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 1/9/98
Page C5, Opinion; Copyright 1998 by Beth David
Feminism: Three steps forward, one back

The personal is political. A man denied membership in Healthworks, a women-only fitness center, brought a gender-bias suit against the club and won. A pending amendment to the Public Accommodations Law reads, in part: "except such place of exercise for the exclusive use of persons of the same sex which is a bona-fide fitness facility" (H.5124).

Experts testified, women told personal stories emphasizing the need: breast cancer patients, abused women, those traumatized by a society rife with violence against women. Even some opponents agree that women-only fitness clubs benefit women immensely -- 40,000 of them in Massachusetts alone. So, is the problem really one lone male who can't find another club? Ironically, the amendments biggest challenger is the National Organization for Women (NOW).

According to testimony from Cheryl Garrity, President of NOW statewide, "We cannot advocate for the end of male-only bastions on the one hand while sanctioning women-only clubs on the other."

I beg to differ.

Feminists have always maintained that the personal is political. How can we believe it and fight H.5124?

We fought against all-male clubs because they excluded women from high-powered decision-making. We broke open the Citadel and the Virginia Military Institute (dubious victories at best). But how can we sacrifice women's health "in the interests of long-term equality for all" (Ms. Garrity's words)?

The difference between feminism and politics as usual, between "men's" and "women's issues," the essence of the gender gap, is that feminists don't want to leave ANYONE behind. After all, what good is a movement that hurts the people in it?

Undoubtedly, our higher purpose envisions men and women exercising side by side -- no leering, no fear. But ... not in this century. Almost every woman who has jogged, walked, or ridden a bicycle outdoors can attest to that. Women still endure whistles, catcalls and nasty comments.

Too many men still believe that women exist solely for men to desire, dream about and drool over. And they're the harmless ones. So NOW's position, though understandable, is premature.

The movement won't splinter asunder if we allow an exception to a our rule. We support many practical measures that seem at odds with our ever-distant long-term goals.

We support battered women's shelters. How can we support a system that forces women and children to live like fugitives while their abusers walk carefree in the sun? Because it saves lives. Certainly we shouldn't NEED shelters. Women should not endure the fists of husbands and boyfriends. The catcall shouldn't be a manhood rite of passage. All people should learn alternatives to violence. Meanwhile, it is far too dangerous for a woman to stand toe-to-toe with her abuser. So we support shelters. Because we won't sacrifice her or her child. This separates us from politics as usual.

We support the right of lesbians and gay men to keep sexuality private. We know it would be better if every lesbian and gay man lived openly; putting a face on homosexuality humanizes us all. But we also know that it's downright dangerous for many gays to be found out. We won't sacrifice them to a so-called greater goal. This separates us from politics as usual.

We support protecting a rape survivor's identity. Surely it could only help the movement if every rape survivor stood up and said "it happened to me." But on campuses everywhere the woman inevitably changes schools, or drops out altogether, while the rapist graduates on schedule. We won't sacrifice her to hurry us along -- we'll get there, together. This separates us from politics as usual.

Let's not forget the slippery slope argument. If we allow women-only fitness clubs, will men clamor to start their own clubs? Maybe. But it might be worth a little slip to hear the creative reasons they conjure up justifying yet another space unfriendly to women. And will women use their clubs to make important decisions without men? Most women-only clubs don't even have a lounge -- just a juice machine and maybe a table or two with snacks available. Hardly the venue of the power lunches that started feminists fuming 30 years ago.

The personal is indeed political. Just as we won't sacrifice one woman to her batterer because shelter life is unfair; just as we won't sacrifice one lesbian to put a face on homosexuality; just as we won't sacrifice one rape survivor to place the shame where it belongs; we also should not sacrifice one woman's health for the elusive "long-term equality for all."

The personal is political. Creating personal stories of empowerment is our greatest and highest goal. We cannot sacrifice a single one of us and stay true to our feminism. This separates us from politics as usual. Sure, it's difficult when our political theory instincts tell us this amendment could start a dangerous backslide. But our other instincts, the instincts that stop us from becoming heartless talking heads, tell us to perch at the very edge of that precarious slope and take the risk. Because what good is a movement that hurts the people in it?


Beth David is a Fairhaven resident.