Oh dear, the hottest of hot progressive topics. Dare I – a shamefully male, woefully pale, straight, cis-gendered, testicular tyrant – be so bold as to enquire about Feminism, and on the internet of all places!?
I’ve been wanting to approach this topic for some time now, but wasn’t really sure how I’d begin. There is so much that intrigues me about modern, first-world Feminism that choosing any one specific issue would feel too much like drawing a straw. But then it occurred to me that most conversations with others on this topic seem to collapse inevitably onto the following question: what even is Feminism?
Take my results on the following test for example:
The four different forms of Feminism on display are, according to the given definitions, largely incompatible; they possess subtly differing origins, they believe different things, view society in different ways, and offer different solutions. I wholly recommend having a go yourselves. Please share the results, and state whether or not you regard yourself as a Feminist – perhaps I’ll make an interesting discovery, and make a graph or something… http://www.celebritytypes.com/feminism-5/result.php?trad=52&lib=87&radic=24&marx=35&cult=28 .
Add a healthy dose of unintended humour for good measure:
…and it quickly becomes clear that the term is used by a variety of people to refer to a mixture of different things. Hence the need to try and uncover some common meaning.
But despite how clearly malleable the term is, I have often found the question of Feminism’s meaning met with raised eyebrows and incredulous glances when asked. The usual reply (though inevitably only from Feminists) is that Feminism is about fighting for equality. “Do you believe in equality? Well, then you are a Feminist!” The point of this piece is to try and demonstrate that this idea – or as it comes across to me, this apparent mantra – is essentially unjustified, as by few reasonable means of defining a term or movement can this be evidenced as the case.
“But Mr. WorrisomeMemes!” I hear you cry, “How do you define anything?!” Without going too far down this route, I do recognise the difficulty of conclusively defining terms. This is why I am trying to demonstrate that, even using a wide range of means, one cannot comfortably reach the conclusion of Feminism simply meaning equality.
Take definition by popular opinion for example. I always manage a private chuckle when people accuse me of contrarianism regarding Feminism, as it is therein imagined that my opinion is that of a strange minority. To the contrary, the majority of both Americans and Brits fail to identify as Feminists (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/only-7-per-cent-of-britons-consider-themselves-feminists/. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/feminism-poll_n_3094917.html ) consistently from poll to poll, despite consistently supporting gender equality. This is true often even of women (https://today.yougov.com/news/2016/02/23/less-than-third-women-feminists/). Oddly enough, this would put the Feminist with whom I speak in a fairly clear minority (which I must admit, is a satisfying thought).
Not that popular opinion is the sole, reliable means of understanding social movements or defining things. Would it instead help if I, as I am often told to do, consulted the dictionary? Indeed, one of the articles linked above does so, in an effort to dismiss the unflattering polls. And the author discovers that Feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”. Case closed? In actual fact, the author decides to provide only one of the two offered definitions (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism ), the given one of which happens to reinforce their own beliefs regarding Feminism. The second definition – “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests” – can be outright incompatible with the first. After all, how can one hope to bridge the divide between the two genders strictly via the examination and rectification of the issues of only one, and reach an equitable outcome? Would the second definition really leave Feminism in the position of being an equality movement, or a lobbying one?
Some would argue that the two definitions are in practice synonymous by virtue of women’s marginalised positions in society. Before approaching this, I’m going to pre-empt some predictable incoming criticisms by saying that yes, women still possess a wholly unequal proportion of the worlds wealth. Yes, there are countries abound wherein women are still considered the property of men. Yes, women are routinely kept from engaging in sport, politics and education globally. Etc. Yes, I am aware. This post is meant to focus specifically on the Feminist movements native to the Western World in general, and more specifically those relevant to the US and UK. And in this context, when others speak of the supposed societal marginalisation of women, I am forced (after many long years of thoughtful consideration) to reply “tosh”. If you wish to attack me on this point, please feel free to subscribe so that you can revisit my blog when I write on this point, as I shan’t elaborate on it here.
Moving on, we could turn to the opinions of both Feminist proponents and opponents, and it is here that things actually become interesting (apologies, dear reader). One might not be surprised to find that critics of Feminism consistently attack Feminism as some sort of supremacy movement, for not acting on mens issues, even for outright misandry. Critics from the now notorious Milo Yiannopolis to Karen Straughan (the most subscribed-to MRA on youtube – fun fact) make these points time and again. And yet, when one turns to the views of Feminists figures themselves, too little is evident to rebuke these points. How can one simply conclude for example, when presented with Julie Bindel’s advocacy for Political Lesbianism (yes, that is a real thing – 6:10, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCRohDqWDcw ) that Feminism doesn’t ever really take issue with men? Or take this clip from Germaine Greer, wherein she states “Women are mean to each other because they are forced to identify with their male family” (6:25, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-7yoV2eaFo ) – does this statement not simply scream that, if there is an issue, its inevitably men’s fault? Even when trying to define Feminism herself, the forty-odd year Feminist veteran cannot bring herself to cite equality, instead choosing not to define it at all (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1WFOoOGKaU ). Regarding her own activism, she identifies not as an ‘Equality Feminist’, but proudly as a ‘Liberation Feminist’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmsKdL-2vTA ). Does this seriously suggest an obvious and integral relationship with equality? Would one genuinely not raise an eyebrow to a Libertarian that took pains to distance themselves from ‘Liberty Libertarianism’?
These people are decades active, nationally and internationally recognised and published Feminist campaigners, and their opinions are taken seriously. These few clips and sources certainly aren’t enough to settle that Feminism is inherently about inequality, but they should be enough to mar the notion of its inherent equality.
Even looking at the history of Feminism, it is somewhat questionable to simply insist that Feminism equates equality (though I think it would be fair to say this is my weakest area of argument). Without question the further back in history one travels, the greater the need for women’s advocacy in Europe and elsewhere, and as a result ‘Feminist’ activity historically has in practice been egalitarian. And yet at the current height of women’s rights and freedoms in the West, Feminism shows no sign of slowing, and is in fact more popular than ever; there is little correlation to be drawn between its popularity and women’s societal progress, which one would expect from a equality-centred movement. The common thread throughout has instead been women’s advocacy, not merely women’s equality. In addition, another common thread would be the unfortunate attitude towards men from Feminists throughout: The Women’s Political and Social Union of the early 20th century neglecting to allow men to join their organisation (Rosemary Rees, Britain 1890-1939, page 47), the Radical Feminism of the 1960’s and onwards, and the current resistance of the National Organisation for Women – the single largest Feminist organisation in the US – to shared child custody (https://www.avoiceformen.com/mens-rights/opposing-shared-parenting-the-feminist-track-record/). These things do not speak of equality.
It is worth noting that too often when defending Feminism as equality, Feminists themselves are, whether consciously or not, using a motte-and-bailey style fallacious defence of their beliefs (briefly, the motte is an easily defended perception of an idea which is suggested to be the entirety of it, when in reality there are additional tenets that are more easily attacked, constituting the bailey. Give it a google!) The motte is the respectable idea of Feminism as equality, which is very difficult to criticize, while the bailey could include any number of personal additions to the concept, including belief in rape culture, widespread intersectional oppression, Gender Feminism, etc. One must note the moving goalposts in conversations on this topic.
I am not arguing that Feminism must necessarily be about inequality, or misandry or anything else. But the basic notion of Feminism simply and unequivocally as equality is nonsense, and should be dismissed by thinking people. As a result, I think I’ll go the less tribal route, and continue to behave and identify as an egalitarian. Thanks.
[EDIT: As others have pointed out, I could easily have included more Feminist thinkers, from Valerie Solanas to Bell Hooks to Robin Morgan, in my point on the views of Feminist proponents, but this was unnecessary. The point – that well respected and widely recognised Feminists do not seem to advocate equality, yet are acknowledged as Feminists regardless – was made, and remains made.
Also, it occurred to me that I’d neglected another means of trying to understand the meaning of a word/term – the actual construction of the term itself. A movement or series of movements concerned with equality would be unlikely to align itself in some partisan manner with any one demographic, and, one would imagine, would attempt to remain as inclusive as possible. And yet, the term ‘Feminism’ is prefixed with ‘Fem’, denoting special concern for the female or feminine. Yes, this is partially as a result of the historical context of the term’s origin, but it presents a problem regardless when one can as easy adopt the label of egalitarian (from the French ‘égal’, meaning ‘equal’) or even other labels, and avoid all ambiguity.]