Saturday, July 31, 2004

On Feminist Whiners

This is a statement that I often read in various forms from both men and women about feminism:

What (some) women need now is a prominent public figure or two to tell them to quit playing the victim and take charge of their life. Or better yet, figure it out on their own. Yes, there's inequality in every aspect of life. Get over it.

It sounds so bracing and simple that I immediately want to join the military, run for the president of the United States and start my own pro-life organization selling automatic assault weapons. After I have finished with my term as the Pope, of course.

This quote is an example of the way anti-feminists who are not misogynists usually argue. Often the quote is embedded in a longer diatribe which specifies that the speaker or writer is a mother, a wife, a successful businesswoman and someone who has single-handedly broken open every "No Girls Allowed" door or glass ceiling. In other words, someone who never needed feminism (or just perhaps didn't notice how feminism had paved the road for her). The diatribe usually ends with an exhortation for feminists to work on something really important, for example the sanctity of life, or to get a life themselves.

The benign interpretation of this message is that everybody can succeed if they only try hard enough or work enough. Of course, the other side of that one means that those who don't succeed haven't worked hard enough or tried enough (or haven't happened to have parents with money and power, or the right markers for a high social position). But it's undeniable that there is an optimism about this message which is sorely lacking in the feminist diatribes about violence against women or sex discrimination.

The less benign interpretation (and the one I prefer) takes a little bit more space to spell out. This is unfortunately the case with many complicated topics: to understand them fully some effort is needed, and the simple soundbites tend to win just by their easy digestibility. So I hope that you will bear with me.

Let's look at the first two sentences in this quote:

What (some) women need now is a prominent public figure or two to tell them to quit playing the victim and take charge of their life. Or better yet, figure it out on their own.

This writer believes that some women (which stands for feminists, really) play the victim and refuse to take charge of their lives. In order to heal this illness the sufferers might need someone prominent to show them the cure, though they might also be spontaneously cured. I'm not sure how one 'plays the victim'; does it involve self-inflicted wounds or some complicated games with ropes? Either one is a victim or one is not, and if one is a victim very little play seems to be involved. The basic thrust of this part of the argument is pretty clear, though: women are not really victimized and could easily alter their lives by just deciding to do so. Like the 'Just Say No' campaign that Nancy Reagan used to advocate as a tool against drug abuse. Women could do the same about crimes such as rapes, perhaps, and they could just shrug off anything like unfair hirings or firings and ride off into the sunset in search of better pastures. But despite this ability that women have to take charge of their lives they still might need someone prominent to remind them. So.

But it is a seductive idea, isn't it? Nobody likes the idea of being affected by external factors beyond our control, and we do indeed have some power over our lives. The crucial question here is how much power. People like the writer of this quote believe that such self-determination is quite easy, but the cost of this belief is the total dismissal of any societal constraints on our abilities to choose freely. These constraints don't bind everybody to the same extent, of course, but they exist and many of them are specifically aimed at women's choices.

The gist of these two sentences is that women are not discriminated against or otherwise especially burdened. It comes as a surprise, then, that the next two sentences turn this argument upside down:

Yes, there's inequality in every aspect of life. Get over it.

Now the writer has decided that inequalities exist, after all! However, and this is a big however, they don't matter, because they exist everywhere! Sort of like saying that AIDS doesn't matter if it affects enough people. And then the brisk air returns, and feminists are told to get over it, it being the grudges feminists are assumed to mistakenly bear.

But there is a deeper meaning to the inequality-argument here, and that is the implication that everybody suffers from all sorts of inequalities. What makes your inequality so special that it should be addressed? Or in the words of one right-wing commentator, why would misogyny be more of a problem than the fact that some people don't like those who have hair of a certain color?

The answer to this one is easy: Some inequalities are based on considerations of power and access to resources, others are more random in nature. Some inequalities have been legally enshrined and embedded in religious doctrine for centuries, others (such as the hair-example) amount to not much more than personal quirks which often cancel each other out. Some inequalities affect a very large number of individuals, others only a few. Some inequalities are pervasive in almost all areas of life, others in only some. And so on.

But of course I have not managed to condense any of this into a soundbite. Maybe I should just try harder?

Thanks to Lynne for the original link.