Saturday, November 24, 2012

Why Is Feminism 'A Dirty Word?'

That's in the address of a Guardian piece with the final title:
Why is 'feminism' such a tough badge to  wear?'

Do read the piece.  What I want to write about are the comments because they are more illuminating about the possible answers.  Let's see if I can put them into some kind of classes:

First Class of Arguments

This is the argument that the piece itself mentions:
As Siobhan Garrigan, who studies English at the University of Lincoln, puts it: "Young people don't want to identify as feminists because there is this man-hating, frumpy, lesbian image forced on us."
You must have heard about those accusations many, many times before!  I certainly have.  I'm gorgeous, lurve men (especially with pesto and garlic) and, sadly, fail to be anything but quite heterosexual.  Well OK.  I'm not gorgeous.  But I certainly am not frumpy!  The gall, she mutters.

All joking aside, those three accusations don't have anything to do with each other.  The first one states that anyone wanting gender equality must hate men.  That's pretty weird.  The second one argues, that women who want gender equality cannot be attractive enough to get men in a system where women are second-class citizens.  Only unattractive women would want equality!

That's illogical, too.  Finally, one's sexuality has nothing to do with one's desire for a gender-equal society.  All illogical, says Echidne.

But squint your eyes a bit, and you see the underlying pattern,  what all three of these things share:  These women do not try to please men.  Or that's the suspicion of anyone using those accusations.  Wanting equality means not wanting to please men.  Therefore, women who want equality must hate men, be unattractive or prefer women in their sexuality.

Now, I don't accept those accusations.  I'm also willing to admit that there have been feminists who hate men (but nowhere near the numbers of MRA guys who hate women), that all social justice movements have more or less frumpy people of both sexes in them and so on.  But no other social justice movement is taken to task for anything similar.  No other social justice movement needs to say "but of course we love you, other guys!" or try to make sure that their members are nicely made-up and properly behaved.  It's only demanded of feminism, and that, I suspect, is because of women's traditional roles and traditional gender stereotypes.

Besides, the sexes are not independent of each other, and statements which ostracize feminism have a powerful impact because of that.  Nobody wants to be shunned by the groups of their peers, after all. 

Second Class of Arguments

This crops up quite a bit in the comments.  In the more sophisticated form it's a criticism of feminism as a political movement without intersectionalityIn the rougher forms the argument is about rich women perhaps being slightly worse off than rich men but who cares?  As one commentator states, how do poor women get helped if some women become judges or famous television personalities?  Her life remains the same.

From the latter angle feminism is unimportant because it is  seen as a movement which only focuses on wealthy, educated, white women who are better off than, say, poor, uneducated, black men.  Or poor women of any race.

Here I want to draw a distinction between feminism as-a-political-movement and feminism-as-a-theory.  The two are different, I've come to believe, and while intersectionality is important in both fields, the idea that focusing on gender in isolation isn't useful for anyone but the top women in the society is misplaced when it comes to theory. 

It helps to understand how gender plays a role in the hierarchical ladders. One possible way that game might go is that women are slightly worse off than men who are otherwise the same in the kinds of things which determine the rung of the ladder we inhabit.  If that's the case, then poor women could be slightly worse off than poor men, for instance.

Or perhaps not.  The question is ultimately an empirical one and the studies must be done separately for each society.  But that has been the traditional setting when it comes to comparing men and women and it is probably still valid in most countries of this world.

Beliefs about the proper roles of men and women and beliefs about women's worth have an impact on all members of the society, including its women.  Seeing powerful women performing well in areas which have not traditionally allowed women that chance can change stereotypes and sexist beliefs.  In that sense what happens at the very top of the society does matter to all women and men.

Those who argue that the problems with sexism otherwise privileged women have don't matter fail to understand that similar and worse problems affect women further down the ladders.  Not studying those problems will hurt all women, ultimately.

I'm not sure how clear I have been.  There's a difference between intersectionality and between the argument that feminism should be a social justice movement which supports every cause and all people. 

Intersectionality plays a useful and important role.  Turning feminism into some kind of a general social justice movement would leave the question of gender unexamined.  Other social justice movements are unlikely to take up the slack.

This class of arguments also fails to appreciate that much feminist writing IS about intersectionality.

And to argue that some different cause (such as income inequality)  is more important than feminism is to fail to take into account the intersectionality in that place.  It also assumes that we must pick one cause and focus on that alone.  I don't know about you but I can run and chew gum and plan my next blog post all at the same time.

Third Class of Arguments

These are the arguments that it is the men who are worse off in Western societies.  Feminists are accused of not working to reduce the rates of male-on-male violence, including the rates of male suicide, or of not trying for the most dangerous jobs in equal numbers or of not working to get more fathers child custody in the case of a divorce.

Yet a very consistent tone in the orchestra that is feminist music has always focused on the evils that traditional gender roles can cause.  A few examples: 

Mothers are more likely to get custody in the case of a divorce when the society believes that mothers should do the hands-on care of the children. Stay-at-home parents are more likely to get custody than the family breadwinners, and the vast majority of stay-at-home parents are women.  (It's a completely different question whether fathers, indeed, are treated especially unfairly in custody courts.  Evidence suggests that in most cases the divorcing parents agree on who should have custody and when this is not the case, fathers win at least one half of all the cases in the US.)

Traditional definitions of masculinity have sometimes glorified violence.  To the extent that feminism has opposed such definitions, it has also opposed one of the many causes for male-on-male violence.

The most dangerous traditionally male jobs do not always welcome women with open arms.  Sexual harassment can be used as a way to defend one's turf.  It's important to note that women don't necessarily make a simple choice not to become, say, firefighters.  Also, as I've mentioned before, prostitution is probably the occupation with the highest risk of violent death, and it is a female-dominated occupation.  But because it is often an illegal one, its riskiness does not enter occupational safety statistics.

It's a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't argument.  Feminists should work hard on men's liberation because women have more "choices" than men do.  But when feminists do suggest that men should be able to become stay-at-home-parents or that men should be encouraged to react to anger in ways other than violence, they become interfering bitches who disobey biological imperatives and so on.   It's hard for me to know what some of these extremist MRA people want, because on the one hand they want feminists to work for the liberation of men and on the other hand they want the old-time gender roles to come back and feminists to shut up.

The best way to address these issues (in addition to getting the actual facts about them) is by pointing out that feminism wants equal opportunities by gender and equal valuation of traditionally male and female spheres of activity.  Feminists who encourage women to take up the bread-winning role or who encourage women to become firefighters or police officers should please these types of MRA people, right?  Because that way more women will die in the dangerous jobs and more men will be SAHDs and then get custody in the case of a divorce.   Well, that last sentence is only half-serious.  The point is that much of feminist agenda IS giving men more choices, should they want them.

Perhaps one could also mention that violence IS studied a lot in the society, and much of that study is about male-on-male violence.  It's hard to see what input the feminist movement with its meager funds could contribute to what is already being done.

I have trouble with this group of argument because it veers from one end to the other.  At one extreme, the argument is that the most traditional gender norms were the correct ones.  At the other extreme, feminists should work to liberate men whom those traditional gender norms have enslaved. 

Fourth Class of Arguments

This is another familiar one:  The feminist movement was needed in the past (and perhaps still is,  in places like Saudi Arabia) but women in the Western countries are now completely equal with men.

What makes the argument familiar is that people wrote about it earnestly in the late nineteenth century and then again in the 1930s and so on and so on.  Makes you think, doesn't it?

Women in the West are certainly much better off now than, say, a hundred years ago.  We can vote, for one thing.  But the Church of England still won't have female bishops, the Catholic Church is an all-boys-club and so is Islam.  The number of women in the parliaments of most countries is nowhere near 50%,  sexual violence is still a problem and, most importantly, misogyny still manages to exist.

I'm grateful for the changes past generations of feminists spent their lives bringing about.  Very grateful.  But I don't think the job is over and done with.  Whenever I feel like that, I go cruising on the net and get my head put right again.  All it takes is participation in some poorly moderated forum while using a female-sounding pen-name.  Or reading YouTube comments...

And as long as we are not affecting the gender roles at home we will not see ultimate gender equality in the wider society.


To conclude, let me state that, yes,  some aspects of feminism have gone astray in the past, and, yes, there are always ways to make the social justice movement that is feminism more inclusive and more effective and fairer.  At the same time, the feminism of the past got women the vote, fairer laws and fairer retirement benefits.  It got women access to schools and colleges and jobs.  It got women mentioned in the history books.  It got women their own bank accounts and the right to enter contracts.   It cast light on the once-common belief that rape is a shame for the victim and better kept hidden.

And today?  We discuss how dirty a word "feminism" might be.

The paradox of my kind of feminism is this:  The problems of sexism have been fixed when each individual is judged as an individual, not as a representative of a whole gender.   Yet the only way to see the sexist treatment of any one individual is by looking at how it is affected by  the beliefs and prejudices and societal practices which apply to one's whole gender.  

That's what I have tried to do on this blog, over the years (send money!).  It may not be the kind of feminism this Guardian article or the comments attached to it discuss.  It may not even be feminism, who knows, and it may have very limited value.  But from my snake's-eye-viewpoint most of the arguments classes I amassed miss the point of feminism, and it really is to remove that ankle-cuff with your sex etched on it.  So that we can all run free or something.