What Is A Feminist, Anyway?
In the earlier thread about the teenage girl being thrown out of the homeschool prom for her dress, I said that this is the kind of thing that turns women into feminists. I used “feminist” in a pejorative sense, which caused reader Turmarion to wonder why; feminism is only about equality for women, and who can be against that? In response, the reader Niall said it better than I could:
The problem with saying that feminism is purely and simply about “equality” is that such a formulation raises about a thousand supplementary questions.
Just this morning I was thinking about what it actually means when someone asks “are you a feminist?”
If you mean, do I believe in full civic equality between men and women, in terms of voting, equal access to education and employment etc., of course I’m a feminist.
Just off the top of my head, here are some things about which feminists are/have been right:
– Women’s work in the home has traditionally been, and remains, undervalued.
– There is a “sexual double standard”, whereby men’s lack of sexual continence is looked on more indulgently than women’s.
– The casual acceptance of domestic violence that used to be prevalent (and in too many places, still is) was disgraceful.
– The exclusion of women from higher education and the professions was unfair, stupid and irrational.
But there are lots of other claims made by feminism, especially in its modern incarnations, that I believe to be mistaken, e.g.
– The state must take radical and sweeping measures to ensure that women can participate in the labour force on *exactly* the same terms as men.
– A woman who chooses to prioritise home and family life over her career, or advocates social conservatism, is a traitor to her sex or is “letting women down”.
– All, or almost all, gender distinctions are artificial and false, and the differences between men and women are merely “plumbing”.
– Marriage is to be regarded with suspicion, possibly even as inherently anti-woman and oppressive. Chivalry and old-fashioned manners are forms of harmful “benevolent sexism”. Anyone who treats men and women differently is acquiescing in oppression.
I don’t particularly want to spark a debate about any of these particular issues – only to stress that adherence to feminism isn’t just a question of invoking the magic word of “equality”.
That’s how I think about these things. Feminism, as a historical phenomenon, was a just and necessary reaction to a culture that had a badly distorted view of women. Look at these ads from the Mad Men era. It’s difficult for conservatives who are my age (47) or younger to grasp just how messed up our culture was on this front. A conservative Christian friend of mine, a woman, says that it’s fascinating to watch pre-feminist era films and see how male marital infidelity was simply taken for granted as one of those things that are part of life. When I hear the stories from my mom about what it was like to be a woman of her generation in our small, conservative Southern town, I am grateful that my children — my sons and my daughter — are not growing up like that.
For that, we can thank the early feminists. And I do. Whatever their excesses (e.g., pro-abortion), they were by and large calling for a more humane society. That the assumptions the early feminists made are now largely uncontested in American culture shows how much they succeeded.
But when I see what goes by the name of feminism today, I see what Niall cites. I see what irritates Hanna Rosin: feminists (elite white women, mostly) who look around and see only oppression, and who expect all of life to conform to a rigid ideology that is often anti-human. And yes, I see the perpetually outraged raw nerve that is Amanda Marcotte.
My reaction to feminism puts me in mind of Damon Linker’s column from this week about how he’s not a Democrat, he’s anti-Republican. Excerpts:
If the Iraq War debacle had been an isolated incident — one that Republicans forthrightly acknowledged as a mistake and showed signs of learning from — it’s possible that I wouldn’t have bolted the party.
But it wasn’t an isolated incident. It was the start of a whole new era for the GOP — an era in which the stridently ideological, anti-empirical, and paranoid tendencies that gained the upper hand in the run-up to the Iraq War (and which had always been present in certain factions of the conservative movement) infected the party from top to bottom, corrupting its thinking on foreign and domestic policy and inspiring its lockstep opposition to the Obama administration’s governing agenda from day one.
Today, my voting record says I’m a Democrat. I voted for Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and 2012. I nearly always support Democrats in House, Senate, and gubernatorial elections. But I don’t identify closely with or feel deep loyalty to the Democratic Party, its agenda, or its electoral coalition.
You could say that I’m less a Democrat than an anti-Republican. I vote the way I do because I want the GOP to lose, lose badly, and keep losing until it comes to its collective senses, which at this point seems a very long way off indeed.
My voting record is not Democratic — I’ve tended to vote third party in national elections since 2008 — but otherwise, I’m pretty much with Damon, though I’m a lot more socially conservative than he is. In political terms, I find myself to be quite conservative, but alienated from the Republican Party because what it calls conservative is, in my reckoning, a destructive ideology that runs on a hot nuclear core of outrage, such that it cannot be compromised with or argued with.
Contemporary feminism, same deal.
In fact, most activists in our culture strike me as being like this, even activists for causes I support. It’s the unwillingness to see their cause as one of many. It’s the inability to recognize that we live in an imperfect world, and compromise is necessary. It’s the unwillingness to see things with proportion and perspective, and to see that your opponent may have legitimate beefs with you. It’s utopianism and rigidity that thinks of itself as principled and fearless. It’s the strident, hectoring, intolerant moralism that turns into anti-intellectualism, because to debate and to discuss implies, to their minds, that their claims aren’t absolute.
You see where I’m going with this. It’s so exhausting, being pissed off all the time about everything. Dante wrote about how the blinding effect of Wrath. Wrath does not characterize all of feminism, but it seems to me that it powers feminism, just as wrath has come to power movement conservatism, and other movements and causes. Wrath can never be satisfied, because it feeds on itself. And wrath is hard to counter because it is taken by those who wield it in ideological combat as a sign of the purity of their own hearts.