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“I’m Not a Feminist”

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“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Jane Austen, Persuasion

I recently posted an ‘article’ from ijreview.com called “15 Sassy Photos Show Why These Women are Rejecting the Feminist Movement”. The ‘article’ (quotation marks are key here) features the titular 15 photos of women holding little placards with such winning statements as “I NEED FEMINISM because I like to BLAME MEN for my UNJUSTIFIABLE, slutty actions..!”

I don’t want to address the particular statements of these women so much as the discussions which ensued from simply posting this ‘article’–discussions which were heated, to say the least.

What some were saying was that they wanted equality but that they didn’t want to be called feminists. They described feminists as always trying to recruit them. Often, feminists said to them such things as “Your views are basically feminist! Why not call yourself one?”

I think the point is well-taken and, of course, no one should be forced to identify as something they don’t feel describes them. Labels can even be a dangerous thing. Some people will modify their opinions to fit the mold that they understand the label to refer to. I think that those who are resistant to the term feminism are worried about the whole range of opinions that a big term like ‘feminism’ refers to, fearing association with the fringes.

For instance, does feminism mean hatred of men? Sometimes it can.

Valerie Solanas’ “SCUM Manifesto”begins with the statement that, “there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.”

Solanas’ views are pretty extreme in the spectrum of feminist thought and there are views even more extreme than hers but what’s really important is that she is as much a feminist as a woman like Donna Harraway who was extremely critical of this kind of view (cf. “A Cyborg Manifesto”). What is to be understood is that so many different opinions are encompassed by the concept of feminism precisely because it doesn’t mean any one of them and yet it means all of them.

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Feminism is only a monolith in the abstract.

In practice, it is particular and contingent. However, when it is used in the abstract, Feminism is a catch-all term for a type of discourse. It is about asking certain types of questions and in particular feminism is concerned with what equality for women is.

Some argue that this question need not be asked. They say that we’re all equal or that we should just say we’re equal and then it shall be so (fiat aequalitas!).

The reality is that this question hasn’t been answered yet. Feminism is important because we don’t yet understand the contours of equality for women, we don’t understand what it would look like and finding that out is extremely complicated.

It’s even possible that we won’t ever know or can’t ever know what equality for women will look like.

If you don’t believe the question still needs asking then just look around you. We can see this question in the stats for sexual assault at universities. It’s in the control of women’s bodies in abortion laws. It’s in the toys we choose for our daughters to play with. It’s in the way we understand sex and love and relationships both heterosexual and homosexual.

But you don’t have to be a feminist. Really.

Nor do you have to burn your bra, wield a megaphone or commune with your inner goddess.

However, if you think this question–what does equality for women look like?–is important then you have to recognize the importance of the term feminism.

For those who identify as such, feminism can mean many different things. For some it is a promise to themselves to ask, understand and investigate questions relating to women’s equality. For others it can be an assertion of sisterhood, an association from which to derive strength. For yet others, it is merely a term of convenience, allowing others to immediately understand the type of discourse they are interested in engaging with.

For yet others, it is even a dogma–a way of having their views pre-packaged for them. But to borrow a Platonic analogy, do we consider a man to be a doctor by virtue of his making money from his profession or do we consider him a doctor because he knows how to heal the body? Equally, should we judge a type of discourse by those who use that discourse’s name as an excuse not to have a discussion?

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Feminism isn’t about being sexually permissive. It’s about asking what it means when you say the words “sexually permissive”. Feminism isn’t about joining a club. It’s about asserting sisterhood and solidarity and gaining strength from that association. Feminism is not about playing the victim. It’s about asking how we ensure that women aren’t victims. Feminism isn’t about belittling men in order to lift women up. It’s about asking how women, of all different stripes, can enjoy the same daily freedoms that men take for granted.

You need not identify as a feminist but, if you are to live your life in this world (and please do!), you need to really understand what it means to be one.

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