in Things that make you go "hmm"

The Feminist Question

“Are you a Feminist?”
“Does the world (still) need Feminism?”

I hear a lot of these variants on this basic question which ultimately reduces to “What is Feminism?” [1]

One of the biggest problems I think that Feminism has is self-reflexive: the movement is in part about ensuring that women have the freedom and power to explore their individual diversity, yet that diversity means that once the low-hanging fruit of feminist issues were achieved, meaning the big issues that were comparatively easier to get agreement on such as suffrage, a lot of the remaining issues aren’t as clear-cut. In fact even in the case of the suffragist movement, a lot of women fought against the right to vote, citing reasons such as the idea that a husband and wife should be able to vote against each other. And that illustrates a recurring theme that not everyone sees: what women want from feminism depends on their perspective. If you have a wonderful, respectful relationship with your husband, and you always both agree on which candidates your family should vote for, maybe you might imagine that it would only bring strife to family life to allow opposing votes.[2] But for most women and relationships (not to mention single women) that wasn’t acceptable. All too frequently I see women pushing different “feminist perspectives” that coincidentally work better for them than for other women, and that’s part of why being a “feminist” is even a question.

My grandmother raised my mother alone at a time when being a single mother working outside the home received a lot of opposition, even though she really didn’t have much choice. And then my mom, as a brilliant and educated woman experimenting with her own ideas of feminist theory, chose to stay home to raise four children, at a time when it turns out that she also faced a lot of opposition from women who considered her a traitor to the feminist cause. In my opinion, feminism should aim to defend women’s rights in both of these cases.

I hear a lot of women saying they don’t identify with feminism because they feel that feminism requires that they want things they don’t want or believe things they don’t believe. Often they believe in certain feminist principles but don’t want the feminist label because of what they see associated with it.

I feel that difficulty too. When I hear two people espousing opposing beliefs in the name of Feminism, and I agree with one of them, do I call myself a feminist? It’s a challenge because if I identify myself with feminism, it can suggest assumptions about my beliefs that aren’t true. But if I say I’m not a feminist… it has exactly the same effect.

In that sense, what value does “feminism” have? In that circular way, if feminism supports women having diverse identities and opinions, and therefore disagreeing with each other, what’s the common ground?

In an ideal world, feminism wouldn’t be necessary. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter if someone was mistreated because they’re female or Jewish or Asian or an Emacs user, because it would be recognized as a human problem. You wouldn’t need to be a feminist to care about the welfare and happiness of women any more than other human beings.

Feminism is like stitches on a wound, fixing things that are broken. It’s only because the world is messed up in ways that specifically affect women that we need a balancing force. In that sense we sometimes need stupidly over-the-top feminists, people that I would personally argue passionately against at a cocktail party, to balance out the blithely privileged and ignorant idiots who perpetuate so many of these problems (and who in contrast wouldn’t be worth arguing with at a cocktail party).

Therefore I think what we need most from feminism is not answers, because no single set of answers can reflect the diversity that the movement seeks to protect and cultivate. What we need are really loud questions. We need questions that are in your face so that you have to ask yourself repeatedly, and with increasing honesty, what you really think, and if you genuinely even understand the problem. And we need to retain the ability to respect those whose ideas we disagree strongly with. (Such as those idiots, I mean respected adversaries, who hold onto antiquated notions about ending sentences with prepositions.)

There are some feminists that annoy the crap out of me. I hear obnoxious things said that show an ignorance of basic economic theory, psychology, logic, history, technology… and I see these ignorant statements retweeted and shared and pinned and put on T-Shirts. But in a weird way, I even thank these people. Because when I hear something that sounds stupid to me, I have to stop and ask myself why I think it’s stupid. Maybe I even need to check a footnote in a book or see if what’s being referenced is in fact the urban myth or hoax that I remember it to be. And sometimes it turns out that I was the stupid one. But even when that’s not the case, the important part is that I was forced to think about something I might have conveniently ignored.

I get a lot of heat because I write a lot about everything. But if there’s one theme you should get from everything I write, it’s that life is complex. People make stupid decisions when they jump quickly onto one side or another. Important things have many layers and facets (like an ogre-cut diamond). You don’t truly understand your own perspective until you’ve examined the opposing viewpoints.

That’s why we need Feminism: to ask questions and force people to think and act on issues affecting women (in particular, but also men) that are easy to ignore when you’re unaffected or just so used to things being messed up that they’ve begun to seem normal.

Notes

  1. These thoughts were provoked after reading through the pictures of Cambridge students answering “Why do we need Feminism?” I had many different reactions. Some of the responses were clear-cut and obvious, but most of them I saw as discussion-starters, which led to the theme of this post.
  2. It’s worth noting that “my husband and I agree on politics” isn’t the only or necessarily the main reason why women fought against the right to vote. I just use it for rhetorical purposes to emphasize the diversity of opinions and circumstances that women experience and how those contexts affect their positions on Feminist issues.

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