Friday 4 March 2011

I'm not a feminist, but..

SebastiennePosted by Sebastienne

It seems like "feminist" is a dirty word these days.

"As feminists in the twenty-first century, we spend a lot of time trying to reassure people about how we’re not the scary kind of evil, militant, hairy-legged feminsts you read about in the Daily Mail." (Vagina Dentata, Galatea Gorgon)
And I know it's important to let people self-define - they are best placed to know their own gender, race, or sexuality, after all. So if fewer and fewer people are comfortable calling themselves feminists..

Surely I should conclude that feminism is on its way out, as a term? Just as many Black women, sick of mainstream feminism's focus on Whiteness, embraced the term womanist, today girls and young women who believe in gender equality are rejecting "feminism" as too extreme to describe their concerns. They're turning to terms like "egalitarianist" or "equalist", or not even using terms - on a case-by-case basis they'll engage with an unequal world: "I'm not a feminist, but I find that sexist".

It feels as if it would be against my code of self-definitional ethics to tell these women that they are feminists, however they self-define - I wouldn't say it to a womanist, so how can I say it to these women? - but there's a difference, a core difference which means I think this is a special case: the cultural construction of feminism.

The popular media are taking feminism away from us. Media constructions like "Harriet Har-Woman" suggest that a conspiracy of second-wave radical-feminists are trying to privilege women over men. It's so easy, in a world which privileges maleness in almost every arena, to construe the redressing of the balance as unfair - to describe quotas or special funding, imperfect tools but the best we have yet found to address the problem, as "positive discrimination". As if, because we cannot create a gender-equal world overnight, it is not worth striving for; as if the tools we have to hand which occasionally give the appearance of disadvantaging men are somehow worse than the endemic oppression experienced by women.

The worst lie of all, the one the underlies all the above, is the idea that feminism's work is finished. That women and men are equal under law, therefore anyone still self-defining as a feminist or attempting further legislative change must be a female supremacist. This completely ignores the vital hearts-and-minds work yet to be done, not to mention facts like these:

I don't want to go around forcing this label on the young women who have rejected it. But what I do want to do, so desperately, is show them how they have been duped. How - even if the word feminism has had its day - we do not live in an equal society.

I'm not that keen on the word feminism myself - it has, perhaps, been too much tainted by its intertwining with the aims of white, middle-class, cisgendered women - and it's certainly not up to me to define the terminology of the future. But, given the ease with which a lack of language can lead to oppression - think of the discourse surrounding women's lack of appropriate terminology for their own sexual organs and experiences - I'm nonetheless concerned that "feminism" is being taken away from us. Without a named movement to give us solidarity, we're just individuals fighting a seemingly impossible burden of oppression.

If only "anti-oppression kyriarchy theorist" were catchier.. I've always wanted a term that centred intersectionality before any particular oppression. Maybe I'm just a Lasher?


  1. I thought I'd comment just to give the perspective of someone who prefers the term 'egalitarian' or 'equalist' to feminist. This post is entirely about my experiences and I am not attempting to define feminism or make any judgements about feminists as a whole. Neither am I trying to say that everyone should agree with the opinions I express below - I just don't think they're incompatible with the view that women should have equal rights to men.

    From a very young age I strongly identified with feminism (actually as a child I said things like "I'm going to be a feminist when I grow up" - not sure what that says, probably that I wasn't a very bright child, but that's not the point). Now my hobbies are sewing, baking, knitting, crochet and have in the past included pole-dancing (and would now if I could afford the classes). I'm almost entirely heterosexual and I really do try and please my boyfriend - not because he's a man, just because he's brilliant. I don't understand why, if I'm allowed to drool over a young Harrison Ford (or Scarlett Johansen), a man is misogynistic for drooling over Natalie Portman (but not for drooling over David Tennant).

    I didn't ever see any inconsistency with my quaint, "traditional little woman" personality and my feminist identity until I came to university. Being at a feminist college, I met some very lovely fellow feminists, but I also met a lot of feminists who very quickly decided that I couldn't possibly be one of them. How could I call myself a feminist, they would say, if I would wear stereotypically sexy underwear and fling myself around a phallic symbol? Didn't I know I was being objectified, and oppressing my fellow women? Was I stuck in the dark ages for thinking that being a housewife could be a legitimate use of somebody's time? And heaven (or Brahman, or Odin) help me when I told one particular woman that I didn't think that I could personally ever have an abortion. A lot of the time, I felt very marginalised and more than a little hurt. It seemed that a lot of the time, these particular people had forgotten than feminism was originally all about choice. It wasn't about the Daily Mail and it wasn't about the cultural construct of feminism. For me, it was just about rejecting a term that, I thought at the time, had already rejected me.

    Luckily, the vast majority of feminists I've met since then have been absolutely wonderful, incredibly accepting people and I am starting to reconsider whether I would call myself a feminist. I think I still prefer the term 'equalist' though because it most accurately reflects my views - it has less of the 'us vs. them' connotations I came to associate with that particular brand of feminism that I didn't fit. You make an excellent point about the fact that we haven't achieved equality but I also think we're getting to the point where what's in women's interests is also starting to be in men's interests too - equal paternity and maternity leave rights, for instance. I also think that 'egalitarianism' or 'equalism' really drives home the fact that gender equality is everybody's concern and, really, can't that only be a good thing?

  2. Woops, sorry about the essay...

  3. "I also met a lot of feminists who very quickly decided that I couldn't possibly be one of them. How could I call myself a feminist, they would say, if I would wear stereotypically sexy underwear and fling myself around a phallic symbol? Didn't I know I was being objectified, and oppressing my fellow women?"

    That sounds rather familiar! As you might expect, a lot of people have difficulty with the concept of feminist burlesque, and we've been told very similar things.

    I've been lucky enough that most of the feminists I've met have been of the lovely variety. It still surprises me when I come across feminists who argue that women who make particular choices like the ones you mention about their own bodies/clothes/lives can't be feminist. As far as I'm concerned, that kind of judgement is the opposite of feminism - because it's the opposite of how most feminists I know think. But if that was a major part of your experience of feminists and feminism, I can see how that would put you off the label.

    As I see it, one of the purposes of labels is to make it easier to find like-minded people. I get the impression you'd agree with a lot of the same ideas as we do, even if you don't accept the same labels. So I'm glad that you've found us and I hope you'll stick around!

  4. Nooo! Blogger just ate my comment >_< it was almost as long as yours!

    The other week Lashings met a woman on mumsnet who thought that all third-wave feminists (by which I think she meant "all sex-positive feminists" or possible "all feminists under 35"..) had "co-opted" the term feminism. I'd never come across an idea like that before, and was pretty appalled - it sounds like you've come across a lot of it, and I'm sorry.

    Thing is, I've had a similar experience with people using "equalist" and similar terms - not to make your subtle point about gender equality benefiting men too (which is certainly true) - but to silence feminists by accusing them of being "extremists" and "supremacists".

    So, I suppose, both words have been tainted by past use, in the way that all words have.

    I'm going to keep using feminism, though, because even in the case you mention - equalising maternity & paternity leave - I think that the progress is being made in the direction of ending the oppression of women through the assumption that they will carry out the majority of the childcare, which happens to have the side-effect of increasing leave allowances for men. I still think we are at a place where the fights to be fought are about women's liberation, even though more and more of them now have pleasing side-effects in men's liberation.

    It's great that you and I can make informed choices - that I can perform in corsets and cook for my partner every night and know that I am doing these things because I want to - but while there are still women doing these things (or losing hours every day to meet a beauty standard that isn't applied to men; or leaving their careers to bring up children; or any of a host of other things) because they believe they have no other choice, I am going to keep calling myself a feminist.

    And I'm suppressing the urge to tell you that you should too - because I feel like, if I tell you that you MUST call yourself a feminist, I'm no better than the woman on mumsnet telling me that I MUST NOT call myself a feminist.

    You've certainly expanded my perceptions of reasons why women reject the 'feminist' label, so thank you for that - but it just strengthens my resolve to go out there and be a progressive, inclusive feminist, and prove that there's room in this vital movement for everyone!

  5. "I'm not that keen on the word feminism myself - it has, perhaps, been too much tainted by its intertwining with the aims of white, middle-class, cisgendered women - and it's certainly not up to me to define the terminology of the future."

    I agree when I read this. I noticed that the modern mainstream image of feminism are middle class white women in westernized countries where the first and second wave of feminism are already apart of history, and where women's rights and laws protecting these women are granted.

    As for me, I'm a black women born an raised in the US. I don't call myself a feminist because of what you say above in the article about it being too radical, and I feel that its better to have a more equal view about gender as oppose to just serving other women specifically (at least in westernized countries) when we have rights today that are beyond what any women from a non western country can think of (Middle east, South Asia, Sub Saharan African, Northern Africa, South East Asia, etc).

    With that said, I wish more focus was guided to women of less fortune in countries were they never had a first or second wave of feminism or a women revolution. Countries where its a normal part of society to beat them or abuse them over them not taking the traditional route to their lives. Women that get their bodies mutilated, forced to marry who they don't want, used as sex slaves in sex trafficking (which also include young girls) and constant abuse from men in their homeland (husbands, brothers, fathers, etc).

    These women are not protected the way we are in our westernized countries. They have no laws or rights in regards to how they want to live their lives and rely on taking care of men, (even if some of them are below what we consider the age of consent) and if not they will be beaten or killed.

    Those women need a feminist movement. Now a days, at least in the US, it seems that radical feminist blame men for anything and everything- as if we have life just so bad- but it could be much worse. I just hope more attention is brought to women whose voices aren't heard by the mainstream public about the injustices about their lives.