I may be taking something of a step back here.
I’ve talked about feminism a few times before, what it means to me, what it means to someone else, and how it relates to skepticism or men’s rights. It’s been an important theme to much of my engagement with the rest of the internet, and something I’ve argued about on a number of occasions with some degree of passion and interest.
Now I’m wondering if I even know what it means.
I haven’t suddenly shifted my views on anything real, or not all that much. But I think my interpretation of the term “feminism” itself bears some examination.
I wanted to talk about this even before I read Holly’s post on Imaginary Feminism and recognised so many infuriating factors of certain critiques of “feminism” that I keep encountering. I slightly take issue with the word “imaginary”, because it’s sadly not true that the kind of feminism she’s describing doesn’t exist. The examples she cites – Valerie Solanas, Phyllis Schlafly, and the rest – are all real people, who really believed the things they said, and continue to have supporters.
It’s the way it’s all lumped together that’s the problem. As Holly says, one of the primary straw-man claims about feminism is that it’s monolithic. Solanas et al. were feminists, and so it’s assumed that anyone else who identifies as a feminist, or writes from a feminist perspective, or promotes an agenda of empowering women and calls it feminism, can’t possibly also believe in things like sexual positivity, and must be seeking to actively disempower men.
A big part of the problem is people who insist on seeing feminism this way. I know people who look at this extreme bloc of thinkers – and more contemporary writers like Bidisha and Kat Banyard – and think that’s what feminism is. And while ideas like theirs certainly deserve to be criticised, turning it into a deliberate effort at feminist-bashing might well alienate people who would otherwise agree with you, if they identify as feminists themselves but mean something very different by it.
But I think a lot of the problem comes from the word itself.
Since so many different feminists have such different ideas on what it means, is it too vague a term to really mean anything? There are no doubt some feminists who do hate men, and for whom that is a defining part of their idea of feminism. But even aside from this extreme minority, there are various conflicting ideas on how to work for equality, and what equality means, and where things like sex work and men’s rights fit into that equality.
As well as a (possible) feminist, I’m an atheist, and there’s a degree of disagreement within the atheist community about what that label means as well. But there isn’t the same wild variety of opinions within atheism as in feminism – or rather, opinions only tend to vary on unrelated subjects, or peripheral details like the tone of atheists’ public engagement. What it means to not believe in God is one of the more straightfoward aspects.
It’s less straightforward to believe the radical notion, as the bumper sticker goes, “that women are people”. This was a definition of feminism pinned to the bedroom wall of one of my ex-housemates, and is less than helpful in explaining things. You’d have to go a long way to find someone who’ll disagree that women are people, in any literal, biological sense. But if it’s meant to be taken in a more nuanced, metaphorical way, then it doesn’t help resolve the many disagreements over how this should be done.
Similarly, everyone who’s not dangerously insane would agree that men should have rights. That’s not the same as saying women shouldn’t have rights, or that men particularly need to defend their rights against a horde of angry women who want to strip them all away. And yet the “Men’s Rights Movement” has an unfortunate tendency to be a mess of bitterness and misogyny. The equivalent of certain brands of misandrist feminism, I suppose.
But because there are so many differing views under the massive “feminist” umbrella, the opposition to feminism is necessarily just as disjointed and scattered in what it thinks it’s against.
The flavours of anti-feminism that I’ve generally encountered before (as regular readers may recall) have tended to be sophisticated and progressive. It’s dead set against things like the stereotyping of gender and sexuality roles, victimisation of women, and downplaying or ridiculing of men’s rights, which it often observes in mainstream feminism.
And it’s true that all those things are present in feminism to some degree, and I support anyone taking a stand against them. But going after the whole feminist movement, or all feminists, for these particular transgressions means you’re liable to frustrate and alienate a lot of potential allies.
They forget that the more historically prevalent kind of “anti-feminism” has wanted women to stay in the kitchen all day, looking after the children, not bothering their husbands with any domestic chores or having any vocational aspirations of their own, and not worrying their pretty heads over any silly things like being allowed to vote.
This is what most feminists are opposed to. They’re usually not against the idea of respecting men, or acknowledging and respecting people’s complex and nuanced decisions on gender identity and sexuality. Even those feminists who are against the very existence of strip clubs or pornography or prostitution are often attempting to express a compassionate notion of liberalism, not crushing people’s rights for their own convenience.
Being an “anti-feminist” these days may mean that you endorse and support ideas wholly compatible with many people’s idea of feminism.
So I have to wonder whether the terminology’s that much use to me.