Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Feminism: substance vs. semantics

by Thomas Dollar

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine last month, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was asked if she considered herself a feminist. She responded, “I never did. I care very much about women and their progress. I didn’t go march in the streets, but when I was in the Arizona Legislature, one of the things that I did was to examine every single statute in the state of Arizona to pick out the ones that discriminated against women and get them changed.”

This response says as much about the state of contemporary feminism as it does about Justice O’Connor. While one may disagree with her jurisprudence (Bush v. Gore and Boy Scouts v. Dale spring to mind as bad decisions), O’Connor has been a trailblazer for women in government. And by her own description above, she has spent decades fighting for women’s rights. So why not call herself a feminist?

If you believe the feminist blogosphere, it’s not just septuagenarian jurists who are wary about calling themselves feminists, but young women too. Indeed, many feminist blogs (and I include this one among them) were born out of an urgent need to demonstrate to people—young women especially—that "feminism" is not a dirty word.” From the sound of things, reclaiming the “feminism” moniker from the Rush Limbaughs and Ali G’s out there is a matter of the utmost priority.

Forgive me for not rushing to the barricades. There are crises of substance and there are crises of semantics, and this one is the latter. Define “feminism” in simple terms—the belief in equal rights and opportunities for women and men—and feminism is winning in the United States, regardless of what people might want to call themselves. People of differing political inclinations can have an honest debate over what policies best contribute to this ideal, and they will likely come to different conclusions. I believe that gender equality is contingent upon the availability of legal abortion, for example, while others on this blog likely disagree with me. Still, I don’t question these people’s genuine commitment to the shared principles of gender equality.

The trouble is, though, lies with the labeling. Conservatives have largely abandoned any claim they once had to the feminist label, and have chosen instead to caricature its most radical elements. (And these elements are not difficult to caricature.) The best response to the puerile name-calling of the right would be for liberal feminists to engage it with ideas and rigorous debate. Hell, we may even persuade some people. This, however, is not what we’ve been doing. Instead, feminism has caught itself up in identity politics, where the label does not follow the belief set; the label is the belief set. This might be comforting for people who already call themselves feminists, but it is bad for political discourse and it is bad for feminism.

Feminism is not Freemasonry; it is a set of related social values, not a fraternity or a religion to which one can belong. People are feminists because they hold certain principles; they do not hold these principles because they are feminists. There is no entrance exam to feminism, no initiation, and no Nicene Creed.

Alas, we see some people treating feminism like a club with a set of club rules. I’ve heard people ask in all earnestness if Good Feminists can laugh at Seth Rogen movies, or enjoy Kiss Me, Kate, or shave their legs—just like my great-grandparents, as Good Catholics of the 1930s, wouldn’t dream of doing anything that wasn’t sanctioned by the Pope. But who decides what’s feminist and what’s not? Gloria Steinem? Jessica Valenti? Me? (Doctrinal rigidity isn’t even working so well for the Catholic Church these days, even with a Pope.)

Crazy as it may sound, it’s probably a good thing that people are shunning labels, feminist or other. No two thinking people ever agreed 100% on all political issues, and our obsession with identities obscures this fact. People are defined by what they believe, and how they turn those beliefs into action—not what they call themselves. So if you meet someone who can’t stand those feminists, yet is working to combat sex trafficking or gender-pay discrepancies, you’ve found someone you should work with. And if you meet a white-haired grandmother from Arizona who never marched in the streets, you might just thank her for marching to 1 First St., NE.


At April 28, 2009 at 7:06 PM , Anonymous Angela said...

I appreciate the importance of having a big tent, but am wary of diluting our views just so we can have more people on our facebook group. Feminism is not fundamentally about "women" per se, since there are many Antifeminist women who impede women's progress. It's about pushing an integrated political agenda redistributing away from the male-dominated Patriarchy towards women. So for example, support for abortion is a non-optional prerequisite for anyone calling herself a Feminist; nor is support for measures increasing female participation in the workforce. As tempting as it may be to expand our membership at the expense of ideological purity, that measure will just make Feminism more and more incoherent and unable to achieve its noble goals. (By the way, it does concern me that your blog has been infiltrated by Antifeminist thought, for example by writers who are lukewarm at best in their support for universal abortion rights. It may be necessary on such a small campus to dilute our principles somewhat to sustain a club, but we have to be careful of eroding our core principles. I'd rather have a few of the "radical elements" you unkindly disparage than some lukewarm "Feminists in name only.")

At April 28, 2009 at 8:25 PM , Anonymous Dan said...

"So for example, support for abortion is a non-optional prerequisite for anyone calling herself a Feminist..."

Many of us believe just the opposite... that pro-life feminism is the only true feminism. So, here's the deal: we won't write you off as Antifeminist if you agree to extend the same courtesy to us.

At April 29, 2009 at 9:04 AM , Blogger LSG said...

Angela, I think part of the purpose of Equal Writes is the ongoing discussion about the definition of feminism. I support a traditional understanding of feminism, and there are definitely times when the ideas expressed on this blog make me gnash my teeth in frustration. I also think there is danger in diluting the definition of "feminism" to mean "stuff about women!" However, as Dan points out, there are contributors here who hold completely different beliefs than I do and who sincerely consider themselves feminists. Despite my own frustration, I do think there's value in having a blog where we tussle with our differences. It does mean that some of the conversations we have are on a very basic level (not meant in a derogatory way) -- when we don't agree on fundamentals, it can be hard to dig into the nuances. I think, though, that that's the nature of Equal Writes. When I get really frustrated, I spend some time on Shakesville or Feministe or another feminist blog where the contributors agree with my definition of feminism, having the conversations I want to have. I think this blog requires patience from everyone who contributes, on both sides of the ideological divides -- patience to explain things that seem impossibly basic or impossibly obvious, to articulate our views again and again, and to engage even when it's tempting to just roll our eyes -- I've succumbed to eye-rolling a couple of times, and while it may have been justified it hasn't really been helpful.

I'm glad you're here and commenting, Angela, and I hope you feel welcome!

Tom -- just to address your point at the end quickly, that we should welcome those who "can't stand those feminists" but are working to support the key feminist causes like the battle against sex trafficking: yes, I think we should work with them. However, "I can't stand those feminists" is a telling statement. There's a huge amount of deeply ingrained prejudice and refusal to acknowledge privilege and oppression. It is unfortunately true that a person can sincerely be interested in improving the lot of women on an institutional level, but still have a great deal of internalized misogyny. I would suspect that a person who "can't stand feminists" falls into this category: the underlying attitude seems to be "I'll help you if you're grateful and don't give me any lip." I do NOT think such a person should be rejected, shamed, or attacked, but I do think they should be encouraged to introspect about their feelings and try to come to terms with why they resent women they perceive as abrasive or aggressive.

At April 29, 2009 at 1:13 PM , Blogger LSG said...

I need to apologize for my last comment. While I have interacted with many people who are blind to their personal misogyny in rejecting the term "feminist", the second half of my comment revealed my own willful blindness to the existence and validity of opinion of anyone outside my own immediate experience. Immersed in my own white-straight-cis-middle-class privilege, I totally disregarded perhaps the most important reason many women (and men, and trans men and women) despise "feminism" while believing in equal rights for women -- for years, feminists (in the traditional definition) have been guilty of speaking only to the experience of white-straight-cis-middle-class women. Traditional feminists, including myself, have often failed to acknowledge or address our own racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on. It should have been immediately apparent to me that a woman of color, a trans woman, or a member of any other oppressed population could heartily despise the label "feminist" and its connotations not because they are secretly misogynistic but because feminism has failed them at every turn -- but instead, I was thinking only in terms of affluent straight white folks. The fact that I made terribly prejudiced assumptions even while adjuring those who don't like feminists (who must be straight white men, of course! ugh.) to reconsider their own prejudiced assumptions makes me queasy, and I'm really sorry.

At April 29, 2009 at 2:56 PM , Anonymous Chloe said...

I think Day O'Connor's approach leaves out one big fact, which is that if it hadn't been for the women who did march in the street, she wouldn't have had the opportunities she had. She's achieved amazing things, but I don't think it's fair, or accurate, to imagine that she achieved them independent of feminism's influence on American culture. Women who make it as far as she did - through a combination of hard work and doors opened for them by other women - need to acknowledge that they couldn't have done it with hard work alone.

At April 29, 2009 at 8:57 PM , Blogger Courtny said...

Good post, Tommy. I too think it's important to think outside of labels, especially for the reasons LSG brings up in her second post.

As Chloe points out, though, we also can't ignore the very important work that feminists have done in the past.

I don't think honoring the work of past feminists is incompatible with broadening feminism's focus to embrace equal opportunities and choices for women of color, transfolk, poor women, and men who can and should benefit from feminist ideas and policies. And if feminism is too volatile and divisive a term, then by all means let's change the label, so long as we're fighting for equality and human rights.


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