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.