Feminism’s large wardrobe

March 31, 2008 at 8:14 pm | Posted in Feminisms | 4 Comments
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Ah, the benefits of dithering. I’d intended to respond to Ruth Fowler’s recent piece by commenting that “whilst it works well as an honest, human, witty and well-written memoir/book plug, as a piece of social/political commentary, it’s hopelessly flawed.” Thankfully, events stopped me from posting and I had the chance to read the piece again, in addition to Fowler’s comments in the inhumane eye-scratching arena that is Comment is Free. Instead of the rather clunky, apathy-addled critique of feminism I first suspected, it’s actually more of a reflection on identity, the limits of political engagement and her perception of the problems feminists have in making their values more appealing to modern women.

I have much less to disagree with on the second reading, but there’s still an interesting point in there that should be discussed.

Leaving aside her obvious and perhaps understandable disdain for the dry, pious, intellectual forms of feminism you’ll find in our universities, her main critique is that the complexities and contraditions within its discourse have obscured & confused what it means call oneself a Feminist:

“Working Feminism” became distorted by lipstick lesbianism, got tangled up with sexual liberation, became only a little about the right to vote, educational equality, non-discrimination in the workplace. It became marred by the numbers of women in the western-educated world who didn’t choose to become doctors and scientists and engineers and lawyers, so then we had to find a way to make the stay-at-home mum a feminist too, as well as the Page 3 girl, and the High Class Prostitute, and the crack addict on the corner.

We claimed to have earned the right to spawn kids or remain barren and channel maternal energies into our careers. We could write about our promiscuous behaviour as evidence of our liberation, or declare we’re sick of men and strap on the chastity belt for the foreseeable future. If someone denigrated our choices, we could play the gender inequality card. Because we didn’t really have a cause as women, we struggled to define one, holding up Katie Price as a shining light of female empowerment one day, exposing Jordan as a brainless slut the next.

I think this is true to an extent, but I’d argue that such contradictions speak of a diversity & inclusivity that is actually positive for the feminist movement. The days when a woman was tarred with ‘betraying the sisterhood’ or ‘exhibiting false consciousness’ for thinking or acting outside the orthodoxy are thankfully receding. Also this plurality of different approaches means there is no longer any one ‘feminism’, but a large wardrobe of ‘feminisms’, reflecting that women don’t all act the same or think the same, but still share the same core values of equality.

To explain what I mean, let’s make a little list of statements on gender issues:

Women should be paid the same as a man doing the same job; women should have unfettered reproductive freedom; contraception should be widely available; rape and domestic violence are heinous crimes that go under-reported and under-punished; sexual harrassment and sexual discrimination are grevious abuses of power that should be punished accordingly; misogyny & sexism in our culture should be opposed whether is comes from rappers, writers or newsreaders.

If you agree with any or all of these statements, you are, like it or not, subscribing to certain Feminisms and whether or not you wish to walk up to the next person you meet and declare ‘I am a feminist’ is largely irrellevant.

In the grand scheme of things, these side-skirmishes in the culture wars are little more than distractions and whether your feminisms manifest themselves by supporting stripping as ‘liberating’ or condemning it as ‘grotesque objectification’, on the most serious issues, the two sides often find consensus.

By arguing over and campaigning for susbstantive causes rather than bickering over the modern meaning of a word or social identity, you make women’s causes far more appealing than you would by either trying to demolish or resurrect that word. By making these issues more appealing, and by winning more people over, the better chance you have of achieving your political goals. And if, in Ruth’s case, your audience remains unconvinced, that probably means you haven’t found a winning argument yet.

Photo: Flickr user chebbs (Creative Commons)


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  1. Why did you link to the Johann Hari article as if it was an attack on feminism? It was a feminist article… have you actually read it?

  2. I have indeed, and I know enough of Johann’s writing to confirm that he’s a wonderful champion of feminist values. I made the link to refer to Norman Mailer’s misogyny, which Hari writes eloquently and passionately about. So when I wrote:

    “Misogyny & sexism in our culture should be opposed whether is comes from rappers, writers or newsreaders”

    I was using Mailer as one example of that. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear enough.

  3. Doh! that was me being dumb, not you…

  4. That is interesting. Makes me think of a Peter Ustinov which went something like “feminism was created so that ugly women could be accepted in society”.

    With the shoe on the other foot there was a sketch which hit home to the truth about sexual harassment. That it’s only an issue if an ugly man displays attraction to a woman in an outgoing way.

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