Am I a Feminist?

  • This thought is a part of the following series: International Women's Day.
  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

For me the great mission of feminism is to seek the full political and legal equality of women with men. However, I […believe] that feminism should only be interested in equal rights before the law.

Camille Paglia

I’ve made it through no fewer than 21 International Women’s Days so far, barely noticing their passing. They fall on the same day as my birthday, which tends to take precedence. This year, however, I have decided to leave the birthday celebrations for the evening (and regretting the birthday celebrations for the morning after) in order to engage with the Day for a change. I’ll be covering an event or two from the UCU Teach Out series later, but first I wanted to address a more fundamental question.

The situation

I have been asked a handful of times if I am, or if I consider myself to be, a feminist. There’s is always an element of transgressive thrill when I reply that no, I am not and do not. Generally, things will here go one of two ways. In the first, the question-asker will state their belief that women are uniquely oppressed within society, citing disconcerting sexual assault statistics and gender pay disparities in support of this, and pose me the question of how I can possibly disagree with a movement designed to fight against such injustices. Alternatively, as in the case of my current missus, they will describe how they consider all people to be variously benefited and encumbered by our society, and that we should aim to reduce the inequalities between them rather than just boost one group up. Having just described egalitarianism, they ask me why I won’t call it feminism.

The answer to the second person will be shorter, so I’ll give it first.

Feminism as a false synonym for egalitarianism

I believe that precision in language is important, for both aesthetic and practical reasons. Language is a means by which one attempts to conjure, in another person’s mind, as accurate an approximation of possible of what is in one’s own. Because of this, I consider words to mean things. At the same time, it is unreasonable to assume somebody to have previously encountered, and thus know, every possible word. Therefore, we use a variety of rules by which the meaning of a more complex word can be parsed by assessing its constituent parts. For example, adding un- as a prefix serves as a negator.

So what is my issue with the word feminism itself? Feminism is the prefix femin- plus the suffix -ism. Let’s use those aforementioned rules to parse the information encoded in the word, starting with the suffix. -ism signifies a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory, relating to whatever is prefixed to it. That prefix, femin-, from feminine, means characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women. Put it together and you have word that means, strictly, a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory relating to things characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women. When I replied to the missus that it makes no sense to call a belief that, she accepts, is no longer exclusively woman-focused feminism, she responded that it was a historically important term. To me, this argument makes about as much sense as her calling herself a suffragette, or calling Black Lives Matter an abolitionist movement, or calling trains iron horses.

Feminism as a proper subset of egalitarianism

What about the first questioner, who seems to agree with me that feminism is inherently woman-centric and instead considers my sin to be ignorance of the unique struggles that women face? In this case, I disagree with the label based on my belief in liberalism—the classical sort. In the eternal dichotomy of liberty vs safety, liberalism is the view that will favour the former every time. It affords individuals—not men, nor women; not black, nor white; only individuals—complete sovereignty over, and thus responsibility for, their actions. The liberal view is that you can lead a horse to water all you like; the horse reserves the right to drink, or to die of thirst.

What does all this have to do with feminism? I think there’s a distinction between legal feminism and social feminism which is important here. Legal feminism would mean the movement to achieve for women additional legal powers and protections, during a time when they were legally not afforded legal equality or the means to achieve it. Proto- and first-wave feminists, like the wonderful Mary Wollstonecraft, would fall into this movement, as would the suffragettes and suffragists. Women were legally unequal in society, in some cases in ways unique to women (although suffrage is perhaps not a good example of this, as working class men were equally disenfranchised a century ago). After the passage of a number of acts in the UK (a whole host of acts relating to universalising suffrage; the Equal Pay Act 1970; the Sex Discrimination Act 1975; and the Equality Acts 2006 and 2010) and similar laws in other countries, women were afforded equal legal protections as men and, crucially, rights of redress when this was not the case. Legal feminism had achieved legal equality by creating the tool by which women could challenge instances of discrimination. In the liberal view, this was and is equality—using the tool provided was up to women.

With the successes of legal feminism came the time of social feminism. The transition period is often called the period of second-wave feminism, where some continuing legal efforts—like the movement to have marital rape criminalised—were mixed in with extra-legal social reform efforts, such as promoting the widespread use of birth control as a means of achieving sexual freedom. This culminated in the incredibly-named Feminist Sex Wars, wherein the torch-bearers for the legal feminist movement sought, in the liberal tradition, to defend a woman’s right to choose to participate in sex work, whilst the now-distinct branch of social feminists sought, against the liberal tradition, to ban even the option of sex work, under the belief that a woman was not able to make her own choice due to malign social pressures. The social feminists would go on to form third-wave feminism, which developed into many strains (such as so-called intersectional feminism; see Addendum #1). The legal feminists continued challenging inequality in the courts, using the legal instruments their predecessors had bequeathed them. We tend to call them lawyers, judges and plaintiffs nowadays.

Clearly, I believe legal feminism to have once been necessary. Why, then, am I unwilling to call myself a social feminist now? Are woman not now encumbered in many parts of society? Yes, but in our society, very few people aren’t encumbered in one way or another. Whilst I appreciate that women may be disadvantaged in ways unique to them and directly as a result of their being women, and whilst they may be inequal relative to men in some areas, I do not believe that they are unique in that they are disadvantaged in general, nor that they are not at the same time treated beneficially compared to men in other areas. Consider the prevalence of predominantly-male conscription around the world. Whilst it’s hard to say what would happen if the USA or Britain had to reinstitute their own drafts now (would we see the legal feminists challenging a male-only draft in the courts?), it was historically only men who were set, en masse, to the fields of Verdun, the beaches of Normandy and the jungles of Vietnam. Or take paternity leave—men certainly get the short end of the stick there, but, wonderfully, can use those same protections that the legal feminists created so many years ago to fight against it, just as women can. To my mind, feminist actions are any that counter situations in which women are disadvantaged because of their womanhood. In the same vein, the fight for equal paternity leave would be a masculinist fight. Both feminist acts and masculinist acts are tools to be found in the egalitarian’s toolbox, but they are far from alone in there. I would not call myself a feminist for that same reason that, if I built houses for a living, I would call myself a builder rather than a hammer operative or a screwdriver technician.

Conclusion

In closing, I believe that many so-called feminists are actually egalitarians with imprecise vocabularies. By their fruits ye shall know them, however, and if we can both produce the same results then the nomenclature under which we operate becomes purely academic.

Of the rest, I believe that they focus on the negative experiences of one section of society and fail to see the bigger picture somewhat. The coverage of the BBC’s China editor Carrie Grace and her recent resignation over claims she was being paid less than her male peers perfectly evidences this. If Ms Grace can prove that she was, indeed, underpaid for the same work, then she will be entitled to legal redress under the Equality Act. The bigger issue, however, and one that primarily seems to be expressed in fringe publications, is that stars’ salaries look more like telephone numbers nowadays. That’s stars as in all stars, representing the full range of genitalia. To focus on the details of pay disparities at the top end of the far larger and more gender-blind disparity is to fail to see the wood for the trees.

Addendum #1: Intersectional feminism as a contradiction of terms

One of the offshoots of third-wave feminism is so-called intersectional feminism. It began as a response to the thought that black women experienced, as a result of both their race and womanhood, a totality of oppression that is unique and never fully appreciable by, for example, white women. The term has morphed, over the years, to a broader and less explicitly-racialised view that the function of everyone’s combination of identities—for example, woman, Latina, gay, trans, etc.—causes them to experience a unique form of oppression. Lest I be accused of mansplaining, allow me to let an intersectional feminist summarise it:

We must pay attention to gender, but it is difficult to pay attention to gender all by itself…It emerges differently in women’s lives because it hooks onto other markers such as race, class, sexual orientation and age.

Sari Knopp Biklen, School Work: Gender and the Cultural Construction of Teaching

The issue here is that liberalism was not constructed blind of the notion that people have unique lived experiences—that this concept seems to have come as a surprise to some people is baffling, and implies a disconcerting level of solipsism. The response of liberalism to this fact of life, however, is to open the doors between distinct individuals by focusing on their similarities, rather than closing them by focusing on the differences. When Shylock asks if you prick us, do we not bleed?, or the slave in Josiah Wedgwood’s abolitionist medallion pleads am I not a man and a brother?, or the late Jo Cox MP states that we have more in common than divides us, all are expressing this fundamental tenet of liberalism.

Most importantly, to my mind, is that intersectional feminism is a contradiction in terms, because to be truly intersectional (etymologically the adjectival form of intersection, meaning between the distinct part[s] or portion[s] of something) you must include men, who are surely also a section, but to be truly feminist (in the strict sense I have laid out above) you must exclude them.

Addendum #2: The debate over trans women’s place in feminism as a result of this imprecision of terminology

I do not doubt that this confusion in terms has been at least partially responsible for the current inter-feminist civil war over the inclusion of trans women within the movement (which, in the spirit of the still-awesome Feminist Sex Wars, I will name the Transpocalypse). The TERFS, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, hold the view that trans women are not real women. Consider the following radical feminist view:

[T]he end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution

With that in mind, the ridiculousness of radical feminists arguing over who is and who isn’t a real woman is clear.

This leaves the trans-inclusionary feminists, radical or otherwise. I do not doubt that many of these fall into the first category of feminist that I detailed above—that category of egalitarians with imprecise vocabularies. That they would be concerned for the plight of a group of people who face a number of distinct social pressures (and threats) is completely understandable, and I empathise wholeheartedly with them, but by mistakenly applying the feminist label they detract attention away from the important aspects—interesting debates over the social construction of gender and so on—with these petty debates over who gets to join the woman club. If they’d continued in the liberal tradition and identified themselves as egalitarians, they could have left the issue of whether a trans woman is a real woman or not up to each individual’s discretion, but rallied their support regardless to the defence of another human being and individual, of equal sovereignty and worth to themselves, and their rights, relying on the universal appreciation that we do all bleed. But alas.

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