Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I am not a feminist.

After having graduated with an honors thesis that fell clearly into the realm of feminist studies, speaking at a relatively intense feminist studies conference, and beginning graduate work that once again embroils me quite thoroughly in the world of feminism, I have come to a rather surprising conclusion: I am not a feminist.

In fact, I'm very near what one might call an anti-feminist.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love being a (rather liberal) female, I fully support females and femininity, and I'm far from the typical "anti-feminist" throw pillow types who prefer adhering to standard gender roles over rocking the boat. You'd be hard pressed to ever find me in the kitchen with an apron. I'm still iffy on whether I even want children. While I love makeup, I go out most days without it. I'm certainly not in support of any oppressive patriarchy here.

Another necessary caveat entails the distinction between "feminism" and "feminist studies". I fully support, and find fascinating, the study of gender roles, including their construction and enforcement. Indeed, such study has taken over the vast majority of my collegiate career. I read Cosmopolitan in order to figure out the hidden messages behind "104 Ways to Please Your Man", right alongside many of the top feminists in academia. I find the academic, analytical side of feminist studies to be quite appealing, yet nevertheless I have always felt that awkward, deer-in-the-headlights embarrassment whenever I am called a feminist. After a few years of feeling guilty for my curmudgeonly refusal to stand beside fellow women in feminism, I've finally figured out the main problems - or, at least, my problems - with feminism.

First of all, feminism doesn't exist. If you asked one hundred self-identifying feminists what they stand for, you'd likely get one hundred very different answers. Obviously, this is also true for political parties, and other movements as well. Some vegetarians, for example, are against the meat industry, while others are against the moral notion of eating another creature. Some Republicans support the party because of their economic policies, while others support it for...well, I don't really know anymore, because politics have started to scare me, but I'm sure they have a reason. In any case, however, both of these groups can unite on one key practice: Pretty much all vegetarians choose not to eat meat (what type of meat, of course, is up for debate), while most staunch Republicans choose to vote for Republican candidates. Feminists, however, don't really agree on much. Minimalist feminists (say that three times fast!) think that there really are few differences between the sexes, while maximalists think there are key differences that should be recognized. Liberal feminists want to work within the current system to include women's voices, but materialist feminists think the system shouldn't exist at all. Stiletto feminists embrace their sexual power, yet other groups see sexuality as a form of male objectification. I'm sure there are countless other subfactions of feminists who all have different beliefs; third wave feminists, cultural feminists, and others that aren't even cohesively labeled as of yet. Various groups think that "women" should be defined and empowered as a separate gender group, while others want gender labels to become unimportant and view gender as a fluid identity characteristic. So, in short, "feminists" can't agree on whether women exist, how women should act, how women should be treated, and how other genders fit into this whole mess. While I fully support individuals aligning with a cause they believe in, I find it problematic to label any one of these "feminist" when we can't even agree on what feminism is and what it should strive for.

My second concern follows from the first somewhat paradoxically, in that I oppose the "image of feminism" (which by all previous logic shouldn't exist). Indeed, in spite of feminism's amorphous nature, a surprising number of (primarily uneducated) individuals have nevertheless decided on a stereotypical feminist image. Come on, let's be honest, I'm sure at least once or twice you've associated the word "feminist" with other words and images like "butch", "dyke", "lesbian", "man-hating", "troublesome", "rabble-rousing", "liberal", and even "crazy". It's not necessarily a pleasant image that comes to mind for many people. To be sure, these associations are not without cause. Feminist groups often embrace a Black Power fist-type logo, or coopt the image of Rosie the Riveter. Feminists are often outspoken, and...well...a bit crazy at times. Gay women have often been forced to deal with notions of gender identity more harshly than their heterosexual counterparts, so it isn't surprising that they have a voice in the movement, too. Nevertheless, as noted earlier, there is no such thing as a stereotypical feminist. It isn't fair to make these assumptions. More importantly, it entrenches a negative connotation with the movement that, before you get the chance to explain what species of feminist you are, immediately turns off a surprising number of listeners. So, I suppose that's my problem. Why would I label myself in such a way that will make it harder to get my message out? Even if the stereotype weren't negative, however, I would still oppose it, simply because it isn't fair. If feminists can't even agree on what feminism is, it's probably not a good idea for the rest of the world to try to decide for them, then get it wrong and alienate themselves along the way.

My final and most personal opposition to the label of feminist is one that, I realize, may just stem from my age, and my refusal to accept that women are the only (or more important) people who have been oppressed. I realize that I have grown up in a remarkably liberal environment, where I was never told that I couldn't do something because I was a female. I haven't seen a lot of overt oppression, although I recognize there is a startling amount of mind control still going on subliminally. However, I simply can't justify a philosophy that favors women over all other groups. If feminists are fighting for freedom, security, respect, and opportunity for oppressed individuals (which is probably the closest we'll come to finding something that all feminists agree on), I can't possibly see why those values would be promoted for females, yet not other individuals like transsexuals, those with disabilities, elderly people, black people, or even, heaven forbid, men. By calling myself a feminist, I linguistically limit myself to championing the rights of the female above all others. That just seems to fly in the face of everything that I, and many feminists I know, stand for in terms of equal respect and opportunity. Besides, with the growing acceptance of homosexuality, transsexuality, transgender roles, hermaphrodites, and other things we haven't figured out how to name, I'm not even so sure I know who (what?) falls into the archaic category of "female" anymore. So why would I align myself with a group that privileges one group over another, in order to combat...you guessed it...the perpetual privileging of a different group. To play on the classic phrase, fighting privilege with privilege makes the whole world oppressed.

So, what's the answer? If I'm not a feminist, what am I? Am I just going to stand quietly by and let the world go on wronging people around me? No, of course not. First and foremost, I shouldn't need a label to believe in something; I'd rather explain my beliefs through lengthy blog posts that nobody reads. However, because labels are catchy and do give some people a shared identity to empower themselves, I've decided that I'd like to be an equivalist. I don't believe in equality, which is a key facet of "civil rights". I think "all men are created equal" is dead wrong, and an absolutely ridiculous notion to uphold. We are not equal, and I am eternally thankful for that. We all have different ideas, skills, hopes, and beliefs, and that's what makes life interesting. I, personally, will never be good at sports, and I don't want to be given a spot on the same team as Brett Favre just because I'm a person and "deserve that right". I am, however, great at other things, and I'd like to be rewarded for those talents. The key? I want to be valued and respect just as much for my abilities and choices as the next person. In other words, I want equal value, or equivalence, not equality. Now, this isn't a foolproof plan. I recognize that my job as a janitor might not involve as much skill as that of a neurosurgeon, so I'm not saying we should value all skills equally; people will get paid differently, some people will be more skilled than others, and there is always going to be inequality. What I personally will be trying to do, however, is to give people fair chances, and respect the choices they make if they're not hurting anybody else. I won't deny people respect or opportunities based on identity features like race or gender. I'll do my very best to value people equally, in spite of their differences. I guess what I am saying is that we should take a little more time to respect that we do all have differences, and that's okay. In fact, it's a good thing. We just need to start seeing the value in other people's ways of life.

Okay, so I don't have it all figured out. I don't know what will make everyone happy, because everying is different. Moreover, there are just some things that I will never respect: Those who hurt other people intentionally, for example, are pretty low on my personal totem pole. We all have intrinsic value systems that, no matter how hard we try, will probably privilege one group over another. Maybe feminists have it right, and I'm just crazy. To be sure, they do some pretty cool things, and I say rock on if that's what you want to do and be. But it just isn't for me.

After four years of identity crisis rich enough to be a Lifetime TV movie (which isn't saying much, I know), I'm finally letting go of my shame. I am not a feminist. So what do I do know? I guess, to quote The Nightmare Before Christmas, I'm gonna do the best I can.


Prometheus said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your post, and applaud your analysis. It's something too few have chosen to analyse, because it's a lot easier to blithely align oneself with a particular group than to strike out on one's own.

And it is this that is my first critique of many feminists-the assumption that life, and more specifically gender relations, has to be a "zero sum game". That is to say, the assumption that for one side to "win", the other must "lose". What you seem to grasp, yet many gloss over is that it's possible to be pro-woman without being anti-man. Many of the labels you so despise ("man-hating" et. al) stem from just this zero-sum view having been adopted by a plurality of people calling themselves feminists.

What you identify as your goal is both clear and well-thought out, and is a goal that should be enshrined in the annals of law and politics, as well as gender theory and sociology: it is striving for the equality of opportunity. The question isn't whether everyone should be provided the same positions (as you said, you would probably make a terrible starting linebacker for the Green Bay Packers). The questions, instead, should be whether there have been any external limiting factors holding you back. It is these factors which should be eliminated.

Let me give you an example. A few years back, an advisory board looked at engineering schools across (I believe) the U.S. and noted how male-heavy they were (as a computer/electrical engineering major and now Ph.D. student, I can back this up). This board's advice was to set a goal that engineering schools be 50% female by 2012 or so. To me, this is horribly misguided, shallow logic. Further, it's "feminism" gone awry. The goal should be to make sure there are no artificial barriers keeping women out. Work to eliminate anti-female sentiment, work to eliminate any "old boys' club" mentality, etc. Allow the ratio to reach its natural level, based on the interest and demand of potential students. But to assume this ratio must be 50% is sophomoric. It's easier for a monitoring body to measure "is the ratio 50-50?" than it is "have we eliminated any artificial barriers?" but policy shouldn't be based on what's easiest, it should be based on what's right. And what's right, as you say, isn't aligning yourself with a poorly-defined ideal and letting that view guide your decisions. It's evaluating what really makes sense.

Thank you for writing this article. It was well-articulated and needs to be said more.

frescasaurus said...

Well said, and thank you for the support! :) I was having a bit of trouble fleshing out my alternative, but I like the way you put it: removing external limitations and prejudice. In fact, I at one point had been using the term "equality of opportunity", and just forgot to use it here. But you seem to have expanded that nicely. :)

I mean, I understand the concern regarding "forcing" women into these programs in order to bring them up to speed, since otherwise women are culturally oppressed so they don't succeed/get accepted to such math/science heavy programs. Yes, that is a problem that cultural oppression occurs. Like you said, however, it's a shallow way to try to fix it, and is not only insulting ("you can't get in on your own"), but also entrenches the mindset that women deserve/can get by without doing the same sort of work. Silly.

You're right, though. It takes more work, and a lot more subjectivity, to evaluate individuals without using stereotypes or external limitations, and it's harder to eliminate artificial barriers than it is to create new ones (since many of them are psychological and fairly well set into our cultural psyche).

Anyway. Glad you liked it. Perhaps I'll keep writing. :)

P.S. Where were you when I needed a good member speech?! ;)

Chris said...

“First of all, feminism doesn't exist.”

In the sense you’re looking for feminism to exist, there isn’t such a thing. But what you’re looking for is some sort of unified ideological camp for which a group can fight for change. This might be what (some) feminist want, but that need not be the definition of feminism. To be a feminist one simply needs to believe two premises: 1) that women are oppressed in virtue of them being women and 2) that this oppression should not exist. What feminist disagree about is the terms in these premises: ‘women’, ‘oppression’, and the means to end ‘oppression’.

“My second concern follows from the first somewhat paradoxically, in that I oppose the "image of feminism"”

This is a valid concern, but not unique to feminism. People don’t choose to be ‘niggers’, ‘Spiks’, ‘cunts’, ‘beaners’ and the like. These are labels assigned to them for the purpose of silencing them. But much the way the adoption of ‘nigga’ as an identity, or better yet, ‘queer’, can bracket the power of a label, embracing the pejorative ‘feminist’ can as well. You’re going to be a ‘feminist’ whether you call yourself one or not simply be espousing beliefs that seems ‘feminist’, in the way a black person is going to be called a ‘nigger’ for being black. Wouldn’t it be better to redefine “feminist” by representing the label as something not to be silenced?

“However, I simply can't justify a philosophy that favors women over all other groups.”

Feminists don’t favor women OVER all other groups (well a small percentage of them do, but bracketing that), they merely focus on their oppression because history and the world tends not to. Just because one might think women are oppressed need not mean 1) they think women are the MOST oppressed or 2)that no one else is oppressed. They merely care about the oppression of women, not necessarily to the detriment of other cares for anything else, let alone other oppressed groups. So I don’t see how “By calling myself a feminist, I linguistically limit myself to championing the rights of the female above all others.” You simply champion the rights (or what have you) of women…

As for the equivalist (humanist) ideology, that seems about right, but somewhat vague. Why is it that janitor’s work is less valuable than a surgeon’s? If that’s the greatest skill that he has, are you not disrespecting him in an important sense by saying his skill isn’t (as) valuable? More concisely, in what sense does it lack value? What values matter in deciding someone’s worth? Or the worth of their work? Capitalism would answer you with the concepts/values of supply and demand, but certainly those aren’t values that take ‘respect’ into consideration…

To push my point about feminism, what’s stopping someone from being an equivalist feminist? And why wouldn’t you be one? Do you not think women are oppressed in virtue of them being women? It would be hard to think otherwise, if you take the entire world into account… I think most feminists are equivalists, but their just concerned with talking about women’s oppression. Sampling feminist literature you wouldn’t see this, but in terms of people calling themselves feminist, the vast majority are looking for equality/equivalence. On a side note, I don’t think anyone thinks “all men are created equal” means that every one has the same claim on the position of QB for the Packers… People use equality in the sense you are using equivalence (or they are using it to talking about equal freedoms, which I find flawed…).

Feminist talk about feminism in the way you have above as well, usually triumphing the diversity of the discipline; “there is no ONE feminism. Let’s all hug!” They do this for the same sort of purpose that you have, to avoid being tied to particular loyalties. The problem is this gives their words no bite, and a movement that demands political change can’t be so postmodern about what their fighting for. If you call yourself a feminist, it seems clear to me that you believe 1) that women are oppressed in virtue of them being women and 2) that this oppression should not exist. Whether you think there is more to feminism than that is a whole different question, but this definition seems to capture every feminist I’ve ever met, read or talked to.


“The questions, instead, should be whether there have been any external limiting factors holding you back. It is these factors which should be eliminated.”

I’m not sure how robust of a claim this is… in light of the following, I don’t think it’s as strong as it should be:

“The goal should be to make sure there are no artificial barriers keeping women out.”

What if those artificial barriers are more than just institutional barriers, like laws, practices or even intuitions? What if the problem of oppression is so fundamental that the barriers it creates are in the very minds of the oppressed? What if, free from all “external barriers” women choose not to be engineers simply because THEY don’t think it’s a woman’s place because their culture has engrained this notion so far into their concept of themselves that they identify with it, despite it’s artificiality? I would argue the problem is exactly that involved…

To lay my cards on the table, I’m a Marxists when it comes to oppression. A person’s economic status is, more than any other aspect of them, the factor that plays most heavily into how they are oppressed. Even with all racial and social stigmas dissolved, and poor man will never beat a rich man in a run for President. Women are impacted by this most heavily (both nationally and internationally) because they earn less, if anything at all. They are more likely to be impoverished, and even when not, likely to earn less than their male counter-parts. The idea of setting a bench mark of 50-50 in the engineering example is to correct a system that won’t merely correct itself by removing all external/artificial barriers. How that 50-50 ratio is achieved is a wholly different matter; a fan of affirmative action I am not.

If people are truly equivalent, and should be respected simply because of their agency as persons, then there seems to be no way in which we can justify valuing the work of one person over the work of another. In so valuing, we would be respecting a person for more than merely their agency, leaving the question of what value that valuing should be anchored in entirely open… and at that point, we’d have no good reason to place “those who hurt other people intentionally… pretty low on [the] totem pole.” I find that deeply problematic.