Who’s a Feminist Now?
Recently on a relatively progressive masculist blog, the posters began a series called “Not a Feminist”. The purpose, the poster states, is to “take out the trash” – particularly those feminists who display prejudice and extremely negative views towards men.
The poster’s arguments run from
if “feminism” is truly just about self-identification — if it doesn’t have any hard or fast standards so that it ends up including people as far-ranging in beliefs as Sarah Palin and Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer along with Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir — then it has no meaning anymore,”
Someone has to say, “Yeah, you know what? No. That person’s beliefs are totally out of line. That is not a legitimate strain of feminist thought. Maybe they went down an interesting intellectual path — but it was a dead fucking end, and a bad idea, and it’s time to renounce their thoughts and take back their Feminist Card™,””
Simply put, by allowing certain people to remain “legitimate feminists” — as decided by the Great Feminist Monolith, of course — we allow a bad image of feminism to persist.”
To the first, who gets to make up the standards? What if I don’t conform, what am I? To the second, erasing that intellectual path is to lose part of the record of where we have been (see more below). To the third, the bad image of feminism has much less to do with rad fems and much more to do with the kyriarchy’s interest in keeping men invested in traditional, dominating masculinity and women in traditional, submitting femininity. I’ve been called a “radical feminist” for asking that my friend’s boyfriend not call me “baby” because it makes me unhappy, and that another friend’s boyfriend not insist on sex when his girlfriend is incapacitated by endometriosis. For a good chunk of the men I’ve met in my life, all feminism = radical feminism, and they can’t even name a single feminist theorist.
I take issue with this series because, firstly, as a man, saying one is going to “take out the trash” of feminism…that’s getting into seriously iffy territory. For another, dictating rules about who can be a feminist or not is dangerously autocratic. Saying you are a feminist is like saying you are a Christian – to know whether or not you agree with this person, you have to talk about what flavor of feminist/Christian you are. There are sometimes misunderstandings, when someone assumes you LOOOOOOVE a theorist that you loathe, but the point about these labels is that they are general and vague and we are allowed to disagree about what, precisely, they mean. My vision of feminism is quite, quite different from many, many feminists. That’s okay with me.
Furthermore, categorically excommunicating theorists from feminism is not only presumptuous, but intellectually dishonest. As a Buddhist, should I declare that the Dalai Lama isn’t really a Buddhist because he doesn’t approve of gays and I want to keep my religion but not be associated with a bigot? Is Einstein not a scientist because he was wrong about the Static Universe? Should I chuck out Bronislaw Malinowski from the discipline of anthropology because he was a huuuuge fucking racist?
I don’t think so. In Anthropology 101, and in subsequent upper level courses, we didn’t just read material that my professors agreed with, or the latest, cutting edge theories and research. Our readings were always and ever contextualized by some of the earliest or most flawed papers on the subject. Sometimes we read criticisms of those papers, but at others, we were expected to pick it apart ourselves in class discussions. We learned not just where theories in anthropology were at the current moment, but where they had been, all the way back to the early bigoted explorers who started the ethnographic genre. They were horrifically racist and snootily, smugly, disgustingly certain of their superiority in every aspect – and as you progress through the history of anthropology, or the different schools of thought, you see how these ideas were gradually challenged and changed and regressed and progressed. In short, you can understand why modern anthropology has the landscape that it does.
More importantly, you can avoid rehashing old arguments that have been categorically rejected (as valid, not as part of the school). You can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before you. Even my favorite old school anthropologist, Franz Boas, wasn’t always right. I learned not just from his good theories, but from places where I think he profoundly misstepped. If I cut out those I don’t like (and shit are there a ton of anthropologists I don’t like!) I would miss at least half of the conversation that did and does make up the discipline.
Lots of Native American Indian tribes are intensely hostile to anthropologists these days, which is completely and utterly understandable if you look at the history of what people in my discipline have done in the name of “research” (read: entitlement). While the intellectual meetings of native communities and anthropologists weren’t all bad, to whitewash this history would be to do a severe disservice to the native communities that we hurt. Some schools do whitewash it, and do further harm by showing up entitled and all “why are you so prejudiced against anthropologists, I’m totes not like that?!?!”
Men: not all feminists give you a fair shake. And you may find some terminology in the movement to be offensive. You may be put off by the way some feminists speak about you. That’s fine. Speak up about it if you like, ignore if you like. Identify or don’t identify as a feminist as you like. If you’re a gender studies professor, assign the readings you want – that’s your prerogative. But it’s no one’s prerogative to expel people from the movement. It’s no one’s prerogative to “take out the trash.” It’s no one’s prerogative to destroy even the tiniest scrap of where we have been before. Learn from history. Criticize one another. Hold one another to higher standards. Vocally proclaim that you disagree with Mary Daly, and say why. That’s how we grow. We don’t get anywhere sweeping people under the rug. We don’t get anywhere denying or throwing out the evidence that feminists have been deeply racist and bigoted against trans people, that some of us have ignored the ways in which the very ideology we so despise hurts men in ways profoundly intertwined with the ways we are oppressed as women.
Furthermore, one day I do hope we make enough progress in gender egalitarianism and deconstructing the kyriarchy that it will be time for men and women to come together to apologize for all the shit we’ve slung at one another – knowing the histories of our movements will be a vital part of owning the ways in which we went wrong. Having a movement is like herding cats – but which cat should decide where they should all go?
Every resistance movement in history has those who go too far in either direction. It is between those who are too compliant with oppression and those who are too radical in opposition that those of us in the middle find our way. It is by reacting to the extremes and their tactics that we find modes of resistance and persuasion that work, that we enter into arguments that jolt us forward, whether quickly or slowly. I believe it is a sad but inevitable truth that there can be no forward progression without some bouncing off the edges.
Now I do struggle with whether or not I want to allow Sarah Palin to call herself a feminist. Everything in my gut is against it. But she qualified it with “conservative” and I think I’m okay with that. Conservative feminism is something I’m not okay with, of course, but I don’t get to define womanhood, or the movement, or Sarah Palin’s identity. What I can do is stand up and say “That is not a feminism I can get behind. That is not a feminism I want for myself. I have a problem with this feminism for these reasons.” Sarah Palin, like all outspoken women, has certainly suffered enough slinging of sexist stones that she has a right to define her resistance to those who would like her to shut up in terms of being a resisting woman.
In our world, there are too many waiting to strip labels from others. Too many waiting to say “that’s not the right way to be X,” whether it’s a gender identity, a religious identity, a sexual identity, a racial identity, a national identity or a non-religious ideological identity. We shouldn’t focus nearly so much in trying to rip identities away from others, but on picking apart claimed identities and how we agree or disagree with them. We need to stop policing (i.e. “that’s not X! You’re not X!”) and pick more arguments (“the way you do X is harmful for reasons A, B, and C!”). There will always be people we don’t like who will gain a disconcerting amount of traction in our movements. No one’s going to declare Richard Dawkins a non-atheist/skeptic any time soon. It doesn’t take away what that person did to the movement, for good or for ill. If we lived in Bizarro World and they removed Dawkins from the ranks of prominent atheists, then whole period of activism about gender issues in the movement that Elevatorgate has hopefully kicked into prominence would be understood very differently from an internal discussion within the ideological structure.
The tools of declaring someone outside the realm of the movement is a major tool of oppression, if you have any authority. If you don’t…well, I think at best it’s sort of useless, and it tends to relegate you to the fringe. In Islam, they’re called “takfiri” – one who accuses another of apostasy. It’s a recognized tactic to try to position oneself as more “right” or more legitimate than others. It doesn’t often work.
You’re not required to engage every asshat in the movement you don’t like (though you’re welcome to!). Engage when you have the energy or feel it’s important enough. Be critical. But think of the company you’re keeping when you declare someone apostate, and whether you truly feel anyone should have the authority to discard someone for not being “X” enough. That’s why all philosophies and disciplines and even sciences have so many streams and branches and flavors – to separate out without discarding. That’s how we learn from history, and progress by building on or reacting to the writings of our forebears and our contemporaries.
P.S. did you know that prerogative had two rs? I had no idea. I’d always pronounced it “perogative”…
ETA: for further reading on the subject of declaring someone “not X,” I give you the brilliant Melissa McEwan on Shakesville.