Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical (hermionesviolin) wrote,
Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical
hermionesviolin

feminism(s)

Apropos the recent discussion, the next day I read Megan McArdle's post "Should I call myself a feminist?" [from back in July] -- and have now added Kenji Yoshino's Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights to my GoodReads (at which time I noticed that there's now a line for "How many times I've read this book" :) ). 

The bolding of the following excerpt is my own emphasis.
I view myself as feminist(ish) because I believe the following:

1) Society is set up in ways that limit women's choices and opportunities--men's too (it's awful hard to make the choice to stay home with kids, or become a nurse), but women more. Men are not, for example, socially punished for monogamy the way that women are socially punished for promiscuity.

2) Privilege exists, and is in many unfortunate ways invisible to those who possess it.

3) We should try to change those things.


I differ from the feminist mainstream on many of the questions of how we should change this. I don't think that subsidized childcare should be a civil right, I think comparable worth is a very bad idea, and I don't view abortion rights as fundamentally a question of female equality, but rather as an incredibly complicated attempt to trade off two important and incommensurable values that has no overwhelmingly obvious answer. I'm probably more willing than most feminists to give credence to the possibility that, say, women have lower IQ variance than men and are therefore less likely to show up in the tails of the cognitive/income distribution--though I also think that people often see what they want and expect to see, which makes those kinds of arguments rather more tenuous than their advocates allow.

But the basic thing, to me, is that I endorse the project of changing social values to increase the scope of human possibility.

But for many feminists, that's too basic. For many, to be a feminist, you have to want to make radical state-sponsored change to the economic system in order to promote equality. You have to grant rape accusers extraordinary presumption of truth-telling. You must endorse a hard line on abortion rights. If you do not agree with these propositions, you are a non-feminist, or an anti-feminist.

And maybe this is fair, at least the "non-feminist" part. I think increasing the equality of women is a very important project--but I think society has a lot of important projects. I also think that when you're trying to orchestrate these kinds of social and political change, you should think hard about whether you're actually increasing the scope of human freedom, or restricting it. Radically coercive social or economic regimes may increase women's equality in part by decreasing everyone's freedom, and given my values, I don't think that's a win. So if you define being a feminist as someone for whom fuller equality is the most important consideration, rather than simply something that we should all work pretty hard for, then you should probably exclude me from the list.

Personally, I'd like to see feminism take on as expansionist a definition as possible without rendering the concept meaningless--something closer to my list than whatever, exactly in the head of people who label me an "antifeminist". Not because it particularly matters whether I get to wear the proud Scarlet F, but because bringing more people into the tent would make feminism less of a dirty word in many quarters. It would give what I view as the movement's most important work--that of exposing and trying to change the structural problems in society that limit women's choices--more reach, albeit at the expense of driving many radical solutions to those problems.

But it's not something I'm going to have a fight about. The feminist movement has a right to define what constitutes being a member, and I'm not going to appropriate their label if it bothers them, any more than I'm going to start calling myself a Catholic who just doesn't happen recognize the authority of the Church. If you read any feminist blogs, you'll know that they spend an enormous amount of time trying to define the core values of feminism, and while I may disagree with the definitions they end up with, if they dislike my opinions on the matter, well, it's their movement.
***

And excerpts from the comments:
It doesn't--but ultimately, for a label to have meaning, the group has to agree on a core definition. If I read submitting to the church hierarchy out of the label "Catholic", I vastly expand the number of people who get to call themselves Catholic--but I don't think I have the right to tell Catholics what constitutes catholicism. At some point, long usage by a relatively stable core group gives them a certain right to self-define.

Jessica Valenti doesn't have the right to decide whether or not I'm a feminist--but the movement as a whole certainly has the right to define what their core principles are, at which point it's perfectly fair for Jessica Valenti to analyze whether or not I meet those criteria. And to most of them, I'm probably not a boundary case.

Posted by Megan McArdle | July 1, 2008 3:14 PM


I think you're getting hung up in your feminist details. Instead of your three beliefs, I think the first two can be accurately summarized in the following:

1 & 2) Society allows for double standards to exist.

3) We should try to change that.

Why do you care if your a feminist or not? Does it really matter?

It shouldn't......but maybe, that's just me.....

Posted by jwh | July 1, 2008 4:45 PM


I have always maintained that there are (at least) two distinct strands of feminism that are often at odds with one another: (1) a "libertarian" feminism that stresses freedom for individuals of both sexes to make choices and not to be treated as a member of a category, and (2) a "Victorian" feminism that is much more about demanding active steps to eliminate inequalities. Libertarians don't care so much about outcomes; if women tend to choose careers that give them more flexibility at the expense of lower compensation, that's okay as long as it's a real choice. Victorians are much more likely to deny the legitimacy of such choices. Libertarians think prostitution ("sex work") can be okay if non-coercive; Victorians think it is inherently degrading and exploitive and should not be legal. Etcetera.

It's amusing to read some of the comment threads on feminist blogs and watch the tension between these groups. It appears that a lot of younger women are instinctively Libertarian, but often get pulled into agreement with the Victorians because of their sympathy with the results that Victorians want to achieve.

Posted by jorge | July 1, 2008 5:00 PM


Why not just stick with "libertarian"? One helpful aspect is it will help steer you away from the statist, coercive means of achieving #3.

Posted by Kirk Parker | July 1, 2008 5:26 PM


In response to your query, I think you call yourself an Individualist (capital I optional). Couching all this in terms of group identity is, in fact, part of the problem. Self described feminists properly note that one thing women have in common is that they have not been treated as individuals, but have instead been judged, as a group and according to ignorant and arbitrary criterion. Group solidarity is a way of addressing this politically as it demonstrates the size of the problem. However, solidarity is maintained by establishing group identity, which as noted, ironically, requires conformity which suppresses the individual. This is the nature of the transition from liberal (classically liberal) to leftist. It is both natural and self-defeating. Only by remembering that the starting point is the desire to be treated as individual can this course be halted. Hence, Individualist.

Posted by superflunky | July 1, 2008 9:23 PM


Let me try to rephrase so that I understand the three principles.

1) Men and women are different, on average, play different roles in reproduction and society has different expectations for them.
2) Barack Obama's kids will very likely be richer and more powerful than yours or mine.
3) We should try to change those things.

Is that right?

1) and 2) are true. So what? Society has expectations of all of us that we don't like. Some people are luckier--richer, smarter, better looking, more social--than others. So what?

Some of the unfairness described by 1) and 2) are serious and require remediation. Others are not serious. Others serve a purpose and do not require remediation. Finally, the method of remediation matters. The cure can be worse than the disease.

That is, the truth of 3) depends on how and what you intend to change. We could make life fairer by inflicting good looking, rich kids with some terrible skin condition, coupled with drug-induced mental illness. Is that a good idea? I don't think so.

More realistically, we could tinker with the most important institutions in society, marriage and child-rearing, to make them "fairer" to everyone. Of course, we have no idea what the consequences to society or families will be, but hey, we are being fair.

Or we could try to treat everyone reasonably and kindly, so far as is practical. Improve schools, for example. Mind our own business in social relationships. Yes, that sounds better.

A big part of the reason that I can never be a leftist is that I usually don't understand what they are talking about and when I figure it out, it shrinks down to "Life ain't fair."

Posted by Chris | July 1, 2008 11:25 PM



Camille Paglia writes at the end of her Salon.com piece "Fresh blood for the vampire" (and really I think this part I excerpt at length is basically the part worth reading -- the article starts off particularly not great):
But what of Palin's pro-life stand? Creationism taught in schools? Book banning? Gay conversions? The Iraq war as God's plan? Zionism as a prelude to the apocalypse? We'll see how these big issues shake out. Right now, I don't believe much of what I read or hear about Palin in the media. To automatically assume that she is a religious fanatic who has embraced the most extreme ideas of her local church is exactly the kind of careless reasoning that has been unjustly applied to Barack Obama, whom the right wing is still trying to tar with the fulminating anti-American sermons of his longtime preacher, Jeremiah Wright.

The witch-trial hysteria of the past two incendiary weeks unfortunately reveals a disturbing trend in the Democratic Party, which has worsened over the past decade. Democrats are quick to attack the religiosity of Republicans, but Democratic ideology itself seems to have become a secular substitute religion. Since when did Democrats become so judgmental and intolerant? Conservatives are demonized, with the universe polarized into a Manichaean battle of us versus them, good versus evil. Democrats are clinging to pat group opinions as if they were inflexible moral absolutes. The party is in peril if it cannot observe and listen and adapt to changing social circumstances.

Let's take the issue of abortion rights, of which I am a firm supporter. As an atheist and libertarian, I believe that government must stay completely out of the sphere of personal choice. Every individual has an absolute right to control his or her body. (Hence I favor the legalization of drugs, though I do not take them.) Nevertheless, I have criticized the way that abortion became the obsessive idée fixe of the post-1960s women's movement -- leading to feminists' McCarthyite tactics in pitting Anita Hill with her flimsy charges against conservative Clarence Thomas (admittedly not the most qualified candidate possible) during his nomination hearings for the Supreme Court. Similarly, Bill Clinton's support for abortion rights gave him a free pass among leading feminists for his serial exploitation of women -- an abusive pattern that would scream misogyny to any neutral observer.

But the pro-life position, whether or not it is based on religious orthodoxy, is more ethically highly evolved than my own tenet of unconstrained access to abortion on demand. My argument (as in my first book, "Sexual Personae,") has always been that nature has a master plan pushing every species toward procreation and that it is our right and even obligation as rational human beings to defy nature's fascism. Nature herself is a mass murderer, making casual, cruel experiments and condemning 10,000 to die so that one more fit will live and thrive.

Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful. Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue. The state in my view has no authority whatever to intervene in the biological processes of any woman's body, which nature has implanted there before birth and hence before that woman's entrance into society and citizenship.

On the other hand, I support the death penalty for atrocious crimes (such as rape-murder or the murder of children). I have never understood the standard Democratic combo of support for abortion and yet opposition to the death penalty. Surely it is the guilty rather than the innocent who deserve execution?

What I am getting at here is that not until the Democratic Party stringently reexamines its own implicit assumptions and rhetorical formulas will it be able to deal effectively with the enduring and now escalating challenge from the pro-life right wing. Because pro-choice Democrats have been arguing from cold expedience, they have thus far been unable to make an effective ethical case for the right to abortion.

The gigantic, instantaneous coast-to-coast rage directed at Sarah Palin when she was identified as pro-life was, I submit, a psychological response by loyal liberals who on some level do not want to open themselves to deep questioning about abortion and its human consequences. I have written about the eerie silence that fell over campus audiences in the early 1990s when I raised this issue on my book tours. At such moments, everyone in the hall seemed to feel the uneasy conscience of feminism. Naomi Wolf later bravely tried to address this same subject but seems to have given up in the face of the resistance she encountered.

If Sarah Palin tries to intrude her conservative Christian values into secular government, then she must be opposed and stopped. But she has every right to express her views and to argue for society's acceptance of the high principle of the sanctity of human life. If McCain wins the White House and then drops dead, a President Palin would have the power to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court, but she could not control their rulings.

It is nonsensical and counterproductive for Democrats to imagine that pro-life values can be defeated by maliciously destroying their proponents. And it is equally foolish to expect that feminism must for all time be inextricably wed to the pro-choice agenda. There is plenty of room in modern thought for a pro-life feminism -- one in fact that would have far more appeal to third-world cultures where motherhood is still honored and where the Western model of the hard-driving, self-absorbed career woman is less admired.

But the one fundamental precept that Democrats must stand for is independent thought and speech. When they become baying bloodhounds of rigid dogma, Democrats have committed political suicide.
Tags: issues: abortion, issues: feminism, issues: u.s. presidential race: 2008
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