29 April 2005

Feminism (n.)

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about feminism.

I grew up reading feminist theory. It didn't even occur to me that anyone was uncomfortable with feminism, or would find it strange that I was a feminist, until I went to college.

It can be a tricky place to stand. I'm committed to having to have to do some extra work to establish my credibility as a feminist in feminist circles, but it does get tiresome. (For instance, I'd like to state for the record that announcing yourself as a feminist is entirely counterproductive as a ploy to get women into bed. Think about it, people.) I am very frustrated by women who refuse to accept a male feminist at all.

I'm quite proud of my working definiton of the ever-so-hard-to-define word “feminism”:

A set of ideas and practices predicated on these three assertions:
  1. We live in a pervasive system of gender which has profound effects on our lives
  2. This system of gender affects women in unjust ways
  3. We can and should work to correct those injustices

I think this definition is pretty good at including just about all of the strains of thought and practice that can reasonably claim the name “feminism.” Folks who aren't feminists fall down on one or more of these points, while just about everyone who is a feminist agrees on at least this much. From these basic agreements, you can take your feminist thinking and practice a number of different places.

Many people incorrectly believe that feminism regards women as “victims”. But few actual feminists would agree. I think this misunderstanding reflects limited exposure to feminist thought, typically to some of the dopiest manifestations of the identity politics strain of feminist rhetoric that has become significant in the last few decades. Though I think there are a few key lessons worth taking from identity politics, I'm generally opposed to that whole approach. I favour the rights-driven strand of feminist thinking, which has existed since modern feminism's beginnings in the 19th century.

My own personal strain of feminism adds these corollaries:

  1. This system of gender also affects men in unjust ways
  2. Don't kid yourself: the injustices women experience are bigger and more serious
  3. Still, we can and should work to correct gender injustice against men, too
  4. In fact, truly correcting injustice against women will ultimately require doing the same for men

But your mileage may vary.


TheWayOfTheGun said...

That's a splendid definition of feminism. It has always seemed to me that many (perhaps most) of the people who don't identify as feminists are confusing a particular strain of feminism with feminism's core.

In true internet form, I take exception to your claim about victimhood despite having done very little reading and zero formal research on the subject. (If one must take a stand, it may as well be an uninformed stand.)

The politics of victimhood seems to me a very mainstream part of feminism as it is practiced-- even if the theorists have gotten beyond such things.

Just look at how porn is discussed by Catherine MacKinnon or disciples of Dworkin. The underlying assumption that porn is harmful to women is never questioned-- at least not within my earshot. There are certainly other feminist voices who don't share that view: Annie Sprinkle, Nina Hartley, and Carol Queen all come to mind, but such folk don't make up the entirety of feminist discourse.

Many people are turned off to feminism because they mistake the cries of extremists ("all penetration is rape," etc) with the core beliefs you outlined so well. Some of the extreme feminist rhetoric is itself sexist, not only by casting women as victims but by overplaying the role of men as oppressors.

Having been raised by a couple of thoughtful feminists myself, I can look past the extremists and see the sound ideas of mainstream feminism. I can't necessarily expect the average Joe (or Jolene) to do the same.

One could argue that the word "feminism" suffers from the same taint of mischaracterization that afflicts "liberal."

Jonathan Korman said...

Aye, isn't it interesting how feminists' voices carry so well when they can be read as casting women as weak victims, yet their voices go unheard when they speak simply about rights and justice?

I won't dispute that the "victim" reading is available from Dworkin or MacKinnon --- in spite of how they they themselves would protest at that reading. And yes, there is plenty of victimology in identity politics circles.

But the practice of feminism is a broad river, today as ever, and there is too much else going on in feminism as practiced for this school, or any school, to lay claim to the main stream.

J'Carlin said...

1. We live in a pervasive system of gender which has profound effects on our lives

Inevitably so. We are mammals. The fact that females turn a gamete into a zygote with a bit of help from the male has profound effects on the lives of all mammals.

2. This system of gender affects women in unjust ways

Specifically how does this system of gender affect women with infants and toddlers unjustly?
Specifically how does this system of gender affect women with pubescent children unjustly?
Specifically how does this system of gender affect nulliparous women unjustly.

3. We can and should work to correct those injustices

Agree, but can you change the injustice for only one class without affecting the others?

Where feminists fit men into this system of gender?

On the issue of rights I am a humanist not a feminist. Humans come in all genders.

Jonathan Korman said...

Writing which catalogues the unjust effects of our system of gender are readily available.

As my post indicates, feminism admits a range of ways of thinking about men. Some of the feminist analyses of men seem preposterously misguided to me, but many others are enormously instructive.

Humanism and feminism are not opposed.