Monday, March 26, 2007

Who Are You Calling a Feminist?

Virginia Woolf said, "When a subject is highly controversial--and any question about sex is that-- one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker." Like many other apes, I am certainly limited, prejudiced, and idiosyncratic. Please bear with me. I'm not exceptionally well versed in the canon of feminist literature. My impression of working feminism has largely been formed by professors, fellow students, friends, friends' moms, and other people who have managed to get their two cents in over the last ten years or so. And I saw bell hooks speak at St. Mary's in Halifax in 2000.

My friend Glenn, in a blog last week, wrote that after declaring himself a feminist, he sometimes found himself arguing with certain women who claimed to disapprove of feminism and who wanted nothing to do with it. He wrote that he was puzzled by the idea that a woman would want nothing to do with becoming equal to a man. Wikipedia (in an entry whose content and quality seem to change daily according to which factionalist editor has last been at it) states, "From a political vantage, the term 'feminism' has been rejected both because of fears of labeling, and because of its innate ability to attract broad misogyny." It goes on to suggest that this is why Virginia Woolf notoriously rejected the term.

I am unconvinced. Rejecting feminism because of "fear of labeling" is an empty tautology. Rejecting it because of fear of its "innate ability to attract broad misogyny" is no better, and merely replaces a vacuuous explanation with a cowardly one. Surely in any group of women which counts Virginia Woolf among its members, there ought to be enough wit and courage to come up with better reasons than these. Maybe there's a different explanation. I'm not a woman, and I haven't read Woolf's rejection of the label (UPDATE: it can be found here by clicking on the link and then running a search for the word burn) so I'm going to have to use my imagination here. If I were a woman, I might be tempted to reject feminism for a number of reasons:

Feminism is predicated on the idea of a struggle for power between the sexes. Human social life, from the feminist perspective (as I have encountered it), is a zero-sum power game in which the male is always the opponent. While it is true that men's actions are often motivated by reproductive or material opportunism, the subtlety and provisionality of sexual manipulation (it has always been a dance, in which man and woman are partners) are necessarily lost when it is characterized in the simplistic idiom of power politics. The feminist account of recorded history implies that all men were tyrants and all women were complicit until sometime between 1792 and 1968 when, of course, feminism came onto the scene.

In my opinion, it is much more likely that throughout history inter-sexual relations in most healthy societies were characterized much as they are among healthy people today, namely by love between men and women, not as special interest groups but as the pair-bonded apes that we always have been. This is not to say that women have not had to overcome any institutional bias, or that witch hunts never happened, or that men don't behave like violent, aggressive horses' asses sometimes, but rather that in spite of this a rapport exists between the sexes that is the result of millions of years of evolution as a kind of a mutually supportive feedback dyad. There is a crude and dim (but very special) predecessor to equality implicit in the human pair bond and the mutual gaze of face to face sexual love that the vocabulary of oppression is incapable of representing at all, except perhaps as a kind of pathological delusion induced by patriarchal brainwashing.

To make matters worse, mainstream feminism has spent the last 25 years denouncing as pseudo-science most of the research into innate sex differences (sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, etc.) to which it will eventually need to turn to in order to solve the logical double bind which arises from the claim that women are radically equal, yet radically special as well. Any discourse, feminist or otherwise, which purports to address sexual difference and yet ignores the power of these explanatory models will be condemning itself to irrelevancy as our intellectual standards rise with the expansion of our knowledge base.

I remember a girl in an undergrad Chaucer class I was in complaining that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was sexist, just like "all those stories back then." When my professor asked her to explain, she replied,"Well, it's not called Mrs. Gawain and the Green Knight, is it?" Never mind the fact that Morgan LaFaye and Guinevere together control the entire story, which is among other things a pretty good study of power that is authentically feminine (the kind of power that deceives rather than dominates, facilitates growth and stable development rather than violence and mayhem, and encourages sacrifice instead of murder). My classmate missed all that, obviously, but it was the smugness, the condescension, and the unwillingness to forgive with which she turned her eye to that great old story that really bugged me.

For an ideology that lays claim to such special female virtues as compromise, interdependence, harmony, balance, and compassion, I have found that many of feminism's adherents (bell hooks is a famous example, but not at all the only one) tend to be snide, humourless, grasping, cruel, and inflated by a glowing and poisonous self-regard. There are mean and nice people everywhere, of course, but those whose bread and butter is identity politics seem to be noticeably more self-righteous, cynical and paranoid. One of my TA's at Dal had a sticker on his briefcase that said, "If you think you're being attacked by feminism, it's probably just a counterattack." I remember another one that was going around at STU that read, "Patriarchal bias is your problem, not mine!" I think these slogans speak for themselves.

According, again, to Wikipedia, "feminist political activists commonly campaign on issues such as reproductive rights, including the right to safe, legal abortion, access to contraception and quality prenatal care, protection from violence within a domestic partnership, sexual harassment, street harassment, discrimination and rape, and rights to maternity leave, and equal pay." All of these are important topics that deserve attention, and they are women's issues, not just feminist issues. While feminists certainly deserve credit and praise for contributing a heroic amount of time and effort to these causes, I don't think that feminism should be able to appropriate them to the point where it is assumed that because someone rejects feminism, s/he is also indifferent to the plight of women in abusive relationships, or that s/he is against safe, legal abortion, or that s/he does not believe that women should receive wages equal to those earned by men. Perhaps some people reject feminism because it appropriates women's experience without necessarily asking them first, or because it is very quick to take credit for most or all of the improvements in the conditions experienced by the human female in the twentieth century, when these, in fact, rightfully belong to a much older, wiser, gentler, more patient, more terrible and more beautiful creature called "woman." Maybe we should listen when she speaks for herself, rather than making up her mind for her.

1 comment:

Shauna said...

Right on, John. I've been calling myself a feminist for the last few years (after coming to terms with the idea that that doesn't make me a scary, hairy, man-hating bitch... Thanks, Pop Culture, for that confusion). But I refuse to call myself a Feminist (note the capitalization, which to me indicates membership in the class of women who point out things like "Mrs. Gawain"). Those women who edit Wikipedia scare me... but I guess pretty much anyone who edits Wikipedia scares me. There's something to be said for moderation and the recognition that female-male inequalities are inextricably linked to all sorts of other imbalances in our world, and you cannot simply blame the evils of history (even the expressly misogynist ones like the witch hunt) on women-hating culture. By becoming a Feminist, I think some people miss the boat on all sorts of other things that need to be attended to in the name of peace and good times for all.