Who can be a feminist?

Ballgame from FeministCritics posted his rebuttal to a widely-viewed comic in the feminist blogosphere. About the original comic, Ballgame says,

I’ve always thought it was pretty obnoxious, and tended to take it a bit personally. I mean, how many ‘feminist critical’ men are there who feel strongly enough about the egalitarian aspects of feminism to hold steadfast in their loyalty to the label (despite flak from gynocentrists and others) — besides, you know, me?

Egalitarian feminism is not about gatekeeping.

Similarly, in recent weeks, the blogosphere has been abuzz over Sarah Palin’s declaration of feminism. Sarah Palin does not, in any way, shape or form, embody any of the traits or values that one who calls themself a feminist would typically identify with, like being a supporter of abortion rights and emergency contraception, for example. But many women, including president of the National Organization for Women California, were willing to let those things slide and stand behind her simply because she is a woman, and because of the immense success and social power that Palin has earned is admirable, and possibly something to grasp onto.

Now, personally, I can hardly call Palin a feminist with a straight face, and if I had a Feminist Club Meeting or something, I’d probably kick her out if she asked to join. I mean, “feminism” isn’t just a fun name to call yourself if you’re female; it’s the belief in the equality of women and men, and the fight to ensure this goal is reached. Just because you’re female doesn’t mean you subscribe to this goal.

It’s easy for me to accept, for example, that one can be a moral and “good” person but not be a Christian. But with feminism (as compared to Christianity), it gets harder than that. Feminism, to the purists (and we all claim to be purists), is quite simply the belief in the equality of women and men. No one in their right minds, no one who we would take seriously, would be against equality between genders in law and society, so therefore, everyone should be fine calling themselves a feminist, females or males. But, understandably, if you omit some very basic egalitarian principles from your values set, you shouldn’t be allowed the privilege of claiming the label of feminist.

On the other hand, there are many valid criticisms of feminism as a group. Feminism has been historically racist, transphobic, and ableist, among other things. Other things like the rarely critically-analyzed raging misandry, for example. We know that people who would otherwise qualify as “feminist” don’t all share egalitarian views on everything else.

If you frequently visit the feminist blogosphere, it’s easy to see feminism as a movement that encompasses (or at least tries to encompass) all branches of social justice. It’s actually rather rare these days to come across a social justice group or blog focused on something seemingly unrelated to feminism not identify as “feminist.” Look more closely, though, and you’ll see that what is defined as a worthy cause is often more narrow than expected. Sarah Palin, for example, is obviously mocked mercilessly in most feminist circles when she tries to appropriate feminism. A lot of feminist circles, too, many of which are pretty big in the blogosphere, also openly admit that men are not welcome to call themselves feminists, because they will not ever fully grasp what it is to be a woman. Trans women are often regarded in similarly exclusionary ways, by virtue of having probably been socialized, at least a little bit, male and therefore having been a recipient of male privilege, and still owning and operating a lingering sense of entitlement and social control.

This mindset is closely tied to the model of privilege/oppression. Men are privileged over women, period, and there isn’t any arguing that with someone who believes it to be true. And of course it’s partially true; but it’s also true that women are privileged over men in different ways that gives them a perceived advantage over men. Is it necessary that we try to sort out whose oppression is worse, or who gets more of it? Is there a true good that comes from that method, other than reinforcing the men-as-villain, women-as-victim paradigm? And to whom is this paradigm beneficial? It places women at the bottom, all of the time, with no end in sight for our collective victimhood. It places men at the top, but with permanent “oppressor/villain” permanently stuck to it.

In order to say that you are not wholly in support of equality between women and men and everyone in between if you don’t call yourself a feminist, you are being no different than the Christian fundamentalist who insists that your good works and high moral standards are meaningless because you don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God and the only way to “Heaven.” It’s ludicrous when you can have, for example, a male who is in full support of abortion rights, contraception access, sex education, paid maternity leave, enthusiastic consent, eliminating the pay gap, etc., but with some “unchecked privilege,” being labeled as an “MRA” or simply written off due to unchecked male privilege. It’s ludicrous that people, men or women, would be labeled as an enemy or hinderance rather than an ally for simply not bothering to attach the approved-of label of “feminist” to their identity.

Many men have just as many reasons to not feel comfortable calling themselves feminists as women of color, trans women, and women with disabilities do, and they’re all legitimate. My husband, who called himself a feminist when we started dating and for a while afterward, started stepping away from the label after a year or so. While still committed to gender equality in theory and in practice, he decided that the “othering” that occurs in any group focused solely on one section of the human population was counterproductive to the goals in question, and chose not to align himself with the named “group” supposedly in charge of the movement for equality. Othering is, in my opinion, what we’re trying to eradicate; whether we’re othering an entire segment of the population that is oppressed, or a segment that is privileged relatively, when othering occurs– especially when it occurs with the blessing of the larger group supposedly fighting for equality– the goal of achieving an egalitarian society is hindered. Regardless of why or how this occurs is irrelevant; it does, it will, and it’s not working.

While holding these criticisms, I still currently feel a need to call myself a feminist out loud. I don’t exactly know why, because it’s not a label closely attached to my identity– I only started becoming interested in feminism as a study about 3 years ago. While the movement appealed to me because of how closely the movement’s principles aligned with the values I already possessed, and informed many of the newer and more sophisticated principles by which I try to live, the word “feminism” isn’t the only umbrella under which to practice those values. I wouldn’t necessarily miss it if it were gone. And this isn’t like saying, “that nun over there who helps children and poor people and runs the local food shelf is really a feminist, because she cares about women, even though she’s against reproductive rights, gay marriage, and sex ed.” It’s really like saying, women and men who believe in the true equality of all people on this planet are worthy of the label “feminist,” and the words “feminist” and “feminism” are beginning to be more problematic than helpful.

I see the movement toward gender equality going nowhere without acknowledging that those of us fighting for equality, regardless of our sex, gender, or personal identifiers, are not only to be accepted in your fight, but allowed to lead. Without addressing men’s issues as well as racism, disability, classism, and homophobia, we will not move forward. And we can’t adequately address men’s issues while calling ourselves “femininists. We also can’t move forward if we’re constantly framing oppression as a “men-are-oppressors-women-are-victims” endless cycle. We can’t move forward when we’re too busy fighting about who gets to call themselves a feminist. We have to move away from the idea that all women have it worse than all men in every aspect of life. We have to stop ignoring the fact that for every injustice that plagues women, a different injustice also plagues someone with a privilege a woman may not have, in ways and for reasons that are not comparable. It’s time to stop fighting to reclaim and redress the word; “feminist” and “feminism” are seen as divisive, and not for altogether misguided reasons.

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10 Responses to Who can be a feminist?

  1. Some Dewd says:

    I just got back from gritting my teeth through a justification of “why i hate men” made by another denizen of the internet. I think I got there by following the trail of Daly.

    My thinking of late has run parallel to that of your husband – for all of the social deconstruction that occurs within these discussions, there is a very consistent undercurrent of “othering” occurring that undergoes no critical analysis. Honestly, it makes me happy that my time here on earth will be limited.

    Anyway, thank you for being thoughtful – your voice is greatly appreciated, at least by this traveler.

    Take care!

  2. Danny says:

    It’s easy for me to accept, for example, that one can be a moral and “good” person but not be a Christian. But with feminism (as compared to Christianity), it gets harder than that. Feminism, to the purists (and we all claim to be purists), is quite simply the belief in the equality of women and men. No one in their right minds, no one who we would take seriously, would be against equality between genders in law and society, so therefore, everyone should be fine calling themselves a feminist, females or males.
    It not hard at all in fact its quite easy. Feminist is nothing more than a label. Its my experience that the people who think such a thing would be difficult are the people who try to set up feminist as the moral default. In other words instead of just saying that good people are feminist they try to redefine good so that it means feminist. Once that happens and someone comes along and says they are not a feminist (like me) people go straight to thinking I’m not a good person because I don’t claim that title. And then you have folks who will make this little substitution and then try to play gatekeeper (pretty much saying that since you aren’t a feminist you must be a bad person and until you see the error of your ways and claim the title feminist anything you say is irrelevant). Feminist is just a label and whether or not someone claims that label is not some surefire indicator of their character. And really wish feminists would get over themselves and realize that.

    Is it necessary that we try to sort out whose oppression is worse, or who gets more of it?
    Only in individual metrics. When trying to figure out things like addressing child custody or workplace sexual harssment yeah its worth looking at who gets the short straw but feminists tend to go to the extreme and declare that women have it worse over all as if that shows that the only gender imbalances that need to be fixed are the ones that favor men over women. Yes those need to be fixed but they sure as hell aren’t the only things that need fixing.

    It’s ludicrous when you can have, for example, … be labeled as an enemy or hinderance rather than an ally for simply not bothering to attach the approved-of label of “feminist” to their identity.
    And this is why I cry a little on the inside when I see feminists try to shape MRA into an insult while at the same time getting all confused and shit acting like the negative stigmas of feminism is entirely fictional.

  3. GudEnuf says:

    This is a really good post, it get’s to the heart of what we’re all agonizing over.

    On a personal note, I am a male who identifies as feminist. I have no problem saying that I’m a feminist in front of non-feminists. But when I suspect there might be feminists around, I do don’t use the word because I’m afraid of their reaction. I am scared they will think I am a poseur who just claim he’s a feminist so he can get laid. I do disagree with some things that some feminists say, but then again, I’ve never accepted any ideology without questioning it. But in my experience, saying that I’m a feminist and then criticizing certain popular feminists ideas results in “check your privilege speeches”. I’m not saying it’s unfair, but it is frustrating.

    I want to write more, but I have class tomorrow.

  4. machina says:

    Feminism, to the purists (and we all claim to be purists), is quite simply the belief in the equality of women and men.

    I disagree that feminism is simply about equality. Abortion, the sticking point with Palin, has no male analog so it is not a matter of equality of the sexes but the moral or ethical status of a zygote, embryo or foetus. From an egalitarian (equating egality and equality here!) perspective if a zygote/embryo/foetus is a person then they have full human rights. This argument has been made better by Peter Singer (although he is actually a humanist):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer#Abortion.2C_euthanasia_and_infanticide

    The problem that I have with feminism is that it is a grab bag of arguments that serve the interests of women. This isn’t feminists fault, even egality and liberty are sometimes at odds (I see Roe vs. Wade defending abortion from egalitarian arguments by the liberal tenet of privacy, which has disturbing parallels with child abuse and domestic violence) and broader Western philosophy is enough at odds with itself to justify most anything. It just means that “good” is only relative to set of ethics or morals and there is no single, cohesive set.

    • April says:

      Abortion, the sticking point with Palin, has no male analog so it is not a matter of equality of the sexes but the moral or ethical status of a zygote, embryo or foetus. From an egalitarian (equating egality and equality here!) perspective if a zygote/embryo/foetus is a person then they have full human rights.

      This argument is why I’m able to sympathize with many “prolifers.” What isn’t addressed, though, and what is vital to consider, is the rights of the woman supporting 100% of the life of the fetus. While you’re right that the argument for legal and accessible abortion is not directly tied to equality, it is directly connected to the right for bodily autonomy for women who are pregnant. It can also be argued (perhaps weakly) that in the case of a woman considering abortion, if she is prohibited from doing so, the life of the fetus is given more rights than she is, which places her at an unequal status than that of the fetus. Of course, you’re more often than not talking about two different sets of rights, though, which are the life of the fetus vs. the convenience or the preference of the woman. Regardless, though, there are good arguments in favor of giving the pregnant woman’s rights preference in this situation.

      The article linked is Judith Jarvis Thompson’s response to the argument that the fetus is a person. I highly recommend it if you aren’t already familiar. She addresses different scenarios in which a person may be required to support the life of any other living human, whether or not they are “good enough” reasons to place that responsibility on the person, and at what point, if any, the person may be exempted from that burden.

      Embarassing admission: in all the time I’ve been supportive of a woman’s right to abortion (I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t), I only recently learned that the argument for the legality of abortion was privacy. That really doesn’t make logical sense to me, and sounds like it could have been too weak a defense, especially for the reasons you gave. I would think that a woman’s bodily autonomy should have been enough.

    • machina says:

      Hey April, sorry for the late reply, busy busy.

      I’ve read the violinist analogy before but not the whole chapter. I think it’s a useful, but imperfect, analogy. Useful in that it does bring up the question of a reasonable burden is. The author takes it as given that we would not accept the burden of being attached to a stranger for nine months or years, which in the case of a stranger may be the case. However a foetus is not a stranger, it’s the child of its parents, who are also generally assumed to be obligated to care for it until adulthood. If a mother is deemed reasonable for feeding and housing her born children, why not an unborn one?

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  6. Jim says:

    April, Hugo Schwyzer has a post up on this same topic in response to BG’s post. I am quite sure that you could make a very valuable contribution to that discussion. Quite sure. You have thought this through on a deeper level and in a more orderly manner than he has.

  7. Jim says:

    My bad – he wasn’t responding to BG’s post, but his is generally responsive anyway.

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