Thinking about Feminism

I know, I’m wading into controversy. I want to share some thoughts about feminism. But actually, I should say up front that my whole approach to feminism aims to minimize the opportunities for controversy and self-superiority and bitterness, from all sides. It probably doesn’t succeed fully in that goal, but it’s the best thing I’ve found yet.

(In fact, maybe feminism is not as controversial today as it was half a decade ago. I know there are many feminists who, in trying to stay true to their feminism, are today considered regrettably bigoted, so please forgive me if I’m too far behind the times. See my post-script at the end of this post.)

I started out staunchly opposed to feminism. After some initial confusion and uncertainty, I had a professor who was very bright, very engaging, and quite dismissive of feminism. I remain indebted to this professor for so much of my intellectual development, but in some respects it has taken me several years to extricate myself from a few of his more flamboyant positions and think through the questions for myself. Thus, for some time I was convinced against feminism.

The first cracks in my anti-feminist position appeared when I observed how often my feminist friends would accuse those who were self-avowed non-feminists of being opposed to higher education for women and votes for women, since those things came from feminism. At first these accusations caused no trouble for my views, since they seemed an obvious instance of the fallacy of composition. Just because we call the people from a century ago by the same name as the people from today, that doesn’t mean they are or represent the same thing.

However, at some point it occurred to me that there was something implicit in the accusation which I had missed the first several times I encountered it. If not being a feminist meant you were opposed to women having higher education and votes, then was it also true that if you were in favour of higher ed and votes for women, you would be right to call yourself a feminist? The conclusion seemed to follow. I wasn’t sure about this, but it was something to consider.

Some time later, I heard a short staged debate on the radio between three women: a “radical feminist,” a “moderate feminist,” and someone who denied that she was a feminist. What was fascinating to me was the way the two feminists related to the non-feminist; everything she said about feminism, every reason why she didn’t like it or disagreed with it, was answered with something like “well you don’t have to believe that to be a feminist,” or even, “I’ve never met a feminist who believes that!” The non-feminist was very intelligent and brought up many of the points which were convincing to me, and many more besides: feminism thinks there are no differences of significance between men and women, or it thinks we should try to make men and women as similar as possible, or it thinks that women should be shamed for not being more like men, or it tries to hold men today guilty for what past generations have done. For each point, the other two didn’t try to defend the positions but simply said, you don’t have to believe that.

Hearing this debate was a real turning point for me. It helped me see the diversity in what had seemed the unified edifice of feminism. There is room within feminism for disagreement. It sounds so obvious, saying it now, but at the time it was a revelation! Being a feminist doesn’t mean signing off on a particular creed or agenda. There is a small non-negotiable core to feminism, and beyond that core there is room for debate.

So then what is this non-negotiable core? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says there are two basic propositions which must be affirmed by someone who wishes to be a feminist: that women should not be treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women, and that there are women in the world today who are being treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women. Thus, there is a normative and a descriptive component.

According to this standard, a great many people who don’t consider themselves feminists actually are.

It will be immediately clear what is lacking from the non-negotiable core: an account of fairness/unfairness, justice/injustice, goodness/badness. Different feminists will construe justice differently, and that is completely acceptable.

Why then waste time arguing about who’s a feminist and whether feminism is good or bad? Let’s all count ourselves feminists, since by this account we all are (or certainly we all should be). Then our quarrels will all become quarrels within the family, rather than conflicts between distinct tribes. That won’t solve all our problems, but it may bring us a considerable step closer to resolving our differences, and that seems eminently worthwhile to my eyes.

PS: It is my guess that I would try to follow this same approach with those other intellectual approaches which have been offshoots of, or greatly intermingled with, feminism, such as those contemporary theories dealing with race, disability, sexuality, gender, etc. However, I have not thought this approach through as carefully in those areas and so for now that idea remains only a conjecture.

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