Saturday, October 29, 2005

the f-word wars.

i am so tired of the arguments around the word “feminist.” so tired that i almost don’t want to write about it, because i feel like i’m shouting into the abyss. in many ways, the debate seems like a moot point to me – i mean, what are we going to do, strike the word “feminist” from the record of language? toss it on the trash heap? it’s a word that’s not going away, so all of the talk around moving toward some new terminology seems like wishful thinking. for better or worse, that is the word that people will associate with the fight for women’s rights and equality, so i think we’ve got to focus on rehabilitating it rather than trying to bury it.

i’ll tell you, i had no trouble adopting the feminist mantle. i don’t even remember a moment’s doubt or hesitation. i have no problems with being labeled a feminist, and i listen in bemusement when people try to tack all of their ugly connotations to them term in order to discredit me. i find it amusing, on a personal level. but in a broader sense, i realize that if we are ever going to make true progress on a renewed women’s movement (for all this talk about the third wave, i’ve never seen anything approaching a coherent approach to advocating for women in my 25 years), we need a common language. so why can’t that be feminism?

i think the reason that we’re even having this discussion in feminist circles is that conservative america did a fantastic job of poisoning the well. a concerted effort to win “the war of ideas” was mounted in the 80s and 90s, and one major battle in that war was to convince women that feminism a) didn’t speak for them, and b) would only make them miserable in the long run. i won’t even get in to point b here (read Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” for a comprehensive look at that phenomenon), but point a is something we’re still arguing about amongst ourselves. some of the negative connotations of feminism, propagated so zealously by the media over the last twenty years, have gotten under our skin and made us doubt the wisdom of calling ourselves feminists. so what’s wrong with being a feminist these days?

1) feminists are angry.

Amy had an interesting comment around this under yesterday’s post, and i think it’s one of the most common “negative” connotations about feminism. funnily enough, though, i personally don’t see it as negative. i mean, since when is it so bad to be angry? you look around, you see injustice and discrimination, and you get angry. it’s a natural reaction. should you let anger control you? no. can you use anger as a fuel to drive you to advocate for change? absolutely. righteous anger is a powerful force, and can be harnessed into all kinds of productive action. but society doesn’t like angry women – anger isn’t a “feminine” quality – and therefore accusing feminists of being angry is an insult.

2) feminists hate men.

god, if i had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this antiquated slur against feminism, i’d be writing to you from a solid gold laptop. i mean, how ridiculous can you get? this stemmed from the 70s, where some strands of feminism were indeed more women-centric, and lesbian activism played a large role in the movement. i will not deny that part of feminism’s history, nor will i condemn it. mass movements are large and varied, and some of the ideas that come out of such movements aren’t apt to integrate into mainstream society very well. that’s why feminism today isn’t about getting your lesbian credentials and moving to a separatist lesbian commune – that idea didn’t appeal to most women. yet, the one point that the conservative movement (and thus the media) seized on was that since a small percentage of the early feminist movement seemed (or were) hostile to men, that must mean that all women who identify as feminists are man-haters. it’s shocking – seriously shocking – to see how this myth is perpetuated today. i have never in my life met a feminist that claimed to be a man-hater, or who wanted to do away with men, or any such nonsense. but the fact that we have to keep explaining that to wild-eyed detractors and confused young women alike is infinitely frustrating.

3) feminism forces you to be a victim.

hugo’s post that i linked to yesterday partially focused on this theme. my opinion on this particular accusation is a little more complicated than most, and one i’ll delve into further later. on one hand, i agree with hugo and others who assert that this is false, and that nothing about feminism requires you to take on the role of victim. the fact that second wave feminism often took on the victim perspective is, i think a) justified, as women were more literally victims of societal inequities and cultural oppression at that time, and b) immaterial to the way we define ourselves as feminists in the present. is that our history? yes. doesn’t that mean our reality today is the same as it was thirty years ago? no. as women have won legal victories and made headway in societal understanding and accommodation, the victim perspective has become less necessary and thus less emphasized. on the other hand, i hesitate to abandon the victim mentality entirely, because women are still more likely to be the victim in terms of a lot of things – sexual harassment and assault, domestic violence, pay inequity, etc. i realize that it’s difficult for the language of empowerment and the language of oppression to coexist within a movement, but it’s crucial that we don’t lose sight of the oppression side of the coin. otherwise, against what exactly do we need empowerment?

well, these are just some of my thoughts on the issue. in the end, i think that if you have a negative impression of feminism, it’s probably an over-complicated issue that’s been over-simplified into a pithy insult, and that it probably has little bearing on the day-to-day work feminists do for women’s rights. you’re welcome to disagree with me (many do), or to tell me that i’m on a hopeless merry-go-round of linguistics and ideology that will never come to rest (which i might be inclined to believe). more on the subjective position of the victim later…


Lola Mason said...

I am not going to lie to you. I feel as though you are on the road to an early heart attack, my dear. Relax. Be whatever kind of feminist you want to be. Let other people be whatever kind they want to be. And the people who don't want any part of it... fuck 'em. Also, I wholeheartedly agree with Amy's comment in an earlier post. You can be just as effective in instituting change without being angry. Anger is often the one's gut reaction to injustice, I agree. But you have to be able to rise above it. Or it will just eat away at you, as I fear is happening your case. I write this only because I do not want you to have a heart attack :)

helga said...

Wow, you sound like you are in full battle gear, not on an "exploration" of a topic:)
It may be worth taking a few steps back and looking at this topic from a variety of angles, 'cause for every reality there are innumerable interpretations, many of which have some validity. But you gotta be open to seeing it from the range of different perspectives. It seems you have a lot of good points to offer but I kinda feel I'm being lectured to:(

Puts me in shut down mode....

kate.d. said...

here's the thing: i do have strong opinions, but that doesn't mean they're ultimately not open to revision. i put this stuff out there because i am open to hearing other perspectives - otherwise, i'd just keep it to myself! my tone isn't meant to shut down discussion, it just represents where i'm at right now - i haven't come to these opinions lightly, but i have no illusions that they are an endpoint for me.

long story short - i hope people are not dissauded from responding to me genuine appeals for thoughts and disagreements just because i seem set in my ways. i might argue or disagree with you at the moment, but i'm listening, and that's the only thus far i've been able to keep evolving my own perspective.