Monday, April 17, 2006

that infernal f-word.

so, in the comments section in an earlier post, where i linked to a post about feminism and humanism at shake’s sis , toast brought up the issue of terminology (well, actually, he brought it up in the comments over there too, and what i think they call “shit hitting the fan” ensued). shit does tend to hit the fan when this topic comes up, because it is so complicated, and while toast and i discussed it briefly in the comments of my post, i wanted to say a few things and then solicit some more opinions.

toast’s main query is:

“Why is it important that male progressives embrace the Feminist label? Why isn't it enough to say ‘I support equal rights for women’?”

i think this is a voluminous question, and i’m certain that i can’t answer it comprehensively here. in truth, i can’t ever answer it comprehensively, because that would mean i was claiming to speak for all feminists, and that would be dumb. and that gets to my general disclaimer around the question of the term "feminism," and its inevitable sister question, what is "feminism" anyway? i wrote in the comments of the earlier post:

“i think…that whenever people get into a group discussion about what Feminism-with-a-capital-F means, there's going to be trouble. because Feminism-with-a-capital-F doesn't really exist. there is no monolithic school of Feminist thought, no bootcamp or basic training or anything like that :) as problematic as it can make things, i think ‘feminisms’ is probably a more apt term.

so, while one woman might define feminism as ‘equal rights for women,’ another might define it as ‘subvert the dominant patriarchy paradigm,’ and yet another might say ‘lesbian separatists rule!’ and of course, i imagine more women fall into the first category than the latter, but you get my point.

all this makes it very difficult sometimes to talk about what ‘feminism’ is. and that can often bog the broader discussion down.”


so, that being said, i want to throw out there why i personally cheer when progressive men embrace the label feminist. plain and simple, it’s because i’m tired of arguing about it. there are so many practical realities that need addressing, so many savage injustices and insidious prejudices that women face each day – i want to deal with those, not semantics.

and i know the retort to this is “it’s not just semantics, words are important.” well hey, i have two english degrees, so you won’t find me arguing that language isn’t powerful, and that we shouldn’t be mindful of that fact. however, i think there are times when it’s more fruitful to have that fight, and others when it’s more productive to prioritize agreed-upon goals instead of agreed-upon terminologies. and for me, i just don’t see what all the fuss is about with men who hesitate to call themselves feminist.

so maybe we can open this up into a discussion in the comment section. i’ve never really attempted one of these before, so it might fall flat, but if you’re so inclined i’d love to hear your thoughts (men and women alike) about the term “feminist” and your reticence (or lack thereof!) to wear the label. is it because of some of the ugly connotations “feminist” has taken on in popular culture? is it because “feminist” is inherently too hard to define, and you’d rather categorize yourself more particularly? is it because you disdain the letter “f”?

please, do share, and we’ll continue the conversation (or, if no one else feels like it, at least toast and i will)…

12 comments:

Jared Goralnick said...

What's all the fuss. Wikipedia has a definition right here, how could there possibly be any more debate?

In all seriousness, I do have trouble taking on that label, or most other "isms" and "ians" for that matter. As for feminism in particular, I think you captured its essence when you said:

while one woman might define feminism as ‘equal rights for women,’ another might define it as ‘subvert the dominant patriarchy paradigm,’ and yet another might say ‘lesbian separatists rule!’

In general, few people, and even less men, are comfortable being associated with the latter two interpretations. Thus for the sake of clarity or some arbitrary sense of masculinity they'd rather preach for gender equality than feminism in particular.

But going back to me, I've personally been close with women at all parts of the feminism spectrum, and thus find it just as varied a label when applied to them as I would applying it to my own beliefs. I bet that while it's particularly uncommon for men to adopt that label, there are many women who also have trouble taking on the label so as to stay away from some of the connotations associated with it.

hetherjw said...

After reading Shake's sisters post I have thought a lot about this. Why is feminism different for me than say the gay rights movement or civil rights more broadly? In my head there is one stand out feature: feminism has a large contingent that seems to want me to apologize for who I am. Only with feminist does being white, male and straight seem to be a badge of dishonor. No other race-centric or sexual orientation-centric movement makes me feel like I am 'less than' in their rhetoric.

kate.d. said...

thanks, guys! hetherjw, i cringe a little when we start talking about a "large contingent," for the reasons i posted about - we don't really have contingents, or delegations, or focus groups :) but you qualify with "seem," which i appreciate.

and a serious question: do you think that white men there sometimes confuse "wanting me to apologize for who i am" with "wanting me to acknowledge my privilege in a patriarchal society"? because for me, it's not about apologizing for who you are, but acknowledging that we all exist in a societal context. i benefit from white privilege every day, but admitting that doesn't make me a racist, right? just as admitting male privilege doesn't make men misogynists. it just makes them self-aware.

Toast said...

First off, I would echo what jared said regarding "isms": When you buy into an "ism" or declare yourself an "ist" you're generally buying more than an agreed upon set of goals. You're also declaring to the world, albeit sometimes unwittingly, that you share a set of assumptions, a set of tools, and a conceptual framework with the other people who gather under that banner. Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

do you think that white men there sometimes confuse "wanting me to apologize for who i am" with "wanting me to acknowledge my privilege in a patriarchal society"?

Power relationships in a patriarchal society. See? That's looking at the world through a feminist lens. A useful framework in some instances, but not the way I usually look at things.

Second, you point out, rightly, that "feminism" has come to embrace many different meanings over the years, some of them controversial, some of them, uh, kinda out there. Yet another reason I don't want to wear that badge. Too much ambiguity. Too much to caveat. Too much to explain. I have enough damned work on my hands explaining the two types of atheism to people. I don't need to get into the 31 flavors of feminism.

Finally, this:

i want to throw out there why i personally cheer when progressive men embrace the label feminist. plain and simple, it’s because i’m tired of arguing about it. there are so many practical realities that need addressing, so many savage injustices and insidious prejudices that women face each day – i want to deal with those, not semantics.

Fair enough! Let's not argue about it. Let's, instead, focus our energies on achieving concrete results in the realm of gender equality. But I'll call myself a liberal or a progressive, thanks, not a feminist. It's unfair to frame it up as "Look, could you just call yourself a feminist so we could get on with the important stuff?" Nuh uh.

kate.d. said...

two quick lunch hour thoughts:

toast said: Power relationships in a patriarchal society. See? That's looking at the world through a feminist lens. A useful framework in some instances, but not the way I usually look at things.

why not?

also, But I'll call myself a liberal or a progressive, thanks, not a feminist. all right. i'm not holding a gun to your head or anything (i just typo-ed "i'm not holding a gyn to your head or anything" - ha!). but i have more to say about why, by making that choice, it has negative consequences for how feminism is perceived, and also how i think it's not unreasonable for feminists to ask for (ask! not demand!) some slack on this one.

karen gsteiger said...

I absolutely am proud to call myself a feminist, and I could care less what kinds of cartoony man-hating stereotypes people want to create around the label. All I know is that reproductive rights are under assault in our country, I'm still not making the same amount of money as a man doing the same job, the workplace is hostile to women of childbearing age (especially if they decide that they want to bear children), an estimated 1 in 4 women will experience a sexual assault in their lifetimes, men aren't picking up the slack at home, and on and on and on. If people are afraid of gender war rhetoric, I'm sorry, but there's a war on. Get the freaking Republicans out of my doctor's office and pharmacy and encourage your fellow men to start treating us with some basic respect, and then I'll tone it down.

Toast said...

Get the freaking Republicans out of my doctor's office and pharmacy and encourage your fellow men to start treating us with some basic respect, and then I'll tone it down.

And here's my answer to that:

I. AM. TRYING.

Is that enough? Or do I have to sport the Feminist label as well?

Toast said...

why not?

Not my wheelhouse. I look at things more from an FDR Liberal perspective. Individual rights versus community prerogatives. The role of the regulatory state in a mixed economy. That sort of thing. And more, to be sure.

That is not to say that I don't find analyses based on gender relations useful. It's just not the primary (or probably secondary) lens that I look at the world through.

Toast said...

but i have more to say about why, by making that choice, it has negative consequences for how feminism is perceived

And this is why I coined the term "Feminist Sympathizer" -- to distinguish myself from others who instinctively run screaming from any association with feminism. I don't believe feminism is all or even mostly bad. In fact I think the opposite tends to be true. That's why, even though I don't buy into everything that self-proclaimed feminists have to say, I happily admit that they're (usually) my allies. And even when I disagree with them, I don't talk shit about them.

karen gsteiger said...

Is that enough? Or do I have to sport the Feminist label as well?

I certainly don't think people should sport any labels that they don't want to or don't agree with. But if people do agree with a lot of feminist thinking, calling themselves feminists normalizes the title and the philosophies behind it. If people are afraid of being called feminists or calling themselves feminists, then it only perpetuates this idea that feminists band together in small, dusty university classrooms plotting to castrate every man that they see. It's like the word "liberal." You can either embrace it, or you can run screaming from it. But once you start bringing these names and labels out of the closet and dusting them off and wearing them in public, suddenly people aren't as afraid of the ideas behind them.

And I don't think that you have to be in agreement with every single feminist out there to call yourself a feminist. There are wildly diverging opinions within the liberal and progressive spheres, and you don't have to agree with the more extreme positions that are presented in those groups to call yourself one of its members.

But really, I'm not so concerned about men calling themselves feminists. It's women who are afraid of calling them feminists who I don't get. Do they think it makes them look less attractive? What?

hetherjw said...

Hi Kate.

I did want to have some equivocation in my post. I know feminism is far too diverse to capture in a simple phrase like 'large contingent.' The operative word for me was 'feel.' I KNOW feminism (to be anthropomorphic about it) is not out to get me for being male. But that does not help me from feeling it when confronted with some of the more extreme rhetoric.

As for privilege in a patriarchal society... Sure I have been a huge beneficiary of it. And I acknowledge that. Like Toast I come down as a feminist sympathizer. At least for now.

kate.d. said...

hetherjw, i appreciate your thoughts. and i'm happy to have you and toast calling yourselves feminist sympathizers than something without the word feminist in it at all.

well, except anti-feminists, of course.