PROLOGUE: A couple of years ago, I was talking to L about her book group which was discussing Feminism, specifically whether or not it had any relevance any more. She asked me to write down the things that I had said to her so she could take it to the book group to discuss it. I wrote the following under a meaningless title of “Feminism Through Punk Rock” and linked together through lyrical quotations. Since gender issues and rights formed such a large part of the recent US Presidential election, this point seems much more obvious than it did when I wrote it, which is to say that the message is even more important.
“And yes, I’m no qualified social theorist,
but I’ve got me a few ideas I picked up whilst trying to be a human being.”
Pornography for Cowards, Million Dead
To ask a woman today if she is a feminist is a moot point. Whether she says yes or no, if she believes that it is her right to vote, to control her own money, to sever personal relationships at will, to be free from violence and to assert that her thoughts and opinions are not by-definition second rate, then she is a feminist. Else, societal, political and economic shifts could take these away from her in months and she wouldn’t care and wouldn’t try to get these rights back.
If I am allowed to be called a feminist (and I don’t see why I should not), it is because I respect the rights of the individual. It makes no sense to order society according to means, aggregates and percentages of how good someone should be at sports, how smart they should be, how likely they are to do this-and-that based on their biology.
People will always try to argue that the existence of particular hormones will cause essential differences to men and women that create separate spheres. I would argue that they are more like circles in a Venn diagram. Where are you to draw the line? Biological differences between individuals are such that you could easily justify perhaps four or six or more sexes. If a man has less testosterone than normal, is he not a man? If a woman cannot bear children, is she not a woman? Biological differences ignore the fact that every single person is an individual with an intelligent sentience making them capable of forming their own opinions and personality. It would be wrong to group people in terms of sex in terms of their role in society and how they should act, just as it is wrong to believe that one race is superior to another. Racism is a good example because I would argue that as an individual (in terms of what is important for us to consider when deciding how our society should be ordered), I have less in common with a racist than I do with any non-racist woman.
In short, it is fruitless to argue that men and women are not different, just that they are not homogenous groups, that there is overlap in nearly every parameter and that the differences that do exist are not worth taking into consideration when proscribing societal roles (after all, this is what feminism was meant to do – change the structure of rights in society).
“Don’t you think I know
Exactly where I stand.
The world is forcing me
To hold your hand.”
Just a Girl, No Doubt
So if everyone is a feminist, is there any point in feminism today?
Yes, there is.
Whilst in law the rights of men and women might now be considered similar enough to approximate equality, and whilst women generally recognise and assert their right to this equality, society changes much slower than law.
What is more, women are scared of feminism. Because of the extreme policies of the late 1970s (a most radical decade on both the left and right of politics), being a feminist seems unrealistic and unfashionable, with man-hating, butch-lesbian overtones. Perhaps since the 1990s, our society has learned to hate idealism and accept chauvinism and even a small degree of racism. Feminism has been replaced by an aggressive chauvinism in both sexes. Talking about date rape pays Jimmy Carr’s wages, when really it’s no different to Mike Reid doing stand up in the 1970s about living next door to a “Paki”.
Chauvinism is the accepted norm in both sexes because we allow the media to market aggressively sexualized female role models (as a drinking game, watch a Rihanna music video and drink every time she acts out a fetish or sings about a sexual act), teaching a lesson that real female power only comes from controlling sex.
Women are often sold a separate culture from me – one that encourages them to think of “female” interests, as if women aren’t interested in the same current events, humour and entertainment as everyone else.
Let’s take a case study. Once women railed against the idea of “Women’s Magaziines” because men edited them, selecting articles about house-keeping, “pleasing your man”, and the lives of the rich/famous that re-enforced existing female stereotypes. Nowadays the magazines are the same – they are more often run by women – and now they are not only read by housewives but available in the lounges even of successful businesses with presumably aspirational female workers. They still sell a facile female culture as something separate from the mainstream – “don’t worry your head about news or politics, let’s look at how Jordan is getting on”. In the same environment, Nuts or FHM would not be acceptable because somehow the realization that the publication is shallow is obvious and clear in the way that it isn’t when talking about Heat or Hello.
Finally, many countries do not have male-female equality. We still live somewhere where it isn’t taboo for a man to hassle and cat-call a woman (or worse) just because they believe that the woman can’t do anything about it. Such a thing would quickly make a misandrist out of me if I were born a woman, but this is nothing at all when we look beyond Europe. Saudi-Arabia et al isn’t a quirk, that’s essentially how our society used to be too, in the early modern period before we started having progressive ideas. It’s really too early to tell if this feminism thing will ever really take off…..
“Oh, Elizabeth Cady
Forever reminding me
I don’t steal the air I breathe”
Seneca Falls, The Distillers
POSTSCRIPT: At the time of writing, North Dakota’s Governor is actively challenging Roe vs Wade, the right for women to abortions by enacting a state law that makes abortion illegal after six weeks, clearly aimed at making sure abortion is only legal during the period during which women typically don’t know they are pregnant. I talked in the essay about Saudi Arabia but it seems reactionary forces closer to home in the US are trying to take away hard won women’s rights. Will people start to care before it is too late? Time will tell. In any case, we can only hope that feminism once again becomes something people are proud of.