Feminism, for and against


IF YOU HAVEN’T yet heard of Sheryl Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign, here is a video, and below is a brief overview of the Facebook COO’s effort, in which she is joined by Condoleeza Rice, Beyoncé, Jennifer Garner, Diane von Furstenberg and Jane Lynch:

When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.

Pledge to Ban Bossy.

As you would expect, discussion of this campaign is vigorous and divisive. Some agree with the premise and the tactic, others disagree both with the premise and the tactic, and yet others split the matter into its constituents, both agreeing and disagreeing with specific elements.

For what little it is worth, I agree that bossy is a gender-loaded term, and that it can be and sometimes is used to silence young women and girls. And yet I think the banning of a word is not an effective social change strategy, considerations of censorship aside. Telling people not to say apple doesn’t make the fruit go away.

A better strategy in my view is to deal directly with the word, by discussing its uses and examining its underbelly, perhaps even infusing it with more positive connotations. This has been done numerous times in history, with labels like “gay.” Of course, this strategy also will not transform the underlying attitudes and institutions, at least not overnight. It’s much easier to ban an idea, or launch a campaign of suppression against it, than to transform the material reality it represents. That’s not an argument against the effort, it’s an observation.

The argument over Ban Bossy is also an argument about feminism. Most people agree that first wave feminism was a good thing. In the 1800s to the early 1900s, early feminism (or proto-feminism) denounced slavery and promoted labor rights. The struggle for formal equality – voting rights, property rights and legal rights equal to men – was a material struggle. Women attacked political and economic institutions, an effort which in Canada culminated in the Person’s Case. It seems odd today, but the question of whether women qualified in law as persons was a hotly debated matter. It took the British Supreme Court to settle it, in favour of the women’s movement.

In the 1950s the second wave of feminism arrived. This is the feminism that people have in mind when they say things like “feminism has gone too far.” Second wave feminism was not principally materialist, it was highly philosophical and theoretical. It set out to challenge and discredit patriarchal ideology. I’m not saying that second wave feminists didn’t care about material reality. They did, but they also put a lot of effort into critiquing the things going on inside our brains. Second wave feminism was about transforming society from the inside, by reconstituting its ideological foundations.

The fight over feminism is a proxy war, a subset of a larger battle. That war is between traditionalists and post-traditionalists. In the 1960s and 1970s, second wave feminism went after all the traditional institutions – especially the family, marriage and the division of labour. For many second wavers, the struggle was no longer for equality of the sexes, it was rather a struggle to smash the patriarchy’s ideological constructs, in particular gender identity and sexual mores. The Pill soon became widely available, and the cause of sexual liberation was widely in evidence. Women took in increasing numbers to careers rather than to marriage and child-bearing. Sex, marriage, the family, the church and traditional morals were all being re-evaluated and redefined.

Third wave feminism of the 1990s forward continued many of these trends but also critiqued them. As with earlier feminisms, the third wave was fractured. People disagreed about ends and means and concepts and many other things besides. For example, was gender only a construct and nothing more, or was there indeed a male and a female nature? Most feminist critiques assume a degree of enculturation, and if indeed men and women were the same – if they only differed as a result of indoctrination and nurturing – then the foundation of feminism had to rest upon something other than the nature of woman. Perhaps female experience, or history, rather than feminine nature or power or perception, was the material basis of the movement. In any case, third wave feminism is distinct in at least one sense, many of its proponents having concluded that the goal is to liberate both men and women from biological determinism – the idea that you can be defined by what’s between your legs.

Many third wavers also criticized the essentialism of the second wave, pointing out that it was not only reductionist but often reactionary to reduce the struggle to gender identity, as if there even were a female nature. The second wave had been dominated by middle and upper-middle class university educated Western white women. The third wave of feminism attacked second wave privilege and argued the complexity of identity, linking feminism to considerations of race, colonialism, class and sexual orientation, among other things.

A lot of people, and not only traditionalists, don’t like second and third wave feminism. These are the folks denounced as fun killers and busy bodies and humorless, politically correct extremists. Conservatives don’t like them because they are actively upending the effort to conserve which is so important to the political right, especially Pre-Second Vatican Council Roman Catholics, who are among feminism’s most active and hostile critics.

Now, anyone can take an example of an extremist and generalize it to the group, and that’s often what happens with second and third wave feminism. Keep in mind that it was extreme at one time to argue that a woman was a person, and you can be sure that the first woman to suggest this notion was laughed off as a victim of the wandering womb. Challenge an established idea, and you get called uppity. Negros sitting anywhere on the bus they like? Har har, what next – a negro president? You can do this with any threatening social movement, and who doubts that yesterday’s traditionalists did.

Barbara Kay is my most traditionalist friend, and she’s written a lot on what she considers the failings and dangers of feminism. Her essay, “Feminism’s Impact on Society,” is one of the better summations of the secular traditionalist critique. It contains the most common themes and charges levelled against feminism by conservatives, and it’s well-written and engaging, even if you don’t agree with its premise.

Barbara respects first wave feminism (“its earliest and most benign form”) and thinks it was necessary and welcome, because it achieved equality of the sexes under the law and opened up economic opportunities to women. As for the “radical ideology that has come to dominate the movement’s academic and institutional elites”:

This is an ideology that sees the relations between the sexes as a never-ending antagonistic power struggle, with women as eternal victims and men as eternal oppressors. It is an ideology that explains away the moral failings of women as the fault of a patriarchal “system”, but holds men responsible for their actions. And most important, it is an ideology that short changes children by privileging the rights and importance of mothers over fathers.

Barbara’s opening volley reminds me of the complaint that feminism “politicizes” everything, which usually is answered with the counter-assertion that these things were already politicized when they were found. Politicization is a charge that has been made in many other areas, for example in race relations. The idea is that race only became political when black people began to challenge the structures, ideology and institutions of racial dominance. Prior to this, the domination of one group by another was just something that existed as part of the natural order. In fact both sides are correct: women have made a political issue out of sex and gender, but since the politics are already latent in these things, it’s simply a matter of making them explicit.

Before I go any further, let’s identify the points on which I think Barbara and I are in agreement:

1.  Humorless, fun-killing feminists do in fact exist, as they do in any group, and they’re bloody tiresome
2. Man-hating feminists also do exist, and with the same qualifications as above
3. Women have an advantage over men in the divorce and child-custody courts; men tend to be assumed guilty until proven innocent, and women tend to be viewed favourably in disputes as a matter of course; this is morally and ideologically wrong, and results in injustice
4. Men too are victims of domestic assault, a fact that is under-discussed and under-addressed
5. There is a tendency among the more ardent feminists, shared by many on the political left, to silence and censor points of view with which they disagree (“political correctness”), an effort irreconcilable with liberal-democratic principles.

Of points one and two I’ll note that some unsavoury specimens might be drawn from any group. Is every second and third wave feminist a man hating fun killer? I don’t think Barbara would argue that. She does argue however that misandry (hatred of men) is “now entrenched in our public discourse, our education system and social services,” a claim I’m unable to evaluate but which does strike me as over-reaching. I’ve no personal experience of being hated by a woman merely because I’m a man, but that may be due to the facts that, as Barbara argues, “misandry flies beneath most people’s radar” and that “we have become compliant in the acceptance of theories that have nothing to do with reality, and compliant in the speech codes that accompany that tendency.” Still, if hatred of men is “entrenched,” shouldn’t I have experienced it at some point in my five decades of life? Maybe not, but in any case I’m having trouble reconciling this charge of misandry with my lived experience.

Barbara’s argument leads me to ask Is feminism truly so powerful and destructive? I’ll have more to say about this, but before I do I’ll address points three and four, above. Notice how the bias of the courts so closely aligns with traditional notions of gender, in which the woman is the master of the house and the nurturing care-giver, whilst the man goes out into the public world to hunt and gather and provide material support for children. Holding feminism to account for such views of masculinity seems odd to me, since the idea that men are aggressive, non-nurturing familial accessories, not really essential to the home, is a thoroughly conventional, thoroughly traditional stereotype. Also, it’s not difficult to understand why few men would want to broadcast the fact they’d been beaten up by a woman, or that the idea that this might happen would be dismissed or trivialized. Traditional notions of masculinity almost guarantee that this discussion will never happen, or won’t go far even if it does.

This leads us nicely to the question of whether feminism has been on the whole a good or a bad thing. I’ll concede the cranks, authoritarians and over-zealous puritans within the feminist ranks, but what of feminism in general and the many millions of feminists who don’t conform to the stereotypes? I suppose they don’t much matter if feminism is inherently wicked and thus independent of individual character – yet the personalities and dispositions of individual feminists always seem to enter the calculations of critics. But what about the material effects of feminism? It has, for example, made it much more difficult in the past fifty years to be a lowbrow sexist pig, and for this I would give it credit.

Men have been made to think carefully about some of their less enlightened assumptions, inherited from generations past, and the ways in which those assumptions shape the world of (among other things) business and marriage. Men and masculinity have improved as a result, in my opinion at least. That’s good both for men and women. Institutions have not benefitted in quite the same way, as divorce rates and family breakdown suggest.

Considerations of the traditional family and of marriage are inseparable from structural economic changes driven by technology, productivity gains and globalization, all of which put us well outside the topic of feminism. Also, there’s no question that divorce is more common today only because the old enforcements which kept bad marriages intact have eroded, particularly the threat of church censure. The causes of the decline of traditional institutions are mostly materialist and economic in nature, masculinity having suffered more damage from the collapse of blue-collar, family sustaining jobs than from the attacks of hairy-legged vegan wymmin.

The response I sometimes get to this is that what we’ve been is emasculated. You’ll have to speak on your own behalf there, brother. The idea is that an entire generation of boys has been taught (trained seems the better word) to sit still and be quiet and do as the women in their life tell them. I’m not entirely in disagreement with the claim that boys have been poorly acculturated in recent decades, and that the classroom especially has been unkind to them. But here the problem, as I see it, is an old one, having once and long ago been one of those boys myself.

We’re not wired to sit still in a chair for hours on end, and it’s cruel and stupid to make boys do it. We like to rough-house and play at war, and the fun killing nannies who suppress these impulses (and this is almost entirely a female undertaking) are not to be encouraged. Quite the opposite. Likewise, the hovering, invigilating, swiftly interventionist parent who sees “bullying” in every conflict large or small, and who lives to impose an order rather than provide the opportunity for children to work things out for themselves, is a creature whose extinction I’ll welcome.

On the other hand, the old fashioned way of keeping order in a classroom of fifteen or more boys (an unenviable task) was corporal punishment, and as this is no longer available to the teacher, another method had to be found – and that method was, and remains, either to make the boys more like girls, or to drug them, or both. Much of what is termed the feminization of boys is in fact an effort to compensate for the fact that school boys can longer be beaten into submission, as they were in an earlier era. This, by the way, also explains the decline of traditional “rote work” subjects like grammar and Latin and the times tables, all of which no normal child will learn unless compelled to do so under the credible threat of physical punishment.

We are now in so many respects living in an era of decay and decline, from printed books to social clubs, that the search for someone to blame for this state of affairs is only to be expected. Loss or decay or discrediting of a natural order must be sorely felt by the conservative imagination, just as it is exhilarating to the person who believes that the human story is of an evolutionary march from primitive darkness into enlightenment. I suspect for this reason that the objection to second and third wave feminism is aesthetic at least as much as it is ideological or moral. Like socialists and Marxist-Leninists and other self-styled progressive, do-gooder types, feminists are widely imagined to be self-righteous bores who love nothing better than to tell you why everything you believe and do and eat is immoral and wrong.

The time is some decades or even centuries off for the full and measured accounting of feminism’s role in human history, and most likely the account will contain both positive and negative. We are in the middle of an arc, where judgement of such a large issue must necessarily be selective, partial and limited. This is why I see the clash over feminism as a proxy war, each side having a commitment to a differing and irreconcilable notion of human history and destiny.

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