The Problem with Feminism: Part One
In an attempt to pay homage to the wonderful Guilty Feminist podcast, I begin this post by literally ripping-off their schtick:
I’m a feminist, but…
…I’m a devotee of waxing (we’ve talked about this);
…I want people to think I’m pretty (ooooh the vanity!);
…I’ve been known to use my looks/sexuality/perceived girlish weakness to get what I want (yup, I hate me, too);
…I like to be told I’m a “dirty little slut” and get smacked around in the bedroom;
…I think that feminism has some fundamental issues that need to be addressed before we’re going to get anywhere near equality.
Ooh, plot twist!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how feminism seems to operate as a simultaneously unifying and divisive force, even amongst its own supporters. We can agree that feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men” (thanks, Google dictionary), but that’s often about as far as the agreement goes. How, exactly, does one achieve this equality? Do we legislate for it? Do we force employment quotas? And what about equality in the home, or within the framework of a conservative religion? How do we negotiate the personal and the political?
All valid and worthy questions, but these aren’t the issues I’ve been mentally tying myself in knots over. No – I’ve been stewing over two major issues with feminism that I believe need to be resolved before we can make any real progress with the above…
Issue number one: Feminism has a problem with in-fighting.
Feminist communities exist to a large extent online these days. It’s a wonderful time to be a digital feminist – thousands of resources and like-minded feminists are just a click away, and Facebook groups provide a safe space in which to share views and ideas. For someone who came to feminism by reading books alone in her bedroom, online discussion groups have opened up a whole new world of ideas, concepts, and sense of sisterhood that were previously unavailable to me. It has also provided me with a virtual mirror in which I can see my privilege in a way that I never could before, and for that I am truly grateful.
BUT (and you knew there was a “but”), if you’ve spent much time at all in an online feminist group, you will know that these are not places for the faint-hearted. Hang around in any discussion group for long enough, and nine times out of ten you will witness instances of shaming, of members being shunned and blocked, of factions splitting off and setting up camp elsewhere, of simple misunderstandings turning into full-on slanging matches, or of groups being shut down entirely due to irreconcilable differences. This is not the sisterhood you were looking for.
It’s worth noting that there are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and also that in any online community where you have hundreds or thousands of members from literally all over the world, people are going to disagree on some pretty major issues. This is not a uniquely feminist problem. However, it’s also worth noting that the groups that are generally more ‘civilised’ are also the groups where member involvement extends to little more than sharing memes. Now don’t get me wrong – I love a good meme. But one does not simply change the world with the judicious use of a meme.
From my perspective [NOTE: the perspective of a white, cis-gendered, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, middle-class woman], the tensions and hostilities I see arising are happening because we are trying to create truly inclusive, intersectional spaces, but we’re just not very good at it. (If you’re not familiar with intersectionality, click here or here for some excellent resources that will explain it better than I ever could! Trust me: this post won’t make much sense otherwise).
Feminists existing at the same intersection as me like to think that we’re all in this together, but may have trouble recognising our privilege, or may struggle to understand how an off-hand remark could silence or disregard the experiences of someone from a different intersection. This lack of awareness (or outright ignorance) in an online feminist space will almost inevitably lead to us being called-out for our behaviour, which leads to hurt feelings, which often leads to us tone policing the person who called us out (not that we knew what tone policing was), which leads to more calling out, which leads to more upset, and the circle repeats itself ad infinitum.
Imagine this scenario, but with hundreds or thousands of well-meaning but privilege-blind feminists, all inadvertently ignoring or disregarding the experiences of oppressed groups (feminists of colour, LGBTQI+ feminists, disabled feminists, etc.) – who have no obligation to make space for our privileged tears, by the way – and you have yourself a powder keg.
So what’s the solution? How do we make intersectional spaces (which are, to be honest, the only spaces worth having if you truly want equality) work for everyone? How do we make sure that we’re not scaring off new potential members, without pandering to the fragility of privilege?
I suspect that I can only provide a partial answer to this question. Because of how intersectionality works, I can only suggest an answer for my very specific intersection. And that answer is shut the fuck up. Take a step back and listen. Learn how to take criticism without blaming others for making you feel bad. And EDUCATE YOURSELF. If nothing else, please educate yourself. Understand that there are resources you can access, but that if someone does choose to undertake the emotional labour of educating you directly, be grateful!
Once we get better at being intersectional, then, and only then, will we be able to work effectively towards achieving equality. In the meantime, we need to listen to one another, be kind, recognise that learning takes time, and appreciate that there is no such thing as the ‘perfect feminist’.
But hang on; didn’t you say there were TWO major issues that needed dealing with?
Why yes, I did! But you’re going to have to wait for my next blog to find out all about…
Article by Sarah Bradnum