Tuesday, November 30, 2010

There Are Not "Two Kinds of Feminism"

Here's an interesting column by David Mendelsohn for The Daily Princetonian about feminism. I think it highlights how people with good intentions can still miss the mark (emphasis mine):
While setting up for a party a few weeks ago, I noticed one of my female friends trying to hoist a large oak table and carry it into the next room. Appropriately enough, I asked if she needed my help. After all, the table was heavy and she was just one person. I never thought that such an innocent offer would warrant the kind of whoopass that my friend was about to deliver.

Among other things, she exclaimed, “My biggest pet peeve is when people ask if I need help with something. I’ve done more labor-intensive work than anyone here, but people insist that I need help just because I have boobs!”

Needless to say, I haven’t offered her help with manual labor since then.

Let us ignore science for a moment. You know: the empirically proven fact that males, on average, are physically stronger than females. Let’s examine this from a simple human-interaction point of view. One individual tries to do something, another offers help, and the pair usually manages the work more efficiently and effectively as a result. This is the way Neolithic human society has always worked. And although gender roles have traditionally shaped this distribution of labor, they have absolutely no bearing on the communal instinct to help one’s fellow human. I would have made the same offer to a male friend.

There seem to be two major camps of feminists. The members of one group believe in equality and focus on very real modern issues such as disparity in wages between men and women. They serve an essential role in modern society, in which feminism has come under attack because of the irrational and circular arguments made by members of the second group. These individuals, who represent a highly vocal minority of the feminist movement, have learned to extrapolate feminism to every domain of daily life. They are hypersensitive to criticism, actively look for evidence of sexism and find it everywhere.

As one who cares deeply about equality issues, it pains me to see legitimate issues hijacked by those who use the movement as a method of personal vindication, like when my friend felt slighted that I offered her help moving furniture.

She is one of those “feminists” that bandy about the term without demonstrating a true understanding of what it means. On account of their frenzied finger-pointing and paranoia, feminists as a whole have come to be perceived as extremists that eschew showering and relish their armpit hair.

Along with giving real feminists a bad name, the pseudo-feminists alienate men as well. Hypersensitized by the narrative that they have imagined, they are quick to accuse a man of implicitly belittling a woman when he offers to help and ignoring her plight when he refuses. The innocuous act of kindness, generosity or even apathy is interpreted as an intentional and malicious attack on the sovereignty of women everywhere. I’m not saying that a man’s actions are always absent of ulterior motives; I am saying that as adults we should be able to tell the difference.

The irony is that not enough individuals at Princeton are willing to publicly proclaim their feminism, as Caroline Kitchener pointed out in her column “Where have all the feminists gone?,” and I think it’s at least in part because of this vocal minority. The stigma caused by this minority is a real one, as evidenced by many of the comments on past ‘Prince’ articles related to feminism. While varying in content, the general tone of these comments is, “Enough already. There is no conspiracy to put women down. Get over it.” In this way, a very vocal minority of extremists have effectively pushed the issue beyond the sphere of reasonable discourse. In complaining about unimportant issues, they are reducing the urgency of the real ones. No one wants to hear any more about feminism once they’ve learned to associate feminism with complaining. Once this association is made, all bets are off; real feminism has no chance.

Feminism is not a selling point, nor is it a label that automatically legitimizes what you are saying. Feminism is a school of thought and philosophy that must not be used as a street corner soap box, lest everything it stands for be cheapened or destroyed.

It is easy to make a point by shouting the loudest or by inundating your opponent with a mass of statistics that he or she cannot possibly begin to decode. But the fight for race and gender equality is not one that is won by attrition, by wearing your enemies down until they no longer have the energy to fight. It’s a hearts-and-minds campaign in which you aim to turn those who once stood in your way. I understand where they’re coming from. But gender extremists cannot hope to effect real change without first learning to pick their battles.
At the risk of being "one of those" feminists, I have a few issues with Mendelsohn's assertions. For one, I think it's a bit silly for Mendelsohn to assume that he can dictate the conversations of feminists. Mendelsohn is basically trying to invalidate the concerns and input from "those other feminists" by making them out to be extremists. Just because he doesn't like what they have to say doesn't mean they aren't allow to identify as feminists. And his insistence that feminism has to be pleasing to men, you know because those facts and statistics are just so darn complicated, is egotistical to say the least.

Also, there are not only two kinds of feminism. There are countless. Beyond the idea that women are not inherently less than men, there is no "one way" to do feminism. Feminists are like atheists in this regard. Beyond the one central idea that is the essence of the movement, there is no right or wrong way to be a feminist. It's not like some feminist overlord hands out little red books telling you how to be a good feminist or how to toe the line. I disagree with the ideas of other feminists quite often and yet I strongly identify as a feminist. For Mendelsohn to even assume that this is the case is ridiculous.  This, along with the idea that radical feminists are what's really holding feminism back, is pretty indicative of his reluctance to actually learn anything about the evolution of feminism. From the beginning, feminism has come in many shapes and sizes and there have always been radical feminists inside feminism. Ironically, it is the radical feminists of the second wave that created the feminism we have today.

The idea that women should assume every man has good intentions is laughable too. Why didn't Mendelsohn assume his friend was being honest when she said men treat her like she can't do things because she's a woman? Why didn't Mendelsohn assume that his friend was just having a hard day? Why didn't Mendelsohn assume that maybe his friend is just an asshole instead of turning the encounter into some big message about the state of feminism today (way to turn her into the spokesperson for her entire gender there buddy)? We all make assumptions about the intentions of others and Mendelsohn's feelings will never change that.

In the end, as Mendelsohn proves, some people are just assholes. Do some people co-opt feminism for their own benefit? Of course. Just like every other group/movement. Do some people love to point out the flaws in others while vehemently denying their own? Duh. Feminism has nothing to do with it. But nice try.


  1. Also, there are not only two kinds of feminism. There are countless.

    My tiny male brain just got confused... how can I keep them all straight in my head when I have to remember hundreds of professional sports teams?

    I just simplify it all in my head and say there's one kind of feminist: the kind that want equality. That seems to work.

  2. I try to explain this to my brother when he makes disparaging remarks about feminism. He invariably doesn't get it.

    But he's seeing just one idea of what feminism is. He thinks it means wanting to make women superior and put men down INSTEAD of wanting equality for everyone and giving special focus to women's issues because of that whole short-end-of-the-stick thing. When I try to explain that most of the feminists I know, including myself, want the latter, not the former, it goes in one ear and out the other. (maybe because our step-mother is a fan of that first idea) And he starts arguing that if we really meant it, we'd call it equalism, because why should we be focusing specifically on the problems women face instead of inequalities that everyone faces? As though it's either/or.

    Sorry, ranty tangent. I just get really annoyed when people make assumptions about what feminism is and then pass judgment on it without checking to see if they might be wrong (or may have made something up).

  3. I totally agree! I also hate the "why don't you call yourself humanists then?" line of questioning because I feel like people are subtly saying feminists don't have the right to label themselves unless it's something non-feminists find pleasing. I hate the name "pro-life," but that doesn't mean people can't identify as such you know?


What's on your mind?