Young women no longer see feminism as a social justice movement of value — and who can blame them?
When you are gone, there is a very good chance that your soul will be claimed for Utah. Latter Day Saints have the peculiar habit of finding dead sinners and reclaiming them for the name of Mormon. Even if you are untroubled by the possibility of your posthumous baptism, you might agree that it’s abhorrent for the LDS to steal Anne Frank’s soul for Jesus. Frank was one of many Holocaust victims covertly claimed in Salt Lake City.
Just as the First Presidency is unable to leave any human unnamed as a Mormon, popular feminism has recently got itself into a similar habit. Since women’s media transformed generally from a site that sells face creams and bad sex hints into a site that sells face creams and bad feminism, the matter of Who Is A Feminist has become strangely central.
Are You A Feminist is now a standard question asked of female celebrities, and when the answer is “yes”, as it was in the case of Beyonce, we can expect a round of articles and tweets explaining to us why This Matters. When the answer is no, as it was in the case of Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, we can expect a round of articles and tweets explaining to us why This Matters.
Yesterday on Crikey’s partner site Women’s Agenda, author Catherine Fox used a similar critique of a “movement” of which many of us might have been unaware if there had not been such a slue decrying it. The women objecting to feminism are wrong to do so because they have “benefited enormously from it”.
This is a common charge, and one that is structurally identical to the urge Mormons have for posthumous baptism. How dare you bask in the wonder of existence as we know it without acknowledging its origin? Accept Betty Friedan as your Lady and saviour.
Of course, feminism has managed a lot more practical good than the guy with the golden tablets. But a good history of activism does not necessarily mean that a poor present of selfies is above critique. Young women — and the women participating in the hashtag movement are almost universally babies — are not required to give explicit thanks to their foremothers any more than the kids of Occupy are required to remember Marx. Of course, it might be nice if more of them did read books and here, I am agreed with Fox, who urges young women to “understand what you are actually objecting to” and read some primary texts. Unfortunately, if one wants to change the world, a basic understanding of a revolutionary thesis has been generally required.
But the reality to which the young women of Women Against Feminism are objecting is not, in itself, a particularly literate one. Contemporary feminism is, as Fox, says, a broad church that has no membership rules other than the decision to call oneself a feminist. Feminism is “inclusive”. By which we mean it can just be something that you do. There is no rigour required, and the single crime a woman can commit against it is to critique it. Which gets us into a bit of a muddle because every time one does critique feminism, the answer is inevitably “but feminism is whatever you say it is”. Feminism is beyond critique because it cannot be critiqued. Feminism is peopled by those who do not know what they believe other than the fact that they are “feminist”.
“Women Against Feminism doesn’t have a great deal of imagination. But nor, for that matter, does much of current popular feminism itself.”
So if we set aside the non-problem of not being respectful to one’s elders — and goodness, let us hope we never see a generation who suffers that yoke — the real problem, as women against women against feminism see it, is that you can’t criticise feminism because there is nothing to criticise. And this is tragically true. It is a shifting movement that spurns critical thinking as “elitist” and can agree only on opposition to violence. And so critiquing feminism is often a case of arguing against nothing because who, in their right mind, would argue for violence?
No one of sound mind argues for violence. The young, often quite underdone, advocates for Women Against Feminism certainly don’t. But what some of them are arguing for, including this young woman on YouTube, is a politics that extends beyond urging for gender equality.
It’s true that many of the Women Against Feminism are very fuzzy in their thinking. Some of them argue for the myth of complementarity, and some argue for the sort of domestic feminism championed by opponents of suffragettes. This stuff that rallies for a return to a familial ideal long since burned to the ground by the machines of capital is pointless. You can’t bring back a traditional division of labour just by saying that Jesus would want it that way. It is not these critiques that are interesting. It is however, as in the afore-linked video, the frustration with a movement that sees gender equality as the foundation of social change.
“I am for equality for everyone,” says the young woman, who also says that she supports equal rights for women in law. Her thesis is not evolved, but her irritation with feminism is worth analysis.
It is important to note that many of these young women do not believe the fiction that gender is meaningless and all significant battles have been won. Certainly, the young woman in the video does not say, as many selfies on the Tumblr site do, that gender is irrelevant. What does seem apparent in some, but not all, of the complaints is that some young women see their era’s most pressing problem as something bigger and more complex than gender alone. Gender is not the foundation of inequality, she seems to be saying.
Again, many of the Women Against Feminism advocates are as ignorant as Fox describes. But some of them are certainly making an effort to explicate their ideology in a way that is much more rigorous than much of popular feminism itself.
I imagine if I were a young undergraduate interested in models for social justice — and like it or not, many of the anti-feminism statements are made by people so engaged — I would also find discomfort with the current prevalence of gender as an explanation for much of the world’s pain. Unlikely to be employed in the near future — if at all in the area of my study — and, perhaps, mildly conscious that my threatened affluence is currently contingent on the labour of those in the Third World and, of course, concerned for the state of the climate, I might want to see a dominant model for action that exceeds gender equality.
Feminism might be a broad church that “has no rules for membership” and has nothing cohesive to say except that it doesn’t like violence. But it does have a dominant ideology. And it is this, however basically, that some of these young women are striving to unpick.
Feminism is a great friend of liberal democracy and its partner economies. Fundamental to its apparently rule-free popular current iteration is the idea is that what we need is equality within the system as it currently exists. It might seem radical with its habit of talking about rape and its virtuosic rage, but it is essentially liberal. Feminism, like liberal-Left ideals of the present, has no political imagination. It believes, along with Fukuyama, that the system that we have is a perfect system and the only amendment needed to this End of History is equal rights for women.
Not to go on about the need for people to remember their history, but there was a time not so long ago when the distinction between an equality feminism and a liberation feminism was easy to spot. Greer has never changed her assertion made in The Female Eunuch more than 40 years ago that what she does not want is equality within a corrupt system.
There is among some, not all, of the Women Against Feminism advocates this partial realisation that the way in which we currently live is contingent on inequality. To borrow an example from Slavoj Zizek, we can enjoy none of the technological affluence of the iPhone without the labour in the factories of Foxconn, without the extraction of minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our good fortune — which the world’s great economists and popular authors like Naomi Klein say is fading fast — is provisional on inequality.
The feminism that has no rules for membership and no cohesive plans does have an undeclared ideological faith in liberal democracy. Its foundational unuttered belief is that the state and its partner economy can be reformed. Some of the youngsters involved in Women Against Feminism seem to disagree.
This is not, by any means, to give these kids a posthumous Marxist baptism. This is not to say that the young women in nice makeup currently holding up signs telling feminism to shut up are any clearer about what is wrong with the world than their pop feminist age-mates. It is, however, to say that some of their dissatisfaction with feminism partially arises from the thought that our world as it is currently organised needs inequality to sustain itself. And that unless we address this foundational need for inequality that always demands the oppression of a certain — and as Stiglitz would have it, growing — social class, there will always be oppressed social classes.
Women Against Feminism doesn’t have a great deal of imagination. But nor, for that matter, does much of current popular feminism itself. What it has is the tragically naïve view is that one merely needs to hold a mirror of equivalence up to capitalism and say “behave” and that capitalism is capable of behaving.