Her Bad Mother

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Debating Feminism

Hey, all! What better way to celebrate the beginning of October than with the September Blog Exchange? This month's exchange is a series of debates between pairs of mom-bloggers: you kind find the full list HERE, at MotherhoodUncensored. And if you'd like to participate next month, send an email to kmei26 at yahoo.com.

My debate partner is my good friend Julie of Mothergoosemouse - she's challenged me to a duel on feminism (actually, Kristen assigned us to duel on this subject, very possibly on the basis of random selections made by her daughter Q). Her argument - against the label 'feminist' - is below. You can find my side of the argument - for feminism - over at her place.


I see feminism as having two distinct and separate definitions - as an ideal and as a movement. First, the classical definition - political, economic, and social equality - pertains to feminism as an ideal. I believe in this ideal - not just for women, but for all people (otherwise known as humanism). In this case, under this definition, I could be considered a feminist (although I'd still cringe if you called me one).

But it's the other definition of feminism - as a movement - where I part company with the sisterhood.

Beyond the tired old bra-burning, man-hating, so-called "feminazi" stereotypes that have prejudiced many against the feminist movement, my disillusionment with the movement stems from two areas, the first of which being the judgment leveled by feminists against choices made by other women. Choices that they believe undermine the movement.

Yes, I'm in favor of political, economic, and social equality - equality of opportunity, not equality of results or equality of representation. That is, an approximate 50/50 breakdown of men and women may exist in society, but I don't expect a 50/50 breakdown of men and women in other demographics, such as medical students, elected government officials, and Navy SEALS, to name just a few. Having the opportunity doesn't mean I want to take advantage of it. And even if I want to take advantage of it, I may not be qualified.

Apart from those relatively exceptional examples given above (exceptional because only a select few men and women even consider pursuing those opportunities), women face choices every day. Choices that are difficult enough to make based on our own circumstances and preferences without concerning ourselves with what others might think of them. Making a choice that is different from another woman's does not mean I am undermining an entire movement. And if it does, it's probably not a movement that interests me.

My second objection to the feminist movement pertains to advocacy - specifically, that as a woman I should act as an advocate for other women. Instead, I work for change on behalf of my own choices. I don't presume to act on anyone's behalf but my own.

When I was in second grade, I wanted to participate in the spelling bee sponsored by the local newspaper (leading to the Scripps National Spelling Bee). Participation was limited to fourth and fifth-grade students. I asked the principal to allow me to participate, and she opened up the bee to all students, regardless of grade.

Was I an advocate? I suppose some would say so, given that not only was I granted the opportunity to participate, but so were my classmates (and future students in the lower grades). I think it would be more accurate to say that I was an advocate by example.

But I didn't seek out a perceived injustice and act on the behalf of others. Nor did I consider the participation constraints to be discrimination. I don't jump to the conclusion that simply because an opportunity is not yet available to me, it's because I'm not wanted.

I do know that there is much anecdotal and statistical evidence that gender discrimination persists, despite the advances made toward political, economic, and social equality. But I don't feel it's my place to act on behalf of other able-bodied and able-minded women - women who may not want me to act as their advocate (and likewise, I don't expect anyone to speak for me).

Nor do I look for discrimination where it may not exist; rather, as Stephen Covey stated in his Seven Habits, I seek first to understand, then to make myself understood. Doing so increases the strength of my position, whereas assuming that I have all the facts before speaking may very well dilute the strength of my position.

In addition to the points outlined above, I dislike labels that signify membership of a group (and imply acceptance of all planks in the platform of the group). And those are the reasons why I do not consider myself a feminist - either as part of the feminist movement or as an ideal.


Want to hear the other side? Read my argument HERE. (I'll say now that it is entirely accidental - and evidence of the whole 'great minds think alike' thing - that both Julie and I refer to 'feminazis' in our posts. We had not read each other's posts before publishing!)

Then go check out the other debates, on other hot topics, by following the links HERE.


A Perfect Post Momma K just e-mailed me to tell me that she chose the Call to Action post (Ordinary People) for her September Perfect Post Award. Aw, shucks... what to say? I'm honoured, of course.

But I think that the honour extends to everybody who responded to that call to action.

As of yesterday, there were over 60 contributions to the
Changing the World, One Blog at a Time list. You all rock. I have more links to add, and will keep adding as you send them in. I'll post the list on the sidebar (along with the Babies and Eros list, which I am still - still! - adding links to) on Tuesday.

Take a bow.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great argument. I agree with and support many of the issues of feminism and have been known to consider myself a feminist. However, fanaticism of any kind, for any cause frightens me. Anything can be taken too far and to your point, any time we use membership in a group or organization as an excuse to judge or separate ourselves from others, we've missed the point.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do consider myself a feminist, but only in the way it was originally intended, not the way the opposers have defined it. I am all for the straight-up support of equal treatment and opportunity for all. Feminism is merely under the umbrella of humanism in that it focuses specifically on equality for women. Some people have hijacked the movement with propoganda, extremism and hyper-sensitivity, but that doesn't mean I can't support the pure aspect of the cause. I don't believe in giving special treatment to women, and I don't think a woman is any less a feminist just because a more traditional role turned out to be the right path for her. I just merely support the idea of allowing women to pursue whatever path is right for them. If a supporter of the political movement bullies a woman into feeling like she can't choose to be a stay home mom, or if that supporter pushes for quotas to get unqualified women into the local fire department, then the very movement they claim to be apart of is undermined. This is what has tainted the political movement. The strongest proponents are sometimes the very antithesis of what a movement is all about.


1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious. Do you abstain from other such groups that promote advocacy for others - like NAACP, or the LLL (heh)...

I think that feminism has certainly gotten a bad rap and I don't feel as though women NEED to identify as a feminist, however, I do feel strongly about the idea of "helping" or supporting the work (i.e. GOOD) of others as it goes toward positive social change.

Be that me donating money, or walking in a march (highly unlikely for me these days, however, I wouldn't put it past myself).

As always Julie, I enjoy reading your intelligent thoughts on these issues.

2:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats on your well-deserved Perfect Post, HBM!

And to my homegirl, MGM...You never disappoint and have raised some excellent points about labeling one's self.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

K - nope, not a fan of those organizations or other advocacy groups, especially those that veer into extremism and/or wield a powerful political lobby (with all the corruption that comes with that). I value some of the work that they do, but I'm more of the "army of one" mentality.

And thank you - it is a pleasure to discuss intelligently with people whose opinions and minds I greatly respect.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Girlplustwo said...

Choices that are difficult enough to make based on our own circumstances and preferences without concerning ourselves with what others might think of them. Making a choice that is different from another woman's does not mean I am undermining an entire movement. And if it does, it's probably not a movement that interests me.

Um, YES. A resounding, screaming, YES.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Kelly Wolfe said...

i don't consider myself any kind of "ist." but i want equality for all. good for you. enjoyed your piece!


8:24 PM  
Blogger Mayberry said...

I still do consider myself a feminist, but your arguments are strong. As you said, equal opportunity is the key to it all. What you do with your opportunities is up to you, whether you're male, female, pink or polka-dotted.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Binky said...

To quote Ferris Bueller: "-Ism's, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in The Beatles, I just believe in me." Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I'd still have to bum rides off people." Maybe I shouldn't relate all deep, philisophical arguments to 80s theatrical releases, but there it is.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I could not agree with you more. Well said. I consider myself a person first, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that title.

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking posts. I must admit that I get a little uncomfortable with the whole feminism conversation. The older I get the less feministic I become. I think that's because my definition of feminism has changed as I get older. With each year I'm becoming more comfortable with myself and embracing different aspects of being a woman. I'm strong and sensitive, sexy but not slutty, kind but assertive, and educated but willing to be taught. HBM, you summed it up best with: "I want her to know that there is immeasurable value in being a woman, no matter what life she chooses. And that she should support other women in the lives that they choose."

9:46 AM  
Blogger OhTheJoys said...

I do call myself a feminist. Though it took serious consciousness raising to get me there. I am loathe to admit that in my young 20's a gorgeous, smart, amazing woman asked me to join her "salon" (it was back in the Utne Salon days) a.k.a. Feminist discussion group. I ACTUALLY said, "No. I can't be a feminist. I'm married." What a complete DORK!!! I ended up divorcing that first "practice" husband, getting a clue and amazingly, that woman is actually a friend today who forgives me for my silliness - though it mortifies me still.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with you that feminism is worthwhile cause as an ideal, but I also consider myself a feminist if only for the fact I still believe that women need to promote themselves and eachother and there is not a better medium for that.

10:17 AM  
Blogger ewe are here said...

I enjoyed both of your essays.

I don't think I've ever considered myself a 'feminist' in the original sense of the word. I've just always very strongly felt and believed that women should be able to do anything they want to in life, provided they develop the skills to do so, i.e., they should be treated just like men. This also includes the freedom to make choices about your life. When men make 'choices', they aren't asked to defend them; they aren't asked to consider how they're choices are going to effect other men. Whereas women frequently seem to divide themselves into camps that criticize other women that make different choices. (The most obvious divide being working moms and stay at home moms. You rarely hear the term working dad.... Sigh.)

BTW, I also detest the term feminazi. I think it's most often used by people who want to marginalize women who dare to ask for equal opportunities in society. I always wonder what happens when these people have daughters of their own....do they really want their own kids to be treated like second class citizens when it comes to opportunity? (Sadly, I know the answer to this one from personal experience; my bio dad always made fun of women lawyers. So I, of course, was compelled to thumb my nose at him and go to law school. ;-)

10:20 AM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

I think that I can speak for both Julie and I in saying that we also abhor the term 'feminazi'... part of my point was that at a younger and more impressionable age I was frustrated and angry enough to accept the term - if feminazi meant pissing off people like Buddy, then bring it on. But it was precisely that angry, extreme edge of feminism that turned me off - the judgmental 'you're with us or against us' edge that excluded some women as not 'pure' enough in their feminism (and that sometimes veered toward man-hating). The term is vile because it connotes hate - but it was that hateful edge of feminism (and it's always there, at the dark corners of any ism) that touched a nerve for me.

My struggle with feminism has been to find the power in feminism that doesn't rely upon extreme anger - it was for that reason that I told the story about being called a feminazi, and about wanting to find away to reject the very idea of the feminazi.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Ruth Dynamite said...

I consider myself a feminicey.

Great essays, both of you. Very thought-provoking!

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely. My point was that I do not object to the feminist movement based on those tired old arguments, but on a more cerebral, more personal level. I think name-calling and use of derogatory terms such as "feminazi" say more about the name-caller than about the target.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Sandra said...

Loved both posts - lots to think about.

I do identify myself as a feminist although I am much much less angry than I was when I was younger! And like HBM, I think even more about it now that I have Monkeygirl. I want her to grow up not even having to worry about many of the issues that I lived with.

One question that I am pondering that arose out of your post. Can we (royal "we") really be just acting solely on our own behalf when we are part of a minority group and the majority group sees us as representative of that group? Ideally, we should just be able to operate on our own behalf but if/when we are perceived by the "other" in power/influence as representative, don't we end up representing that group whether we like it or not?

Here's an example from corporateland. Guy in senior position screws up a project. Response: We'll never give Joe something that big to handle again. Woman in senior position screws up a project: See, women just can't handle that level of responsibility.

The ideal for some may be to operate on their own but the reality for now may be that they reflect a particular group.

1:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've opted to comment on this one before getting to HBM's (so I don't get lazy and say "what she said";-) as I think I might)

I think you articulate very well the fundamental reservation people have with the term "femininism" and the general tendency "I'm not a femininist, but..."
I've been a reader of your blog for a while now, and I would without reservation refer to you as a feminist bloggeord=teamcanada

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mamalooper, thanks for the feedback. Changing mindsets takes time. Generalizations like the example you gave piss me off too. They're unfair and untrue, and I've called bullshit on them (politely, of course) at various times in my own professional life. And I think that's what it takes - performing well, setting precedents, and calling bullshit on the dinosaurs. I think the same is true for other instances of discrimination as well.

I understand what you mean about acting as an involuntary representative, and I think you're right that it comes with the territory. My actions - as I'm fighting my own fight - may have a resulting impact on others. But the impetus for those actions - the motivation behind them - was my own. If it helps others too, that's great.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Newsweek's "Women and Leadership" issue your point Julie was echoed by nearly all of the powerful women chosen for the issue. Most of the women achieved success by doing their personal best and not as part of a female agenda.

Of course, had it not been for the women who lead the feminist movement and created massive transformation we would not have women in positions of power and influence. Because of the success of women before us we continue to achieve not with the feminine qualifier, but just as a person and as a result we effect change for the betterment of us all.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

shit, i had a nice long comment and then blogger went down as I was submitting.

in a nutshell (if I can ever do that). I think you articulate the ambivalence surrounding the term really well--the "I'm not a feminist but..." kind of statement. As someone who reads your blog, I would call you a feminist blogger without hesitation, but I think that's because my concept of "feminism" is different to yours. Yes, it's a label for overt political advocacy for women, but for me feminism refers to more than just that. If you believe that gender inequity exists and that it is unjust, then you are a feminist in my book.

however, and this is where we might part ways, I also believe that gender inequity is the result of social and collective forces, and not individual action. So combatting the problem requires a collective response. When I vent on my blog about how people treat me as a pregnant women, on one level this is a personal rant, even a bit of confessional gossip, on another level it is a form of feminist advocacy. My experience is part of a larger social context, and when people say "I hear you" we are coming together to collectively voice opposition. OK, so we're not directly lobbying for policy change, but it's advocacy nonetheless. I also aspire to be part of a movement that does go a step further and push for leglislative/systemic change (which is the part you are uncomfortable with). But this movement is just one aspect/strand of feminism, not the face of it.

nice post, MG--we need more debate like this.

5:09 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Ooooooh Julie...thought provoking as I would have expected! I love your example about the spelling bee and you make some good points. But I have to disagree (of course) with the notion that it's not your place to act on behalf of other people.

Perhaps I'm confusing your comment - that you personally don't feel the calling. If so, so be it. But if your intention is to say that you don't feel that one should act on behalf of others, I think society and progress sort of falls apart there.

Most women--nay, most people--need advocates. They are not as able of body and mind as the rest. 38% of this country thinks that Sadam Hussein struck us on 9/11. So how many of those people know how to fight for equal pay? For justices they deserve? For benefits that workers are entitled to, not just the ones who know they are.

You may not want that person to be you who fights for this, but I'm glad there are people who do this very thing.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz, this is probably where we start to diverge in terms of our views on social responsibility. It's not so much that I don't feel like I should act as an advocate for others, but that I don't want anyone presuming to act as an advocate for me. I'll fight my own battles (and enlist my own troops, to carry on the military metaphor) - and maybe I'll join up with someone else's battle, but I don't want someone telling me "Hey, I'm fighting for YOU, so you'd better agree with me." Likewise, I would never presume to do the same to someone else.

Does that clear it up, or have I muddied the waters further?

6:33 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

I understand entirely. Fair enough. It does make one feel weak in a way, to hear that someone is fighting for "you"--rather uncomfortable, agreed. But I wonder if there's any distinction if the issue is one you care about or don't.

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But my Mom told me that she was never allowed to play sports. Do you know how *significant* that is? Most of us are not old enough to remember the world before bra-burning and feminism changed things forever. Title 19, if nothing else, is an incredibly important piece of legislation that has radically improved all of our lives. And if no one gave a damn for anyone but themselves, what a sad world this would be. People who consider themselves "advocates" have done a significant amount of social good in the past 30 years. Just THINK what this country would look like without the Voting Rights Act or any of the other social programs created in the 1960s?

I'll stop now.


11:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rachael, I'm not sure that you understood me correctly. I certainly do care about others, but I'm not going to tell them what THEY should care about. Or that if they don't care about the same stuff I do, that they are wrong.

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love what you say and how you say it. You totally deserve the Perfect Post.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While my views are more in line with HBM, I have to say this was well written, and I certainly respect your views mothergoosemouse.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're probably right... I misunderstood your point. If all you're saying is that you don't believe you can tell others what to care about, than I agree. However, my concern is that sometimes (I'm not saying this is the case with you) an unwillingness to press others into caring about something they may not naturally be inclined to care about might lapse into total inaction. I get that feminists can be totally over the top, wrong, and judgmental. But I'm still incredibly grateful for those people who've stood up thus far in history to make a difference for society and for me and my daughters. And btw it was Title 9, not Title 19 (I was tired).

Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Rachael. I think you're right on about the possibility of lapsing into inaction - figuring that the world will never change, so why fight it. I could never condone such a defeatist mentality (which is why I get frustrated with people who don't vote!).

7:36 PM  
Blogger Bea said...

MGM, I think the crux of this discussion is the aspect you and Mom-101 have been throwing back and forth here - the issue of individual vs. collective action. I think I must see the world very differently from you: I don't think I see anyone as an "army of one" - I see all of us leaning on one another in various ways, needing others' support and advocacy and then in turn being able to support and advocate on behalf of others.

And yet my gut instinct is to say that there is something balancing and corrective in your perspective - I think the world would be poorer if everybody thought the way you do, but it would be a whole lot crazier if everybody thought the way I do.

(Or am I just saying that individualists and collectivists actually need one another to correct their respective excesses, in which case I'm just displaying yet further evidence of my collective thinking?)

10:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really liked this post very much. It made me think back to my mom's day. She once told me that while she feels it's a woman's right to make choices about her career and her education and religious beliefs, she feels that the Feminist movement really screwed things up for many women. My mother never wanted to be a career woman. In 1969 she graduated high school and went to college because the "feminists" were so adament on women going to college. She became a teacher and when she met my father she quit to be a stay at home mother. But then later took a job to "help support the family" because that was the thing to do in the 70's. She regrets not sticking to her beliefs. She's grateful for the choices of the women of today, but back then it was more a political action if anything.

I hope I never have to feel that way.

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

B&P, what I mean by "army of one" is that I don't ever EXPECT anyone else to go to bat for me. I'm glad that people have been willing to act as advocates for me, but I'd never expect someone else to put themselves on the line for my benefit. Especially when they think they know better about what I want or don't want.

Dana, thanks.

3:13 PM  

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