May 17 2009

The Bad Feminist

[picture from the fab Jackie Fleming]

OK, this isn’t exactly about science, although it does have relevance, but I have to blog about this rather than just have drunken rows with feminists in the pub about it. The Observer today has an article representing an ongoing debate/discussion/all-out war within British and American feminism at the moment, one which is regularly crudely characterised as ‘old’ second-wave feminism against ‘young’ third wave/post feminism.

Firstly, to divide feminism up like this is crude, simplistic, adversarial and damaging. Feminisms have always existed, it is not a monolith, there are not keepers of the flame, if you don’t believe me ask any black feminist, Marxist feminist, Feminist Marxist, liberal feminist, Muslim feminist, postmodern feminist, eco-feminist, anarcho-feminist, etc etc yawn etc.

I agree that sexual liberation does not equal emancipation, this is as true for gay politics as for women. I agree that we have a pornification of Western culture (I use that word for US/UK as I can’t speak for Europe etc). I agree that sexual objectification has been packaged, branded and resold to women by a sophisticated Western Capitalism. And I agree that selfish individualism is damaging for feminism which is built on solidarity, activism and an analysis of power whether cultural, economic, religious, social etc.


I am deeply suspicious of feminists telling women that they are not feminists. Firstly, there are not enough of us and we are not winning, so let’s not become arrogant, superior and exclusionary. Secondly, sexual liberation is a very important part of emancipation and sex is a very important part of life for most people. And yet feminist sexual liberation has mutated into looking at what you’re doing and how you’re doing it rather than what you want and your freedom to choose.

Some feminists have become deeply chauvinistic towards, often younger, women who define themselves as feminists. I think this is really exposed by Julie Bindel referring to them as “lazy, bone-idle women” who “can’t claim to be a feminist simply because you’re a woman”. There is nothing lazy or bone-idle about calling yourself a feminist, it is still a difficult thing to do as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of women in this country do not want to associate themselves with that word. I have no time for the idea that women ‘can’t claim to be a feminist’ as though there is a governing body of feminism that you have to apply to be let into the old boy’s girl’s network. Aren’t we replicating male forms of power here? Are we continuing to tell women what to think, how to dress, how to have sex and what to say? That isn’t why I’m a feminist. I want women to be emancipated not simply live, dress and fuck in a way I want them to.

I am also particularly concerned by the false generation divide that is being created which is deeply patronising and alienating. I have personally encountered this – older feminists dismissing me as young and naïve and not respecting their god-given right to dictate the rules of feminism to me. This is particularly stinging for me given how much I have educated myself in the feminist canon. Given that at 16 years old I was reading Kate Millett while my friends were getting fingered. This is the ultimate adoption of patriarchal power-dynamics and will lead to young feminists rejecting feminism rather than critically engaging with it.

You cannot fossilise political discourse. Feminism is not an ideology it is an analysis of power. And attempting to stop women calling themselves feminists because they are revelling in their sexual promiscuity is as redundant as the Christian Right trying to enforce chastity. That genie is out of the bottle, so how are we going to engage in it. Call these women traitors? Or think how can sexual liberation can continue to be a force for further emancipation?

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that while we’re all having this little inter-feminist war the rest of the world is not listening. Girls are still acid attacked in Afghanistan for going to school. Women and girls are still being raped in shocking numbers in South Africa. As uncovered in the New Scientist, female foetuses are being sex-selectively aborted in Vietnam. Now is not the time to push feminists out of our ever-decreasing circle. If you don’t think sex-feminists are feminist enough, why don’t you tell them to get involved in women’s rights in the global South, raise money for their local rape crisis shelter or stand for election – that will be far more helpful than calling them tarts and traitors. There are enough men out there to do that for us.

Yet again, it is the bloggers at the F Word that make the best contribution to this debate. Do you think that’s because bloggers engage in debate and embrace the principles of open discussion, the free-flow of ideas and encourage arguments to be picked apart, dissected and put back together again? I think so.