Sunday, 2 October 2011

What do we ask of one another when we ask one another to identify as feminist?

I recently came across a blog post - which, annoyingly, I can't find now - that reminded me a lot of this well-known discussion of self-identifying as a feminist: Yes, You Are. It's a fantastic piece and I recommend you read the whole thing but the key message is this:

If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist.

Yes, you are.

In other words, whether you like it or not, whether you agree or not, whether you choose to adopt the label or not, if you believe in gender equality then you are a feminist. This position is one that I've always enthusiastically agreed with, and I try to advocate for wherever possible; I dislike the idea that "feminist" is an exclusive label reserved for those who read Judith Butler, or who march to take back the night, or who use 'Ms' rather than 'Miss'. I still feel this way, and even though there are deep divisions of thought within the broad movement of feminism, I believe there's space for us all around the big, diverse, feminist table.

But lately I've been thinking. When I know someone self-identifies as a feminist, I tend to expect (or at least hope for) a little more from them than if they didn't. I'm more likely to invite them to a rally or protest, and more likely to feel disappointed if they don't want to come. I'm more likely to start a conversation with them about an issue of gender inequality, and more likely to feel disappointed if I find they don't see it the same way. I expect them not to use sexist language, not to make sexist jokes, rape jokes, or jokes about domestic violence, and not to enable people who do. So there's a conflict here: while on the one hand I want to say that the bar for self-identifying as a feminist is set really low, so low that most people qualify for it, on the other hand when someone does accept that self-definition, suddenly the bar has risen. That seems unfair.

Imagine the following conversation -

A: You believe in equality, right? So why don't you call yourself a feminist?
B: Fair enough. Okay, I am a feminist. Now I'm going to go and watch that film with that hilarious attempted rape scene.
A: What? How can you watch that? I thought you were a feminist!

See? Problem.

One of the things that prompted this train of thought was a post from a feminist blogger in the wake of the UK Feminista Summer School earlier this year. Here, Madam J Mo writes:

... Matt’s Powerpoint display flashed up the overused image of Bill Bailey wearing Fawcett’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt. This is an image that most people agree has been publicised to death because it’s, like, a funny man, and he’s wearing a feminist t-shirt, titter titter. But shockingly the giggles in the room were fresh – many people seemed not to have seen this photo before. But how could they have missed it? It’s been all over Fawcett’s website for a verrrrrry long time, and it’s all over the internet. The only way they could have missed it was if (gulp) they had never been to the Fawcett website. But they’re feminists. How could they NOT have been to the Fawcett website? (The tailback of implications here is terrifying, considering all of the attendees at the conference were self-identifying feminists.)

Personally, I don't find it terrifying that someone who identifies as a feminist may never have been on the Fawcett website. I think it's very probable that there are many awesome feminists who don't even know what the Fawcett Society is. But I wonder whether Madam J Mo fell into the same trap I described above - wanting anyone who looks fondly upon gender equality to identify as a feminist, then expecting more of them when they do so. And if I'm wrong about that, I wonder what her criteria for qualifying as a feminist include, apart from visiting the Fawcett website.

I guess the conclusion to be drawn here is that perhaps that we should try to be aware of this problem when we talk to other self-identifying feminists, and, if our goal is to ensure that all people who are feminists identify as such, we should try not to expect too much of them. I know that conclusion sounds thoroughly depressing in some ways, but I don't see how it does any good to alienate rather than accommodate those people whose feminism doesn't identically match our own.

I find it easier to come to terms with this solution when I think about the development of my own feminism. If I met a self-identifying feminist who spouted the thoughts and ideas that I did at 14, I might feel that her brand of feminism was somehow incomplete or sub-par. I might feel disappointed in her lack of radicalism or her failure to let her feminist principles influence her day-to-day life and relationships. But if, when I was 14, someone I saw as a fellow feminist had condescended to me like that, told me I was doing it wrong, suggested I hadn't earned the title of feminist - well, that could have put me off identifying as one for good, and I never would have ended up where I am now. And I still don't have all the answers; my views are constantly shifting and developing, as I hope most people's are. We aren't entitled to feel disappointed in other people's feminism because there is no single perfect form of feminism for us to unify around. So I suppose, as much as it galls me to say it, you can go off and enjoy that godawful film and still identify as a feminist. Because neither I nor anyone else has the authority to say you can't.


  1. I think you’re highlighting an interesting problem for feminists, Helen. My feeling is that as feminists- and I identify as a feminist- we may have been so keen to convince other people that they’re feminists, that we forgot to step back and think about what this really means.

    We’ve basically reduced the term ‘feminist' to meaning simply ‘someone that’s for equality of the sexes.' Ok, yes, that’s essentially true. But we don’t necessarily talk to those people who reluctantly embrace the label ‘feminist’ about the implications of this, both in terms of our everyday lives as feminists, and more broadly the means and ends of how we envisage achieving an equal society. Maybe because we’re not that sure ourselves!

    Once could argue that we’re so keen to convince people to become feminists that we’ve neutralised the term, make it more palatable, but robbing it of its radical potential in the process. I think this is a response to the challenge of ‘post-feminism’; we so wanted to convince people that feminism was alive and well that we didn’t think hard enough about how to make the term meaningful.

    In the process, what we’ve accidentally done- I fear!- is play into the hands of anti-feminists by making the label ‘feminist’ a catch-all term for anyone that feels they’re ‘for the equality of the sexes’. So people can claim all kinds of decisions are predicated on ‘feminist’ principles, even if they don’t look very feminist close up. Of course, this is also one of the challenges of ‘post-feminism’ which claims that we’re all feminist now and commits all kinds of horrors apparently under the influence of feminist ideas... and so we’re back to square one again and where we go from there, I have no idea.

  2. Interesting points, both in the blog and the comment above. While I am in no way qualified to discuss this on a level beyond the immediately obvious, I thought I might weigh in on a few points (so... you know, disregard as you see fit).

    It seems that there is a conflation of feminist and 'equalitarian', a category I'll readily admit to inventing in a wine induced haze. I'll readily admit to being the latter, in that it is a sub-set of my already liberal egalitarian instincts. Someone who perceives that women have just an important contribution to society as men do, and perhaps more importantly, someone who believes that gender (as well as certain other characteristics such as race, sexual persuasion etc.) should not preclude ambitions in any life goals.

    From this, there are two (from my perspective) important qualifications. First is the recognition that gender is still an issue from a societal perspective due to the hangover (and that is an apt description) of tradition. The headaches of traditionally assigned gender roles combine with the nausea caused by all too familiar stereotypes (on all sides), and lead us to the familiar promise of teetotalism...before we get tempted again.

    The second is the question: if feminisim is not, in fact, equal to equalitarianism (which I admit I have not offered any proof for), then what is it? Positive discrimination which would specify gender proportions in boardrooms? Tax credits for women that raise children, regardless of marital or employment status? And if someone agrees with these in a narrow moral sense - i.e. agree that, ceteris paribus, these are good things, if they disagree on a wider moral sense - i.e. other aspects of society should be considered such that they are held to be equally important as gender equality, where does one draw the line? This applies both to self definition as feminist and a wider question of priority.

    As it stands, I am not in a position to consider this to a deeper level, due to my aforementioned lack of qualifications, and previously unmentioned lack of sleep. Good post though Ms. V.I., it's not often I read something I feel the need to comment on. I hope it made sense!