Rehabilitating Feminism

Rehabilitating Feminism

Jacob Little
Jacob Little

Several years ago, I came across a video of Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz on Youtube where he explained the difference between Islam and Islamism. Islam, he explained, is a personal faith shared by much of the world’s population, and it enriches a person’s life with meaning, purpose, and community. Islamism is the belief that that personal faith should be implemented as law for the rest of the world to follow. It is, in other words, the belief that government should be an extension of Islam.

This is what a nuanced and evolving rhetoric can do for us. In making this distinction, Nawaz was able to give me clarity on a subject that I’d previously found incredibly muddy, all by articulating and naming a difference between two groups of people who claimed the same name for themselves. It allowed me to realize that I wasn’t concerned about the religion itself, but with the ideology that attempted to inflict that religion upon on everyone else. I had been conflating and confusing the two, which, when I wasn’t careful, resulted in demonizing the religion. Nawaz offered me clarity when he offered me a label, a distinction that had otherwise been blurred.

Of late, feminism has given me many similarly disorienting problems. And it seems I’m not the only one. Several polls in recent years have demonstrated that only around 20% of the American public refers to themselves as either a “strong feminist” or a “feminist,” (YouGov Poll, Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll). But when asked in these same polls if they believe that men and women should be social, political, and economic equals, the numbers flipped. Around 80% of the respondents answered in the affirmative, and only 9% said no.

Perhaps this strange disconnect in the polls is due primarily to the public simply misunderstanding the feminist movement or its purpose. It’s probably at least part of the problem. But I think the most likely (and much larger) problem is that contemporary feminism has regularly advocated for policies and used rhetoric that has led large swaths of the American public to believe that feminism is about something different than gender equality. Words (especially those in the political sphere) often have a short shelf-life if they are not used consistently by their advocates in the public and private sphere, and/or if they are not continually backed up with action that proves the definition.

In other words, it seems clear that most honest onlookers believe that feminism has jumped the proverbial shark. This jumping the shark isn’t just a publicity problem for feminists, but a public policy problem that is resulting in unjust policies for everyone. Right wing politicians use prominent self-identified feminists like Lena Dunham as a weapon against female concerns (abortion and birth control rights have both taken large hits recently). And in liberal havens like university campuses, due process is becoming a distant memory due to the absurd rhetoric of similar, self-identified feminists.

Despite (and perhaps because of) its weaponization on the political extremes, I believe that we should refuse to surrender the word feminism or abandon those who continue to fight reasonably and passionately for its causes. As a society, we should be grateful for, awed, and humbled by what feminism has accomplished. It, along with the civil rights movement, has improved civilization to a degree that I’d be hard-pressed to credit to virtually any other ideological movement other than maybe Skepticism (although this is a stupid contest to play—thank goodness for all of them). And feminism still has a great deal to contribute.

But because of the inconsistencies, the equivocating, the harmful, regressive, and reductionist rhetoric and policies, feminism has gained a body of critics and opponents much larger and more reasonable than the 9% who don’t believe that men and women should be equal. And these opponents (some with misguided good intentions, others…not so much) of feminist proposals have used this attention-seeking, senseless group of so-called “feminists” as a way to dismiss feminism as a whole. Though this conflation is understandable, it is harmful to a society that still needs to get better at real equality in every regard. Instead of dismissing the movement altogether or pretending like there isn’t a problem, critics and advocates alike should get better at defining and explaining what feminism is meant to do.

Current Labels

Feminism, by its classic definition, is the advocacy for gender equality. Indeed, this is what most feminists seem to claim for themselves. But there also seems to be a distinctly toxic, misguided group of feminists who are equivocating; noticeably using different definitions and rhetoric in every context other than when directly prompted for a definition, thus attempting to move the goalposts guiding their own behavior and beliefs.

In order to clarify my thoughts on the distinction between the definition and the equivocators, I tried to locate a currently existing label or articulation of the difference between a healthy feminism and what seems to be a more toxic, dangerous division. I did so because we need to be able to weed out feminism from its emerging drunken-cousin ideology, and to do so requires the proper vocabulary. What I found, upon looking, is that a convenient vocabulary doesn’t exist.

Many of the current labels simply identify different “waves” of feminism. These waves of feminism identify generations of feminism more than anything else. These generations were unique in how they focused on problems in public policy and stated new priorities for feminism to focus on. This focus on priorities seems to be the most common type of identifier for different feminist labels. “First-class feminism,” one such modern label, is a critique about the priorities that, say, rich celebrity feminists tend to espouse over “more important” feminist issues. “Intersectional feminism” also attempts to address some of the problems with the priorities of upper-class feminism by identifying different groups of women by how vulnerable they are to political and societal prejudices.

These concerns about priorities are useful labels for critique and discussion for those both within and outside feminism, but they don’t address the kind of division in purpose that I see emerging in the contemporary feminist movement.

In an attempt not unrelated to my own, Christina Hoff Sommers has created an alternative, “healthy” feminist label which helps her to define what “type” of feminist she is (theoretically setting herself in opposition to whatever feminists in general are doing). Hoff Sommers declares herself a “freedom feminist,” which she contends is just “classic feminism.” A more contemporary description of her stance might be that it is something like a libertarian feminist ideology. She argues fervently that men and women often want different things, and that this shows up in things like career path choices; that this is only natural. She also argues that the burdens and benefits of gender in American society tend to fluctuate.

This, too, is a useful and interesting label, but it is an oddly specific self-definition, not a label intended for others to use or open enough to be useful to those who differ even slightly from her views. In addition, Hoff Sommers implies, by the very invention of a term for herself, that the rest of the feminist movement is so corrupt that her only recourse is to start a new movement, or perhaps to identify herself as a lone, sane branch under a widening umbrella. I disagree, fervently, with either intended strategy. Feminism does not need to be destroyed and rebuilt. And further, it already has sane and dedicated people fighting for it in ethical and essential ways. To suggest otherwise probably means one isn’t looking too hard.

And we should look hard, because it is essential to have a healthy, motivated feminist movement that fights for equality. Feminism is, at the moment, in danger of being consumed from within due to an intoxicated set of ideas, but those who would recommend destroying or condemning it altogether have likely forgotten all it has done and is still doing for women. They are also likely to be erecting straw-man versions of the movement based on the loudest, most obnoxious voices.

Cognitive Reminder #1: Straw Man: If you get all your information about feminists from the internet instead of real life, you’re not really trying all that hard to understand feminism (“knowing” feminists who say things you dislike on Facebook doesn’t count—try talking to feminists about feminist issues in real life).

Cognitive Reminder #2: Sturgeon’s Law. Even if (very improbably and pessimistically) 80% of the contemporary feminist movement is crap, there is still 20% that isn’t, and it is infinitely worth the effort of restoring to prominence.

Instead of letting the parasitical forces within the movement redefine what feminism has always been or giving its cultural and historical cache away to the very arsonists who are hijacking it, we should give a name to the interlopers who want to corrupt it. A name that identifies them for what they are: something distinctly other than feminists.

Give it a Name

In order to reform or rehabilitate feminism, we need to be able to consistently identify its hijackers with a universally recognized name. This isn’t about rebuilding or building anew an institution that still stands. The institution just needs some sobering up so it (and we) can better distinguish the tumor from the organs. The sobering up can only start when we can clearly articulate what the problem is. We shouldn’t do this by focusing on feminism’s disparate priorities or by focusing on specific feminist policies that we disagree with and condemning the whole movement for said policy disagreements; there is infinite room for disagreement on issues and priorities. Instead, feminism should be separated from its cancer by its goals, some stated, some implicit.

Healthy feminism’s goal is exactly what many feminists have long argued it is: working for gender equality. It is important to remind ourselves what “equality” is referring to: status, rights, and opportunities. So, to be as explicit as possible: feminism is a movement that fights for gender equality in status, rights, and opportunities. Reasonable people on all sides will disagree about what this equality should look like. This disagreement is healthy and appropriate. Healthy feminists recognize that equality is almost never a zero-sum game; creating effective protections and opportunities for women often means helping men by extension.

We’ve seen this demonstrated, for example, in mandatory parental leave policies, which are gaining more traction than mandatory maternity leave policies ever did. This is because, while they both recognize and attempt to correct a unique gender inequality in the workplace, parental leave offers gender-neutral protections. It not only opens up the workplace to women, but it also opens up domestic life to men.

The other group of feminists, whose ideology I identify as “feminology,” has altogether different goals from feminism. Their purpose isn’t equality, but dominance, prominence, or “statistical equality.”

It should be clear why gender dominance and prominence of any kind are bad ideas. But the goal for a militant, surface-level sameness is equally pernicious, unrelenting, and counter-productive. Statistical equality tends to end up encouraging gender dominance, from a sideways angle. This is due to feminologists believing that equality means “the same” in all contexts. But it doesn’t. Feminologists believe that the “equal status” part of the equality definition means something like “equal hierarchy, prominence, or ranking.” When you view it in this toxic way, ranking one’s gender becomes a fairly blunt statistical competition. But in reality — in the context of human rights — “equal status” means something closer to “equal respect, worth, or dignity.” This is altogether harder to measure, which is probably why it’s less appealing for feminologists, who (understandably) want an easy way to demonstrate the depth of the problem.

Feminology’s obsession with numerical equality might also be the result of a much broader societal problem of abusing statistics as an end point instead of an opening. This is a dangerous misunderstanding of data. Data should not simply be used as irrefutable proof of inequality or some larger truth, but as a tool which can help us learn whether numbers are noise or natural, symptoms or causes. Data is not a fact. It always requires interpretation. And those interpretations of data are often faulty, because “the truth” is often difficult, undesirable, or counter-intuitive.

For example, instead of viewing unequal (in this context meaning “un-same”) numbers in employment or pay as signals of possible unequal opportunities, rights, or respect (a symptom of injustice elsewhere), feminologists often see unequal numbers as the actual injustice. A feminologist might have you believe, for example, that the only reason that women and men have unequal pay (across career fields, job tiers, education training, etc.) is that women are paid less for the same work. Or that men in the STEM fields are hostile and exclusionary towards women. These interpretations of the data are absurdly simplistic. They are factors in the statistical gap, to be sure, though almost certainly a small part of it. But because feminologists view un-same numbers as the injustice itself, they often get tunnel vision about how to fix the problem. Unequal pay? Just write a law mandating equal pay. The problem is, when your view of a problem is simplistic and inaccurate, your attempt to fix it will be, as well.

If feminologists are able to step back a bit from their statistical-interpretation-as-reality worldview, they may also decide to assert that the real problem goes back further, and that a reason women are paid less is because it has been suggested to them, implicitly or explicitly, by teachers, parents, and friends alike that certain fields, careers, or life goals are inappropriate for women to pursue. This is almost certainly a much bigger chunk of that statistical gap. However, the possible solutions are a lot murkier and require wading into the waters of ideal cultural norms.

But even that suggestion of possible causes by feminologists will purposefully ignore the possibility that women are often given equal opportunities for promotions or careers in particular fields, but are more likely to willingly choose some alternative to those promotions or careers than men are (this is not to assert that this is universally the case or even largely the case — but even data we don’t like must be acknowledged as at least part of the statistical gap).

A feminist can and should acknowledge this possibility of average gender differences, and correct for it or explain it away when advocating for change. They should do this because they don’t (and hopefully society as a whole doesn’t) always equate “different” with “unequal.” To a feminist, it is possible for genders to have equal rights, respect, and opportunities, but different statistical choices and outcomes than men, on average, in any given field. But to feminologists, regardless of context, “equality” means “the same,” instead of just being positively correlated. Which means they simply won’t rest until every single number matches up in their favor. Acknowledging even small, average differences between genders is, to feminology, an affront to their version of “equality.”

A similarly alarming consequence of feminology: a fight for statistical equality very easily becomes a fight against men. To feminology, women’s successes almost always come at the expense of men. In treating equality as just a crusade for statistical equality between men and women, it is just as productive to harm men as it is to help women. In fact, it’s infinitely and objectively easier to harm men than it is to help women, which is why misandry is so prevalent in this group. One could appear to immediately help women if one were to (to take it to a logical extreme) cut men’s STEM employment numbers in half while not increasing women’s STEM employment numbers at all. The percentages would look a lot better for gender statistical equality. But this wouldn’t actually help a single woman (in addition to whatever damage was done to the actual work or the reputation and relationships of all the women employed in those fields, etc.).

For this reason, feminology is particularly popular with people who want immediate, easy change. Often, they are simply advocating for the appearance of change at absolutely everyone’s expense. Feminologists tend to ignore the fact that deep, effective change (especially that of the cultural variety) can take years, a lifetime, maybe even generations. So instead of doing the hard work that real feminists have done and continue to do, feminologists employ their destructive zero-sum game, where their goal is “women-first” or “women-only” policies instead of policies that promote equality. You’ll often hear feminologists ridicule men’s rights for just this reason: gender rights, to them, is a contest to be won, and because women on average have more problems than men on average, men’s problems shouldn’t be addressed or acknowledged at all.

One example of feminology’s damaging “women-only” advocacy is modern domestic abuse policy. Instead of promoting equal rights, status, and opportunities regardless of gender for domestic abuse victims, feminologists have lobbied for gender-specific protections that leaves men and boys with no shelters or advocates when placed in the exact same dangerous and ugly situations. Years of feminology propaganda in this realm have left boys in a scary situation; there are very few shelters that allow male victims of domestic abuse (the first ever male-only shelter just opened in the U.S. in October of last year), and what limited shelters allow men, most of them don’t allow men over the age of sixteen, despite the fact that the median age of male victims of domestic abuse is forty. This isn’t to say that domestic abuse equally affects men and women. It doesn’t. But an equal opportunity shelter would protect male and female victims, and would likely improve public perception, generate better public and private funding, and increase effectiveness in its community. We also know that violence can be viewed as contagious; if men don’t get help for violence perpetrated against them, they are much more likely to become violent themselves. In other words, gender-exclusive protections harm both genders (although perhaps not proportionally), often in ways that endanger human lives.

But, of course, we’d be remiss if we forgot to credit feminism for identifying interpersonal violence as a unique societal problem in the first place. There are many more contributions like this for feminism to make going forward, but only if it actually practices what it preaches: equality, not statistical uniformity.

The Danger of a Name

It’s important to bear in mind that the labels and distinctions I’ve laid out above are not perfect. They, like every other part of our language, get blurred when scrutinized from too close or too far away. This imperfection is a problem because many of our institutions have been built (often unconsciously) in a way that favors men, and sometimes in ways we will need help to perceive. The equaling out that needs to happen in, for example, politics or STEM fields may feel harmful to many who are used to another way of doing things. Some aspects of equality do, naturally, require redirecting resources focused on men (for example, more teacher-attention and interpersonal encouragement for girls in math and science may, by extension, mean less interpersonal attention and encouragement for boys in those same areas).

In other words, the perception of harm to men on a micro level does not mean that equality is not being enhanced at the macro level. We should listen carefully when feminists explain why institutions and environments may have been designed in ways that exclude them. Aside from it being the right thing to do, equaling out the playing field for women will increase the efficacy and effectiveness of our society as a whole (by building gender-neutral protections into the education system, we might also enhance opportunities for lower-class boys or racial, sexual, and religious minorities, for example). Again, seeking equality is rarely a zero-sum game. Especially at the macro level.

There will, in fact, be many policies for which feminists will advocate that may strike some opponents as unreasonably preferential to women or harmful to men. But if we judiciously insist upon the distinctions that I have attempted to set out, then those feminists will have to make lucid arguments for why their policy would enhance gender equality over gender dominance or uniformity; arguments for why the currently existing policies are harmful to women or unreasonably preferential to men.

We should not ridicule the priorities of feminists (we are all convicted to push for progress in different places — thank goodness) or insist that things are actually pretty great for women already. These strategies are counter-productive and insulting. Instead, we should listen carefully and ask questions about feminism’s policy ideas to learn how gender equality might be enhanced.

We must use these distinctions with care. Labels are most effective when used as a scalpel, not a hammer. Feminologists should not be ridiculed or insulted, but convinced. If we turn the word feminology into an insult, then we will simply shut down discussion upon identifying it. Instead, we should clearly and carefully identify the differences between feminist and feminology policies, and argue passionately for the superiority of feminist goals over feminologist ones.

Art and CultureFeminism

Jacob Little

Jacob Little is a PhD Candidate at Ohio University and the Managing Editor of Profane, a journal of challenging literary writing.