If you list all of the many thousands of words and phrases that can be used to describe someone’s personality, in English or in any other language, you will find that certain clusters begin to form. A word like ‘calm’ will likely be applied to someone who can also be described as ‘stable’ or ‘measured’ or ‘cool headed.’ So too someone who is ‘withdrawn’ will often also be ‘reserved,’ ‘dour,’ or ‘moody.’ Starting in the 1960s, psychologists began to systematically document these words and phrases and arrange them into a taxonomy. The result was the now famous Big Five personality model, which boils down all these descriptors to just five general traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each of our personalities can be meaningfully described with reference to these traits and research has demonstrated that they are both relatively stable across a person’s lifetime and hugely influential in determining certain life outcomes.
Of all of the Big Five, agreeableness is perhaps the most complex trait. It is, in a very basic sense, a lot like ‘niceness.’ Highly agreeable people tend to put the needs of others first, see the best in people, and act with sensitivity and tolerance. This makes them pleasant to be around: they’re warm, friendly, and generous spirited. Highly agreeable people tend to value agreeableness in others as well as in themselves.
But there are downsides to being highly agreeable. Because they are inclined to prioritise other people’s desires, agreeable people are often taken advantage of and, because they are conflict averse, they are unlikely to protest when this happens. Highly agreeable people are also more prone to groupthink and so may inadvertently cause harm when they are swept along by the madness of the crowd.
It has long been known that agreeableness is not evenly distributed between the sexes. The bell curve for women is roughly half a standard deviation further towards the ‘agreeable’ end of the spectrum than the bell curve for men. As with any normally distributed trait, these group differences are most apparent at the tails, with extremely agreeable people far more likely to be female, and extremely disagreeable people more likely to be male.
This sex difference could be a result of nature, or nurture, or a combination of both. Jordan Peterson is among those psychologists who have speculated on the evolutionary origins of female agreeableness, suggesting that this trait could have been selected for because infants with agreeable mothers were more likely to survive.
Socialisation is also likely to have some role to play. Socially desirable feminine behaviour is highly agreeable: sweet, caring, slow to anger, empathetic, and self-abnegating. Since agreeableness is such an obviously desirable trait in a wife and mother, it makes sense that girls should have been traditionally encouraged to cultivate this trait, not least by other girls and women.
As far as I’m concerned, the origins of this difference between the sexes don’t especially matter, at least not for my purposes here. The point is that there is a gap—and a substantial one—between men and women in this most crucial of traits. And it affects the feminist movement. After all, this is a movement composed overwhelmingly of women. It is also a movement that has changed dramatically over the last century, not least in its composition. The group of people who describe themselves as feminists is now far larger than ever before and, not coincidentally, the priorities of the movement have shifted as it has become more mainstream.
The feminists of the Second Wave were a small group of committed activists who were also very unusual people. Given the hostile reception they were often met with, they were by necessity women who could tolerate being unpopular. My educated guess would be that, in terms of the Big Five profile, the typical Second Wave feminist was likely to be both substantially higher in the openness trait and substantially less agreeable than the typical non-feminist woman. She would need to be, in order to be attracted to the radicalism of the movement in the first place, and in order to weather the storm of social disapproval. Many of the women who formed the core of the Second Wave made dramatic changes to their lives as part of their activism: leaving their male partners, living with other feminists, and rejecting their old social networks. Although the Second Wave feminist movement emerged from the wider Left, it was frequently in conflict with it. For instance in 1969, at the New Left’s Counter-Inaugural to the Nixon inauguration in Washington, feminists who rose to speak were heckled by male comrades shouting “Take her off stage and fuck her!” and “Fuck her down a dark alley!” This was not a movement that was generally welcomed by the men who dominated progressive politics: you didn’t become a Second Wave feminist because you wanted to be liked.
But, as a result of the success of the movement over the last half century, the social costs of identifying as a feminist have decreased. A large proportion of young Western women now describe themselves as feminists, with some surveys suggesting the figure may be as high as two thirds. Nowadays practically every politically engaged Left-leaning woman, along with a significant number of men, describes themselves as feminists, to the point that the feminist community and the progressive community have become essentially the same group.
One of the effects of this is that the personality profile of feminists has changed. Where once the feminist movement was made up of women willing to be labelled as weirdo outsiders, contemporary feminists now look much more like typical men and women. There is no longer any expectation that becoming a feminist requires you to change your appearance or your day-to-day life, let alone leave your family and head off to live in a women-only commune. For men and women in progressive circles, it is now quite possible to describe oneself as a feminist and be met universally with gracious smiles. There is no demand for personal conflict or sacrifice. In fact, there is no demand to change anything about oneself at all. In other words, there is now no reason why highly agreeable people wouldn’t flock to the feminist movement. If anything, given the personality profiles of people who favour egalitarianism, as well as the agreeableness gap between men and women, the average contemporary feminist is probably more agreeable than the average person and certainly a lot more agreeable than her Second Wave forebears.
This is, I think, the cause of the so-called ‘intersectional turn’: the embrace by feminism of the ideas and priorities of other left-wing activist groups. Advocates of this turn would argue that feminists have simply become more receptive to the concerns of women who are not white, straight, able-bodied, cis, affluent, and otherwise privileged, with a resultant ideological shift within the movement. While feminists in the past ignored the oppression of other identity groups, the argument goes, the Third Wave has finally woken up to that mistake and made efforts to correct it. And from this has come the rise of trans activism, sex positivism, and cultural relativism. Supporters of these shifts argue that they benefit the most marginalised women—trans women, sex workers, and women of colour, particularly Muslims—and have thus enriched the feminist movement as a whole.
But I don’t buy that. Not only does it underplay the role of women of colour and working class women in the Second Wave—although it certainly does that—but it also misrepresents what is happening in the feminist movement right now. We are not seeing a righteous and overdue ascendence of marginalised women within the feminist movement. What we are seeing instead is the feminist movement—still disproportionately led by relatively privileged women, as it always has been—unthinkingly absorbing the priorities of other activist groups without considering the effect this might have on women as a whole.
Take cultural relativism. Third Wave feminists argue that the unearned sense of moral superiority which served to justify European colonialism continues to enable the mistreatment of non-Western groups in the present day. When Western countries try to impose their values on others—whether through misadventures overseas, or through policies that affect immigrant groups at home—they perpetuate this colonial legacy. The solution to this, we are told, is to reject the assumption that our moral judgments are necessarily correct. So, for instance, we mustn’t make the mistake of assuming that Sharia law, the veil, or female genital mutilation are innately harmful practices that ought to be resisted. In fact, they should be viewed as ‘feminist’ in some circumstances.
Why have Third Wave feminists adopted cultural relativism with such gusto? Because it benefits women? Hardly. We know that the parallel Sharia court system that has been allowed to develop in Britain disadvantages women in a host of ways, particularly in cases of domestic abuse. And in countries like Saudi Arabia, where the official legal system is based on Sharia, women are denied even the most basic freedoms. The Iranian women currently risking their lives in the fight against compulsory veiling insist that this form of oppression limits women’s ability to take part in public life. I would say that the mutilation of a girl’s genitals is so obviously abusive that there should be no need to even lay out the argument, but then I suppose I would be accused, in the words of the French Association of Anthropologists, of reproducing the “moralistic arrogance of yesterday’s colonialism.” The feminist ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie perhaps puts it best when she writes:
The situation of women living in Islam-stricken societies and under Islamic laws is the outrage of the 21st century. Burqa-clad and veiled women and girls, beheadings, stoning to death, floggings, child sexual abuse in the name of marriage and sexual apartheid are only the most brutal and visible aspects of women’s rightlessness and third class citizen status in the Middle East.
But the trouble is that Third Wave feminists are afraid of being called racist. Petrified of it, in fact. And this is where the agreeableness gap comes into play. White Third Wave feminists could choose to defy the regressive Left and fight against the abuses of Muslim women by Muslim men, and so risk being ostracised in progressive circles. Or they could choose to ignore those abuses (out of sight, out of mind, after all) and instead parrot the handful of Muslim women who excuse all manner of misogyny with the empty rhetoric of ‘agency’ and ‘empowerment.’ In the current political climate, the latter option is far easier, particularly for highly agreeable people desperate to be seen as nice. Being ‘problematic’ isn’t nice. Expressing uncomfortable truths isn’t nice. Angering other activist groups on the Left by insisting that the interests of women should come first definitely isn’t nice.
It’s not just that contemporary feminists are more agreeable on average. There is also a culture within feminism that forces women to act even more agreeably than they might otherwise. This means that while it is perfectly acceptable as a feminist to ‘punch up’ against cis, white, affluent men, it is unacceptable to make any argument that could be interpreted as ‘punching down’—that is, criticising those who are not at the top of the privilege hierarchy. If a group is disadvantaged in any way, so the thinking goes, then it is the job of Third Wave feminists to soothe, pardon, and support them in any way possible. To mother them, essentially. This might mean men of colour, or trans women, or sex buyers who complain about being stigmatised. It could even mean men who are aroused by violence against women, since they are potentially the victims of ‘kinkshaming.’ Third Wave feminism is endlessly accommodating of the interests of men affiliated with the Left who have any claim to oppression, regardless of the effect it might have on women.
Second Wave feminists didn’t care very much about being nice to those outside of their movement. Antagonism and unpopularity was just the cost of doing business as a fringe political group. But the contemporary feminist community is no longer fringe, and this is why we are seeing the agreeableness gap having such an impact. Being agreeable can be a positive thing, but there are also costs involved. One of these has been the marginalisation of women’s interests within their own political movement.
Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence based in London, UK. She tweets at @louise_m_perry
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