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feminism and me

So, Emma Watson made a speech last week announcing a new initiative she's involved in, HeForShe, which is about getting men to identify as feminists and realize this issue impacts them and even if it doesn't that it's the kind of thing they should be involved in. You know, making feminism less of a women's issue and more an issue of basic humanitarian concern.

She's not wrong - bad gender roles are damaging to men, too, and even if they weren't the fact that a fellow human is suffering should be enough to make any of us care about the problem, even if it's not impacting others. But the speech and the fact that a lot of people over at Tumblr were posting bits of it, got me thinking a fair bit about my own feminism.

I often hear this idea that feminism is the radical idea that women are people, too, that they deserve equal respect and rights. That implies that if you're not a feminist, you don't believe all of those things. And if that was all feminism was, I don't think I'd have any problem claiming the label. For me at least, my reluctance really isn't about thinking the label is hateful to men or takes things too seriously or whatever else you want to imagine. But when people talk about feminism, they seem to mean something much more specific than that, at least in the conversations I've seen.

So why am I not a feminist? The most simple, straightforward reason is that the issues the feminists I've encountered, both friends who identify as such as well as activists and bloggers and pundits and the like, they care abut very different issues than I do. I said earlier that the fact that another person is hurting, suffering, is reason enough for me to care about an issue - I don't need it to impact me personally. The problem is there are a lot of people hurting out there, so to keep myself from getting burned out, from caring more than anyone can ever hope to maintain over any length of time... you end up caring over big stuff. War and poverty and the kind of sexism you see in the third world, things like women dying in childbirth because they lack decent medical care or the contraceptives to space their families, child brides and sex trafficking and rape culture on a scale we Americans have never seen in my lifetime. So it's a little difficult for me to get upset over the injustices American feminists, certainly the ones my age, seem concerned over. And they are injustices, and in an ideal world they wouldn't happen. But... when I hear people talk about the pay gap or the fact that women in tech and gaming get really vicious comments when they dare make their presence known, or that they're not represented enough in media or other things like that... it's not that this stuff is okay. It's not. But when I compare it to the twelve-year-old who has to get married because she's not safe from being raped otherwise? Or the Afghani girls who are forced by their families to dress up and live as boys because their family has no sons and the culture is so stratified they can't function otherwise, when I hear about nine-year-old girls who are told to wear multiple layers of clothes when they go out after dark to relieve themselves because it will slow any rapists down until they can call for help. Well. I get that many feminists care deeply about these things. It was probably feminists who first educated me about quite a few of them. The thing is, I seem to care about them, not as the most extreme examples of a continuum starting with the subtler forms women in the developed world have to deal with, but as things that are horrific because of the amount of suffering they entail.

Let me boil it down. There are some things the feminists I've been exposed to and I both care about, but when that happens, it seems like the reasons we care about it are very different. And the feminists I've encountered seem to spend a lot of their time worrying about things that to me seem like "first world problems," and that pale in comparison to some of the economic and racial and homophobic problems I care about, both in America and around the world. So at some point I think calling myself a feminist doesn't seem to match up to my priorities. It's not that I don't see their points, or think they're wrong about the things they see as injustices; it's that my heart is only so big, and either because my passions run other ways (typically: pacifism and violence, poverty, and stories that touch on various philosophical issues I'm interested in academically) or because they're just dwarfed in scale. The upshot is the things I hear feminists say they're concerned about... it's not that they're wrong, it's just that those don't line up with my priorities.

There's another reason I'm not a feminist, though. I've gone on for longer than I meant to here, so I don't want to go into this in any great depth, but on top of the practical stuff, I actually do have a pretty hefty philosophical disagreement with the way feminists tend to approach things. In philosophy there's this idea of the unencumbered self, or moral individualism. The idea is that we don't have any special obligations we don't explicitly, voluntarily agree to take up. So you can say all humans have an obligation to not cause suffering where you can avoid it, or to keep our promises in most instances, or whatever - but if you say that Bob over there has a special obligation then Bob has to have chosen to take up that special duty. Under this idea, Frodo doesn't have any special obligation to take the Ring to Mordor, and Harry doesn't have a moral obligation to hunt down the horcruxes (he could go off to Australia like Aberforth suggested, and no shame to him), and on down the line - none of these people chose to be in their special situations so they don't have a special obligation to put themselves in danger.

I could go on all night about how feminism is built around this idea that you don't have any obligations but the ones you take on yourself. And in particular how women don't have any special obligations just because they're born female. But I said I was trying to be brief, and I am. THe bottom line is, it seems like feminism (at least the kind I've seen in America in late '90s and on through the '00s and '10s) is bound up in this idea that women don't have any special obligations men don't have, just because they're women. The problem is I think we have all kinds of obligations based on where we come from. Take the issue of fatherhood. In American society the idea is that the mother has the right to decide whether to be a mother or not, apart from having sex. She can use reliable birth control or have an abortion on the off-chance that fails (and it almost never does). The father on the other hand doesn't really get any say in it (apart from whether to have sex or not). If the woman conceives and she doesn't choose to abort, then there's nothing he can really do to not be the father, not have those obligations. Or take patriotism: you can choose where to live, but you have to live somewhere, and you do seem to have special obligations toward your neighbors and people from the same country or city above and beyond your duties to people outside of that bond. Or again, take fandom. When [Bad username: mildredandbobbin], a fellow Sherlock fanfic writer, was embarrassed by Caitlin Moran in that entirely unprofessional and inexcusable way, I felt particularly wronged and defensive on her part - though at the time we'd never exchanged two words. Now I consider her a friend and would be so much more upset on her behalf if it ever happened again, because I knew her. But even at the time I felt a special indignation, a special sense of being attacked, because this was happening in "the family." It was much more personal than if it had been a fan-author from a different fandom, with whom I had no real connection.

My point is that these connections are real but they don't seem to come out of some choice I made. We have these connections that we don't choose but that set up obligations, and those obligations seem real to me. And it's not just relationships - I think there are things about who we are, parts of us, that can set up obligations we didn't really choose. Of course there's a whole conversation about what those obligations are, why they apply if we didn't choose them, what the proper limits of those obligations are, how we can avoid being unfair in how we ask people to fulfill those obligations (not asking too much of them for something beyond their control). But there do seem to be obligations we have where it's not because we chose a certain thing. We aren't so unencumbered as the whole philosophy of rights and individualism seems to need. And that means, at least in my experience, my philosophy and the way I see ethics and rights and obligations and virtue just doesn't mesh well with what feminism, the feminism I was exposed to in my life, seems to expect in terms of those things.

So there you have it. The feminism I've encountered in my life seems to have a different focus and care about different issues than I do, not in every case but often enough that calling myself a feminist is misleading. And on top of that, feminism as I've encountered it seems built on a philosophy where you only have those obligations you choose for yourself - and I don't agree with that. I think we have genuine obligations that aren't really traceable back to some choice or other we made. They're from an obligation we inherited just because we are a certain way, even because we're female rather than male.

Of course I may be wrong on that last point. I welcome the debate, and it's part of why I keep reading feminists and following feminist news - because I'm a woman, of course I appreciate the gains of feminism and if I'm wrong I want to know it so I can change my beliefs. But as for right now, "feminist" doesn't quite seem to fit me.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 28th, 2014 08:49 am (UTC)
I think, for me, it's not about defining what's the worst on a global scale, or comparatively speaking, or even philosophically, 'what is the worst thing people are living right now'. I mean, do I care that there is war and poverty and horrible sexism and abuse in far-away country, yes, very much so. But there's very little I can DO about it. I'm not personally going to end a war. I'm not able to keep people from starving half a world away. Maybe I would be if I had lots of money to give, or if I had loads of political influence, but I don't and probably never will. Or if I was a doctor (or a skilled anything...) that could fly over there and help. But I'm not that, either. So me caring about all the women world-wide that die in childbirth, and child brides, and sex trafficking... That's great I guess, but it isn't going to make a lick of difference.

I felt that way, too, that horrible, horrible weight of everything that's wrong with the world. The helplessness. The detachment, that creeps up in the end to protect yourself from feeling it too deeply. But then I started thinking, what CAN I do. There's women being assaulted on their way into abortion clinics right here in my city. I can go walk besides them, and make them feel less alone. There's trans people being hurt and discriminated against. I can go protest for equal rights for them, write to my local politicians about it. There's friends of mine that have been raped, and were too scared to report it because they think the police won't do a thing. I can support a special 'trust person' being instated on the police force for that, right here. There's discrimination, misogyny, inequality, right here in my daily life. I can choose not to be silent. I can choose to help wherever I can, and make noise to others.

Does that make me ineffective on a global scale, of course. But who is, really? I am a proud feminist, an active feminist, and yes, you're right, preoccupied with our first world problems. Because here, I'm effective. Because me simply worrying about some other, bigger problem doesn't do a thing or help anyone. So, feminism, because it is very much needed, and because I can...
Sep. 28th, 2014 01:05 pm (UTC)
I do very strongly consider myself a feminist, a radical feminist, even. but I agree that it's not necessarily useful for the term to be applied so broadly. in principle, if I think feminism is a good thing, then I should want everyone on earth to be a feminist, right? but what actually happens is a lot of people start calling themselves feminists, but they don't believe AT ALL the same stuff I believe in. and in fact, they sometimes support things I strenuously object to in the name of feminism.

I've come to accept that, well, there are a lot of "feminisms" in the world, and some of those feminisms are very different from my feminism. but at that point, why use the word at all? the meaning has become extremely watered down to the point of being fairly useless, at least as far as figuring out what anyone actually believes or supports or does.

I think that's partly why I call myself a radical feminist. the word "radical" doesn't have a terribly specific meaning in itself, but it is a way of separating myself from middle-of-the-road, bourgeois, self-congratulatory feminism, but without denying people like that their right to the term. because who am I to decide who is and is not a feminist?

and yet the term feminism has such a powerful and significant history, I'm not ready to abandon it altogether. so radical feminist will have to do for now.
Sep. 30th, 2014 08:01 am (UTC)
Your comment that really struck me was this: The problem is there are a lot of people hurting out there, so to keep myself from getting burned out, from caring more than anyone can ever hope to maintain over any length of time... you end up caring over big stuff. War and poverty and the kind of sexism you see in the third world, things like women dying in childbirth because they lack decent medical care or the contraceptives to space their families, child brides and sex trafficking and rape culture on a scale we Americans have never seen in my lifetime.

It struck a chord with me for a couple of reasons:
(1) It implies that the monumental problems faced by women and girls worldwide (sex abuse, neglect, denial of education and basic human rights) are not feminist issues. What makes you think that people working on women's issues in the developing world would not be classified as feminist? (Just to be clear, that was meant to be a genuine curious question, not an accusatory/rhetorical question; internet tone issues, etc ;) )

(2) You're absolutely right that a lot of the current US conversations about feminism are centered in arenas populated by people with privilege: college campuses, internet fora for those with the income and leisure to spend time thinking about things like video games, etc. However, just because there are places where things are objectively much, much worse, does not mean that these issues are unworthy of our attention, just like the knowledge that there are people suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder does not necessarily make my own relatively "minor" struggles with anxiety and depression easier to deal with in the moment, for me. Also, what does it say about us that we still have so far on issues like rape culture and media misogyny, even in some of the most educated and supposedly "progressive" countries in the world?

(3) At the same time, you're absolutely right in that a lot of the current discussions in America don't necessarily highlight the intersectionality of sexism with classism and racism--like, for example, a lot of the institutionalized racism in US government policies in the 20th century codified even further marginalization of African American women as a group; access to birth control is problematic in different ways for low-income people than it is for high-income people, etc. And personally, as someone who is highly privileged in a wealthy country and who identifies as feminist, that is something I need to work on.

Tl;dr version, that you reject the classification of feminist seems to spring from a very narrow definition of feminism in a very particular moment in time (third wave, post-post feminism, whatever they're calling it these days). For me, there are a lot of different feminisms, and a lot of diversity and disagreement within feminism, and this is totally fine, and the way it should be. I know evangelical Christian feminists from small town USA, devout Muslim feminists in South Asia, urban stay-at-home mom feminists, radical queer feminists, dude feminists, etc; obviously they wouldn't all agree on everything or have the same experiences or priorities, but that doesn't obviate their feminism. Feminism is (imo) a "big tent" for anyone who believes that patriarchy should not be the default, and is a system that is harmful to both men and women. The fact that you (and others) don't necessarily feel welcome in the tent, or at least in a certain corner, makes me feel that that is something that "we" have to work on.

Be well,

Edited at 2014-09-30 08:02 am (UTC)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )



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