07 August 2013

We need feminism – but which kind?

This is a post I have been dreading doing for some time. Back when I was at Kalamazoo College and the editor of Mayhem’s Murmurs, I deliberately stayed out of the brief controversy back in 2008 caused by the ‘Women in the Weight Room’ programme (though the Murmurs did run an anti-WitWR editorial). Having never worked out in the weight room (I preferred racquet sports and fencing myself), I was not affected by the thing, and felt the entire affair to be rather silly and obtuse. I have heard good and commonsensical feminist arguments and many of them; I have also been confronted with frivolous and absurd ones. So why bring this up now? For one thing, it has been on my mind since the entire affair of the Austen ten-pound note. But more recently, I came across the ‘Who Needs Feminism?’ project started by the students at Cambridge University, so I thought I would tackle the question implied head-on.

First, I should say that I can only work from my own understanding and experience, both of which, I grant you, as a human being of the male gender, are limited – yet I do not think them (as certain shades of feminist thinking are wont to imply, if not claim outright) to be irrelevant or insignificant. As a male human, I have relationships I very dearly value with female humans: friends, coworkers, bosses and family, not least my mother, my sister, my wife and my daughter. Second, there is the question of whether or not I actually am a feminist. That’s where things get slightly tricky, so I’ve decided to lay out a bit of ‘where I stand’:
  1. Men and women both partake fully, and therefore equally, of the same fallen human nature. If the order things are taken in our mythology is to be considered seriously, we are made first in God’s image as rational, and then as male and female biological creatures. Only after that did we together deface that image through the Fall.
  2. The virtues desirable in human beings are open to all, as are the vices deplorable in them. Men and women alike can be truthful, hopeful and loving, as well as brave, fair-minded, forbearing and wise… or the reverse.
  3. Nevertheless, the biological and social differences between men and women are real and as such have to be reckoned with.
  4. These biological and social differences add up to two full and distinct ways of being. Men do not always perfectly understand women (as any heterosexual woman who has been in a relationship with one of us guys will readily tell you), and vice-versa. Yet both ways of being, both understandings, are needed for anything resembling a common good, especially in relation to each other.

Note that points one and two alone are feminist, if we take as the sole definition of feminism Ms West’s dictum that it is merely the ‘radical notion that women are people’. If that were the end of the story, I would (and do!) accept the feminist badge cheerfully and wear it with pride.

But in all ideology there lies the temptation of imbalance, and the intellectual history of feminism proves no different. In the broad strokes, feminist historiography tends to divide itself into three periods: a first wave primarily concerned with securing legal recognition of rights and immunities for women; a second wave primarily concerned with righting structural and cultural inequalities against women; and a third wave whose goals (in line with its appropriations from post-structuralism) tend to be more amorphous and whose concerns seem largely with keeping feminism relevant and engaged.

The first wave was almost wholly Anglo-American, wholly cultural-Protestant and wholly liberal (in a broad sense) – these tendencies were on display in their emphasis on legal issues and fighting de jure discrimination against women, through the suffrage movement, the temperance movement and the movement to legally reform the rights and obligations of married couples. The first wave achieved some major victories and is rightly celebrated for them, but one of the major imbalances they engendered (no pun intended) was located precisely in their embrace of liberalism. A woman was to be made into the liberal image of the (to that time and beyond, white and male by default) individual rights-bearer and legal agent, to be considered in isolation from her entire background and narrative. That women were now to be subject to the law in the same way that men were was an unmitigated triumph. But that women themselves were expected to adopt a legalistic point-of-view, to imitate and internalise a liberal-capitalist discourse which desexed them as far as possible, was an overreach. The more so when, as happened during and in the wake of World War I, women came to be seen as interchangeable cogs in the machines of industry and commerce, and made subject directly to the same forms of alienation and inhuman exploitation that men were. It made for a tragicomic turn indeed when, as GK Chesterton put it, ‘ten thousand women marched through the streets shouting, “We will not be dictated to,” and went off and became stenographers’.

Because of their prominence in the culture wars, many of my fellow palaeocons tend to single out second-wave feminism for particular scorn, but I think a degree of good sense is needed when addressing them. Their motivations were, after all, truly admirable. They sought to right the imbalances and blind spots of the first wave. Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan rightly looked not only at the legal distinctions between men and women, but also at the gender-driven social expectations to which men and women were subject. Of course, subsequent feminist theorists capsized the boat from the other end. Gender structures being social structures, they had to be undermined by constructing an alternative social counter-narrative that centred on… well, gender. The second wave started from the position that society had been designed expressly by men, considered essentially and as a whole (‘the patriarchy’), to keep women, considered essentially and as a whole, subjugated, subservient and unthinking. And then it began attempting to appropriate for women, considered essentially and as a whole, the norms and privileges and bad behaviours they assumed that men enjoy by the fact of their maleness alone. That, if successful, this programme would result in a reverse patriarchy – a world of Margaret Thatchers and Sarah Palins – is something only a certain select handful of second-wave theorists considered seriously. But it is a true danger.

The dialectical tension elicited by these two movements is this: the first wave agitates for purity of form, and the second wave for purity of content – each at the expense of the other. The first wave whitewashes and glosses over difference; the second wave uses difference as a wrecking-ball. The first promotes a Gnostic creation myth wherein the demiurge created embodied biological differences upon an otherwise perfect disembodied rational agent to tempt it into sin; the second promotes a creation myth wherein the Goddess created Eve blameless and pure, whilst Adam was formed already rotten with the forbidden banana of patriarchy. The first pays attention to Aristotle only up until he says ‘rational’; the second starts listening only when he utters the word ‘animal’. The first refuses to consider anything as icky or risqué as human biology; the second elevates one side of it, at least, to a sacred touchstone (er, so to speak).

These twin heresies are sometimes termed ‘equity feminism’ and ‘gender feminism’, respectively. Neither one captures the entire truth of the relationship between men and women, and both prevent men and women from understanding each other better and working toward a shared common good. The tragicomedy of ‘equity feminism’ is the tragicomedy of liberalism as a whole – setting out to accommodate differences, it ends up erasing them to suit the needs of the universal Weberian corporate-capitalist state. The horror of ‘gender feminism’ remains that of the patriarchy in drag, where victory (at least to, say, FEMEN) consists of defacing anti-Stalinist monuments, abusing Catholics or telling faithful Muslim women they are stupid slaves.

Do I need feminism? If by ‘feminism’ you mean these two distortions, then no, I don’t. But if by ‘feminism’ you mean a search by both women and men, for a whole truth which is accessible to women and men together and which respects each as they are; if by ‘feminism’ you mean a philosophy which critiques the (traditionally male) libido dominandi, and at the same time offers an option and a passion for cooperation and solidarity in its place, then yes!

We all need more of that feminism.

No comments:

Post a Comment