What do you mean, you're a feminist?
Anyone over the age of 30 will remember the days when "women's libbers" first made the headlines. The goals of the women's liberationists were breathtaking in scope but simple to understand; they believed in women's rights to full citizenship that is, political, economic, and social equality with men. Dramatic progress has been made in the relatively short time since then, and things are now much better for both men and women thanks to the "libbers".
Today the term "women's liberationist" seems a little quaint, since the main battles of liberation have been won, and "feminist" is now the preferred term. But "feminism" is such a broad church (excuse the pun) that many women are afraid to call themselves feminists for fear of being assumed to be one of those many types of feminist they do not want to be.
While most women and men still agree with the basic proposition of equality of the sexes, these issues do not make good press. The feminism that usually makes headlines is not what most women believe in. In fact, many men and women are are very uneasy about what '90s feminists seem to be on about.
By and large, men have been reluctant to question apparent absurdities for fear of being accused of wanting to "turn back the clock". The most vocal feminists seize upon any questioning as proof of the "backlash"- a conspiracy by all men (and some women) to take back women's gains.
However, over the last two years, a number of women have broken the silence by publicly questioning the agendas of some of the many fringe feminist factions that seem to have little to do with what most women require from " feminism". They have finally "gone public" on the fact that even self-proclaimed feminists don't agree what a real feminist is.
Here is a sampling of the types of feminism they have identified.
Equity Feminists believe in women's equality with men; that women deserve to have equal opportunity in all spheres of life. This is the basic position that most people, nowadays, agree with and support. This is the track Naomi Wolf believes feminists should focus on. She uses the more hip term Power feminism which acknowledges that women have potential power that they are not using.
Traditional is the term used by Beatrice Faust to describe women who ignore their subordinate social position and do their best to succeed in spite of the obstacles. Assimilationists believe that women have to make a choice between being a wife and mother or joining the men's world of business and politics. Domestic feminists, according to Faust, believe that a woman's place is in the home and actively oppose other women's ambitions for equal rights.
Reformist feminists believe that equal rights can be achieved by working within the existing establishment, changing it bit by bit. Feminist politicians or feminist bureaucrats (femocrats) work this way.
Revolutionary feminists (Faust's term) or gender feminists (Christina Hoff Sommer's term) believe that the very nature of men and women are so irreconcilable that reform is impossible. The only alternative is to overthrow the enemy (usually identified in vague terms such as "the patriarchy"). Some revolutionary feminists don't even think this is worthwhile, and choose to be feminist separatists. Separatists believe that the only way to escape the patriarchy is to have as little as possible to do with men.
In today's world, neither revolution nor separatism stand much chance of success. Faced with obvious defeat and nowhere else to go, this branch of feminism has turned to what Naomi Wolf calls victim feminism, or as Beatrice Faust rather less politely says, wimp feminism. Faust identifies a 1993 series in the "Age" newspaper as a landmark outbreak of "wimparrhoea". A series called "War against Women" used fudged statistics to paint a picture of vicious men raping, bashing and generally oppressing innocent and helpless women in epidemic proportions. Wimp or victim feminists convince themselves that the world is too terrifying a place for women to live. To make the world safe, they need a revolution that will never come. Meanwhile, they are paralysed by defeatism and their own refusal to engage with the media or politics - in their minds, the ultimate manifestations of the patriarchy.
Victim feminists have a symbiotic relationship with the media who provide victim journalism (Faust's term) to keep the sympathy level high. Victim journalism gives a very one-dimensional portrayal of complex subjects; simplistic analysis leads to simplistic solutions answers, such as throwing more money at band-aid support for victims.
Wimp feminism, taken to its logical conclusion, has led to an extremist feminist group Renee Denfeld calls New Victorians. If there are real "backlashers" who want to turn the clock back thirty years, they pale into insignificance compared with this lot. The New Victorians, says Denfeld, "have embarked on a moral and spiritual crusade that would take us back to a time worse than our mother's day - back to the nineteenth century values of sexual morality, spiritual purity, and political helplessness". The wimpiest New Victorians believe that all sex is rape (even when the woman consents she doesn't know what she is doing). They say that even when men aren't raping women, they are raping something, such as the world.
Helen Garner describes these puritans as "offended by the suggestion that a woman might learn to handle a trivial sexual approach by herself, without needing to run to Big Daddy end even wreck a man's life, because it unsettles their unstated but crucial belief: that men's sexuality is a monstrous, uncontrollable force, while women are trembling creatures innocent of desire, under siege even in a room full of companions, forever made to feel uncomfortable."
The New Victorians revel in the findings of studies like the one claiming that almost every women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Such studies appear regularly and feed the insatiable appetite for victim journalism. The demand for shocking proof of the badness of men and the goodness of women fuels what Christina Hoff Sommers refers to as advocacy research; studies which use faulty methods to achieve the outcome sought by the people commissioning it. Drawing upon this apparent "proof" that women are far better human beings than men, another branch of feminism sprang up in the seventies: the Difference Feminists.
Renee Denfeld tells how, in spite of decades of equity feminists' attempts to prove that except for their reproductive equipment women are equal to men, the difference feminists decided to abandon the idea that female behaviour is merely a product of socialisation. Their own self-styled backlash led them to embrace the old stereotype of women as more nurturing, caring and intuitive than men. Because of their fine sensibilities, women could indeed be seriously assaulted by hearing offensive language, or by being looked at lustily - precisely the stereotype their mothers fought to eradicate.
Once accustomed to the idea that women are not at all like men, the next step was inevitable; the Female Supremacists.
Female Supremacists, according to Professor Sommers, believe that women are not only different but superior beings. Simply define everything feminine as good, everything masculine as bad and, Hey Presto! women are better than men! Much of what is taught in women's studies courses in American Universities is based on female supremacist and New Victorian ideology. Female supremacists believe that women, not being burdened by phallocentric, rational thought, will make extraordinary breakthroughs in science. These extremists pursue transformationist feminism; they believe we need to transform what we teach to reflect the world as they would like it to be. Central to their agenda is ensuring that textbooks give as much space to women as to men. Some States of America now have laws mandating "gender fair" history. It is a fact that women have until recently not played large roles in science, politics and other major fields that make history. Sommers says: "High school history texts now lavish attention on minor female figures".
Scraping the bottom of the barrel in the interests of being "gender fair" gives rise to what Somers calls filler feminism. Filler feminists cast about to find an explanation for every instance where women seem under-represented. For example, the historical predominance of men in the major arts is due, in their minds, not to the fact that women were barred from these fields, but to a masculine standard of greatness. Filler feminists want to put quilts, breadloaf shapes and folkdances on the same footing as the great classical works of art.
Renee Denfeld, Christina Hoff Sommers, Beatrice Faust, Helen Garner, Naomi Wolf and no doubt many other feminists are concerned that this fragmentation of feminism is giving the vast majority of feminists - who do not support the extremists - a bad name. Hopefully, this questioning will eventually lead to the reformist, equity feminists taking back control of the movement. Meanwhile, us men are left with the dilemma that while it is politically correct to say we support feminism, we need to be clear what particular sort of feminism we are being asked to endorse.
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