What is the F-word Anyway? by Kile Jones


kile jonesSocial justice. Progressive politics. Improper media depictions. What exactly is the F-word (feminism) about?

I have always understood feminism as a project that casts a very wide net, the goals and values of which can keep quite a few people dry under the shade of its umbrella. But more and more, I see a narrowing of who can count as a feminist. There are a few reasons for this constriction. First, the more the F-word becomes a pejorative in contemporary society, the greater the need is to circle the bandwagons and set up camp. Second, when a particular group has elevated levels of in-fighting occurring, it makes sense to start psychologically splitting people into “feminist” and “not feminist.” Or, on a spectrum, “strong feminist” vs. “weak feminist.” Third, there is a pragmatic need for groups to find an optimal tension with society. When social groups are too counter-cultural or revolutionary, they get branded extremist and fanatical, but when they are wishy-washy and lukewarm, they become another extension of the status quo and lose their prophetic fire.

As an atheist, I see all of this occurring in non-believing circles as well. And I’m not really sure how to navigate it. There is also no shortage of men in this social group–from Dawkins to Boghossian–who think of feminism in the negative. All of this has to do with what they think the F-word amounts to.

Whether it’s the Men’s Rights Movement pointing out how feminist SJW’s (Social Justice Warriors) overlook the plight of men–the number imprisoned and the number who have been raped (see here)–or whether it’s Ayaan Ali saying modern American feminists focus on “trivial b.s.” (i.e. “shirtstorm”), there are controversies surrounding what we understand feminism to actually be about. And not just what the F-word is about, but the way in which we prioritize and pick our battles. So in light of these concerns, and the inevitable fact that we always try to sift, arrange, and refocus our groups, I wonder how those who identify as feminist define feminism and order their values. For instance, how many of these issues do you think you could disagree with and still rightly claim the title of feminist?

  1. Equal Pay for Women
  2. Reproductive Rights (contraceptives and abortions)
  3. The Legalization of Same-Sex marriage
  4. Gender Neutrality in Language
  5. Maternity Leave
  6. Ordination of Women in Religion
  7. Social Constructivism

I could add more to this–particularly issues surrounding prostitution, pornography, and sexual ethics–that would problematize this list further, but as a feminist I tend to think that, at least to some degree, feminists would usually agree with all of these points.  In terms of axiology, I also wonder how we prioritize our values. How would you organize this list (top being most important, and bottom being least important)?

  • Women’s Education
  • Reproductive Rights
  • Countering Media Depictions
  • Sexual Violence
  • Equal Pay & Opportunity
  • Economic Equality
  • Gendered Language

I’m aware that this isn’t a zero-sum game and that one can simultaneously fight on all these fronts, but usually certain issues rise to the top. Similarly, cultures always valorize some issues over others. Which is why when you get pissed off at a sexist shirt you’re petty and when you critique the whole edifice you’re over-reaching.

I ask these questions because of a group of women who throw a wrench in the popular understanding of feminism–namely, individualist feminists.  Sometimes referred to as “libertarian feminists” these women have quite a different understanding of feminism.  They also hold an almost diametrically opposed idea of the best means for achieving the goals of feminism.  So when we look at these two lists above, libertarian feminists would scratch out any issue that requires politically coercive or communal (i.e. any one with the term “equal” in it) means for its achievement.

Many modern feminists think these people–women like Tonie Nathan, Allison Gibbs, Joan Kennedy Taylor, and the ever controversial Christina Hoff Sommers–are simply co-opting the term “feminism.”  They think, that in their love for Ayn Rand and Ron Paul, they are cynically making a mockery of the term.  However, that is not what I’m focusing on.  I am genuinely wondering, regardless of people or parties, if one can be a libertarian and a feminist.  And of course, this all comes down to how one defines feminism.

If the locus of feminism hinges on a governmental enforcement of equality, then it appears one cannot be a libertarian feminist.  But if the core of feminism is actually individual rights and non-aggression, then it seems one can be a libertarian feminist.  This may simply be a novel way of stating the old “individual vs. communal” dilemma, but, in my mind, it is certainly worth consideration.

Kile Jones is an atheist involved in inter-faith dialogue who works towards building bridges between non-believers and religious persons. He is also the founder of “Interview an Atheist at Church Day” and Claremont Journal of Religion. His twitter is @KileBJones

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Categories: Academics, Activism, Atheism, civil rights, communication, Contraception, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Human Rights, Men and Feminism, Reproductive Justice, Sexual Ethics, Social Justice, Women and Ministry

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13 replies

  1. This draft is an improvement on your previous draft. I read the earlier version and wondered why you unpublished it. I thought maybe you wanted to do more research, and perhaps even google the title of your post, just to get a broader spectrum of answers to your central question. If you had, you might have found this incisive primer, with its illuminating definition of mansplaining. http://radfemimages.wordpress.com/the-gears/

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  2. Well organized and provocative, thanks for your thoughts, Kile!!

    What does FEMINISM mean?

    In my understanding, feminism is not only about women’s rights — it also demands an activist path of “all-inclusive compassion.” That’s why so many posts at FAR do not concern women’s equality directly, but are rather a call for identity with others, or a cry for outreach as regards suffering, neglect, or discrimination in this troubled world of ours.

    Here are some titles of recent posts at FAR, notice the depth of identity, of caring and diversity —
    • Painting for the Earth by Jassy Watson
    • The Spirit of Capitalism vs. the Spirit of Traditional Rural Life by Carol P. Christ
    • “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue:” Finding Hope in Justice-Seeking Movements by Ivy Helman
    • Let’s Begin With Compassion by Esther Nelson
    • Thinking Out Loud About Protecting Our Borders and the Ebola Crisis by Kelly Brown Douglas
    • Are the Gods Afraid of Black Sexuality? by amina wadud
    • Art, Nature, and Spirit by Judith Shaw
    • Kali Ma (Part 3 of 3) by Nancy Vedder-Shults
    • The Cop on the Beat is Not Ice-T, the Prosecutor Is Not Sam Waterston, and Mariska Hargitay and S. Epatha Merkerson Are Not in Charge, by Carol P. Christ

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  3. Wow, Kile, you’ve given us enough to think about for the rest of the year! (Nice new photo, too.)

    I’ve been a feminist since about the time “Ms.” came into use and Ms Magazine was founded. I earned my Ph.D. in an English Department that was afflicted by terminal macho. If you were young, cute, and female, you were not considered to be a Real Scholar. The foreign students (mostly from the Middle East and South America) used to pat and pinch us female Ph.D. and M.A. candidates every chance they had. However–another female candidate and I were the only ones that year who earned their Ph.D.s with straight A’s. None of the guys even came close. After I moved to California, I studied the Aramaic Bible for several years, but I became really annoyed by the misogyny of Paul and the OT prophets…….and that’s when the Goddess walked into my life. I have been, as they say, living in the lap of the Goddess ever since.

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  4. Interesting speech. However I think, again, as everytime a man involves in a chat on feminism, falls in talking about what women do o don’t as feminists, what it seems very patriarchal for me., instead of wondering why still after so many centuries and so many kinds of feminisms, women revolution and gender analysis, still men can’t get rid off privileges and stop opressing us? How many more feminism will they need to see us as people? what would be very interesting worth and core questions to discuss.

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  5. My problem with libertarian feminists (and libertarian non-feminists for that matter) is that they always consider the Government to be some big baddie that is out to get them and impinge on their personal will to power. The Government is the Them in the Us versus Them battle. They never once consider that they, too, are a part of Government, they too, have a say in what Government does or does not do, and they too, have the power to change it. The Them IS Us, so to speak. But to take away the Government/Them, would be to rob them of their “prophetic fire.”

    As regards a definition, that gets tricky because ‘feminism’ is not some monolithic, one person calling the shots, kind of movement. Ask 50 different feminists (from different countries, cultures, socio-economic, racial and age groups) and you will get 50 different answers. Women in their 60s experienced a very different world growing up than their younger counterparts today- these kinds of perspectives also shape definitions.

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    • Lisa: thank you for your earlier comments on the draft, they helped me sort out what I waned to say. I just wanted to push the lines and see how inclusive it (the F-word) can be–specifically with libertarian feminists. Thanks again.

      Sarah: thanks for that. The f-word does seem to be concerned with care and concerning yourself with the suffering of the marginalized. I am wondering, however, if a largely communal-progressive-equality focused movement can share the tent with feminists who have an almost diametrically opposed view of the means for achieving a better world for women and men alike.

      Barbara: that’s quite a journey there! I’m glad you shared it. I have, likewise, witnessed the downplaying of women’s intelligence in philosophy departments where I have studied. I recall debating a fellow student who actually thought women were not capable of the levels of abstract thought that men traversed!

      Vanessa: Thanks for that. I’m sorry my post strikes you as enforcing patriarchy. But this is simply what I blog about here: women and religion, feminism, interviewing women, etc. And after being introduced to some libertarian feminists, I have wondered about how the term is though of. I wonder what you think about the actual content of my post, and not what you think my intentions or actions reinforce.

      nmr: great points! Feminism is in no means monolithic, agreed. But usually feminists share some core values, or at least imagine a better world where x is lessened or eliminated. And yes, libertarians are extremely suspicious of the government, and they even think democracy is coercively violent. They worry about being forced (under threat of punishment) to pay taxes and participate in civics–basically, to “play the game.”

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      • I think the Libertarian ideology is also heavily influenced by their historically anti-Communist stance. Communists were radical feminists. Mao Zedong did amazing things for Chinese women and in the former Soviet block countries the government paid for child care but the women had to go work (for the glory of the state). The women did not have a choice.
        I have visited Libertarian countries where you only pay as much taxes as you feel like, unlimited guns, give to charity as you please, and if you get into trouble then you only have yourself to pull yourself out. Kinda like Ayn Rand’s aristocratic Russia. Yes, the wealthy have unlimited opportunities to express their individualism, but they also have to spend a considerable amount of effort hiring bodyguards to protect their stuff from the unwashed masses. Such societies are inherently unstable. I would urge feminist libertarians to spend a month in Mexico City, or Lagos, or Mumbai where they will find plenty of millionaire friends to hang out with, but they also ought to take a look at the slums while they are at it.
        For definitions, I still think there is a problem.Commonalities fall apart when you layer in ideologies and economics.

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  6. Kile, I am an admin from Association of Libertarian Feminists and would love to share your article, I think this is a great opportunity to share our ideas, goals and explain libertarian feminism a bit better (from our point of view) if we may. I appreciate you sharing this with us, the comments here and would love to share it with others..

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  7. One of the key common agreements of feminist scholarship and of this blog (I would say) is that we all write from a standpoint. I am missing that in your essay. If you consider yourself to be a libertarian feminist male, then why not state that upfront and then argue for your point of view rather than swiping around with a big bat, perhaps with the intention of taking down other feminists.

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  8. Carol: I’m not a libertarian feminist, but I’ve recently come to meet a few of them. My standpoint is a liberal atheist, and anyone who has read my stuff here should know that. I’m not sure why you seem hostile to my post, and perhaps that reveals what libertarian feminists feel like. Not sure. Thanks.

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  9. If I am hostile to your post, it is because you seem to be attacking social justice feminists and because it is not clear why you have a beef with them. I have read all of your stuff, you have been clear about being an atheist, but I don’t remember you defining yourself otherwise. If I feel uncomfortable with this post it is because it seems that you are attacking some (not sure exactly which) feminists for something (not sure what). And I don’t see why any feminist who is not a libertarian would want to defend libertarian feminists. Most feminists have criticized the notion of the isolated individual self which is the basis the libertarian view and have argued for a relational-social view of the self. Yet these reasons are not discussed in your post.

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  10. Carol: where did I attack SJW’s? I never did. And I’m not sure why you think my exploration of this topic is off-putting. I feel like it is an important question about the tent of feminism, and where people draw their respective lines. I’m sorry you don’t see it that way. Best.

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  11. Hi Kile,
    I keep thinking about your blog post and why I am trying to weasel out of a definition. So, I went to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and it helped me define my problem (not so much feminism, as hopefully, I will explain to you.).

    I’m going to break the SOED definition into two parts.
    1. “Advocacy of equality of the sexes…” If equality is an important issue to you, if you have questions about how your society treats men and women and if there are differences, then why, and what about the position of non-traditional genders, how are they treated– all these are feminist questions. If you have no interest in asking, much less trying to answer, these questions, then you are not a feminist. It is this questioning of equality that allows feminism to have such a broad ‘umbrella’ because many different kinds of people are interested in this question and go about different ways to search for the answers.

    2. per SOED, “…and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of women; the movement associated with this.” The ‘establishment of rights’ is where you are going to see HUGE differences, coming from the variety of answers and social contexts. What constitutes a right? The right to happiness? To quality health care? The right to own private property? Also, this is where the finger pointing comes in, because what I may consider ‘establishment of rights” (ex. voting for a woman political candidate regardless of her political party, stances on issues or abilities- I just want to see more women in office to balance out the men) others may consider completely inadequate and advocate other measures to establish, what they consider to be, substantive rights.

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