Social 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?
- Equal Pay for Women
- Reproductive Rights (contraceptives and abortions)
- The Legalization of Same-Sex marriage
- Gender Neutrality in Language
- Maternity Leave
- Ordination of Women in Religion
- 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
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