This is what a feminist in-fight looks like

Having picked a fight last week with an overly easy target, this week’s feminist Thought For The Week comes courtesy of a facebook group of which I am a member, and overall fan; and which I consider generally as a small islet of sane feminist thought amongst the eel-laden bog of misogyny and prejudice that is popular culture. So watch me now, as, taking the gun to my foot, I make the case for it as a feminist offender. The group is called ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’, and, at the time of writing, had a little shy of 24,000 members, male and female, many of whom are active on boards and forums (to put this in perspective, a group called ‘If 500,000 Join This Group I Will Change My Middle Name To Facebook’ has 170,378 members. But that’s a rant for another day).

My problem with this group lies in the wording of its opening apologia:

It’s not about not shaving your legs, staging protests, man-hating, becoming a lesbian, or boycotting anything & everything “feminine.” Being a feminist is about believing that all genders deserve equal opportunity. Period.

I can to some degree comprehend why they feel the need to dispel the stereotype which has risen up around feminism and which has had for its aim trivialising or marginalisation. The aim of the apology is presumably to attract people with little or no previous experience of feminism and persuade them that feminism has something to offer them too; the implications of which being that women and men of all sexualities, appearances, behaviours, etc. are under the same blanket of patriarchy. Feminism thus opened out, the pernicious attempts by the dominant class to restrict feminism to a relatively marginal few are thwarted, and people of all classes, appearances, sexualities, and races are united in the fight for equal rights, multiplying the army by manifold, and getting people involved in and thinking about their own societal rights and interests, and raising the cries of newly-conscious oppressed women until they can no longer be ignored.

All noble intentions, but I can’t help feeling ultimately that statements like the one above, in mixing fallacies and truths about feminism, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A closer analysis of the ideas that the group tries instantly to dispel reveals quite a cross-section of activities, ranging from the patently undesirable to the perfectly legitimate. There are few if any feminists who would argue that feminism is about man-hating, for example; we spend a disproportionate amount of our time explaining over and over to people who present this fallacy that what feminists hate is a patriarchal social structure which privileges men at the expense of women, and that we object to the rule of patriarchy, not to each and every single man on this earth (though of course, there are some men who are patriarchy on legs). The man-hating myth is a perfectly untrue stereotype of feminists, which, while far too much time is spent reassuring men that they (dear lord the irony) are not being victimised, does misrepresent feminism and is indeed incompatible with the goals of the ideology.

But examine the remaining items on the list of these feminist stereotypes and you will find that the image which this group seems so keen on exorcising from its very soul is actually the image of a perfectly legitimate feminist. Heaven forfend, for example, that we should ever stage a protest. Mark Thomas makes the indubitable point that no privilege that benefits an oppressed class was ever handed to them willingly; every ounce of progress that minorities have made has been fought for (and yes, women somehow count as a minority, despite being at least half of the world’s population). The perceived need to apologise for the vocality of women and for their willingness to take action can only be a symptom of compliance with a system which expects that women tolerate their lot as an oppressed class. However one may choose to package it, feminism as an ideology is ultimately – and should rightly be seen as – a protest, and a person who chooses to subscribe to it and call themselves a feminist is engaging in a protest of ideology against the patriarchy-addled status quo.

The same idea of apology for non-compliance applies to the question of leg-shaving and retention of ‘feminine’ traits. The fact that they have ‘feminine’ in quotation marks apparently pays ample recognition to the arenas of appearance and behaviour as sexually codified constructions, whilst at the same time reassuring non-feminists that they can retain their socially-programmed beauty codes and fully embrace the anti-patriarchal ideology of feminism. I speak as someone who wears makeup when she goes out, and shaves her legs and other piliferous regions on the blue-moon years she thinks someone will see them. I’m hardly therefore in a position to advocate the rejection of all socially-expected beauty regimes as a sine qua non of true feminism. That doesn’t stop me, though, from holding this up as an ideal, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I have to distance myself from feminists who refuse to concede to societal expectations of them, or even refuse simply to be hypocrites. I rationalise my own double standards by protesting that I want to see more men in makeup, not fewer women – but the idea that purists are the people who have it wrong or are somehow distorting the message of feminism is in itself a prime example of distorted thinking.

As for the denial of compulsory lesbianism, I can again sympathise to an extent with the exasperation of a heterosexual female who wishes to be considered feminist without compromising her own sexual identity; indeed, feminism ought to embrace and acknowledge all sexual preferences, since a woman’s absolute right to bodily autonomy extends to her choice of sexual partner. But by this very same logic, lesbianism ought to be given the same respect and validity as heterosexuality, instead of being held up as an abhorrently grotesque misunderstanding of what it is to be feminist. I attended a debate on feminism at the Oxford Union a few months ago, at which a representative of the Fawcett Society unashamedly railed against the very notion of feminists being lesbians, with the readiness of Judas.

My point has not been to discredit the entire ideology of ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’; for the most part, I find it a refreshingly active and engaging feminist space. My problem is with the wider assumption in certain feminist circles which it exemplifies; namely that lesbians, people who don’t shave their body hair or wear makeup, and those scary active vocal protester-types all somehow need apologising for, or distancing from. These apparently undesired behaviours are all perfectly valid within the logic of feminism; their rejection or reprobation is toxic according to feminist principles (not to mention common sense).* The time has come to stop apologising and to fearlessly defend the stereotype of The Feminist, reclaiming those needlessly-perjorative tropes; as well as accepting and welcoming those who choose to conform more explicitly with what we see as patriarchally-influenced social expectations. This is the challenge for inter-feminist relations. If you agree, I suggest you take your comments to the facebook group, and make your voices heard.

* here is how I would reword their introduction:

It doesn’t have to be about not shaving your legs, though if you do shave your legs you should question why men don’t feel the need to do the same; it fundamentally is a protest, though not always done with shouting and signs; it isn’t about hating men; it’s not about compulsory lesbianism  but nor is it about the heterosexist idea that lesbianism shouldn’t be given the same attention as a culturally dominant sexuality; it is about encouraging the deconstruction of the ‘masculine-feminine’ binary. It is about believing that nobody should be socially, culturally, or physically oppressed on the basis of their sex.

Catchy, no? No. But truer, maybe.

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4 Comments

Filed under Ms. Guided, Thank Fuck It's Feminism Friday

4 responses to “This is what a feminist in-fight looks like

  1. clamorousvoice

    I love this. As a leg-shaving lesbian.

    I think ‘It’s about believing that nobody should be oppressed on the basis of their sex, sexuality or gender’ stands for all of it, a bit like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ does for, you know, all of religious thought.

    Anyway, Katie, I will subscribe to your blog.

    S xxxx

  2. But should we even be saying somebody has a gender? Some would argue that the act of imposing ideas of gender is oppression based on sex, since it’s an arbitrary (and often damaging) imposition of social construction based on biological fact. Even though some people are happy in their gender choices..
    I’ve never gotten the ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ rule. What if you happened to be a masochist?
    But I nitpick. Thank you, Sophy, for your comment. 😛 Good to have you on board!
    K xxxx

  3. kayelem

    Your statement is great as the larger lesson to be learned, but the point of the intro is to encourage people to enter the classroom.

    The purpose is important, remember your audience and all that. The group is named,’This is what a feminist looks like’. The intro restricts itself to stating these visual stereotypes are not the definition, this beleif is. It is not meant to be feminism in a nutshell, just an explanation of the title, reason for the group.

    With all your buts and thoughs your opening sounds far more apologetic and distancing, to me, than the original. The original says, these things don’t define us. Yours says, these things don’t define us, though they are part of us, but you really shouldn’t mind that because it’s wrong to be offended by these things when this beleif is the important bit. It strays far from defining the group or the reasoning behind it’s name.

    Can you re-create your lengthy statement (104 words) using as few words (32) as the original? Or even just half as many as you did. Can you re-state in a way that entices someone who never went to Uni, much less took a women’s studies course?

  4. I appreciate the evangelizing zeal behind the group – and I realize the aim is to bring the focus away from what a perceived feminist may or may not look like. But if that’s the case, why then the inclusion of ‘it’s not about hating men’ or ‘it’s not about staging protests’, which are certainly ideological and not visual issues? Also, the reference to ‘becoming a lesbian’ goes beyond the visual aspect, suggesting that there is more at stake here than dispelling just the visual stereotypes.
    The point which struck me, and which spurred me to write the post, was the heterosexist bias I keep coming across in many feminist circles which seems to want to marginalize lesbians, and to pander to men who feel that their very existence is threatened by feminism. It seems to put across the message ‘don’t worry girls, you can still like men, you can still act in ways that please men; you don’t have to be a lesbian.’ I find this message offensive to lesbians – who are so oppressed and negated at every turn already. I know it’s important to dispel incorrect ideas about feminism – but I think we need to think very carefully about swaying too far in the opposite direction of then apologising for things which require no apology.
    I think my original statement could be boiled down to:
    The key belief that defines a feminist thinker is the belief that nobody should be socially, culturally, or physically oppressed on the basis of their sex.
    The action of putting this belief into practice is what makes a feminist.

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