On feminism

Jo Mitchinson

I’ve had a reasonably long-term relationship with feminism, but lately, things have been on the rocks, and I’ve had to ask myself;  should I break this off?

I discovered feminism a few years ago, through my PhD study. Before this, I’d been pro gender equality in a vague way, but considered that feminism was quite ‘man-hating’ and political. It wasn’t something I identified with at all, probably because I knew little about it.

My PhD was looking at sex work, so inevitably I had to research a lot of feminist thought. It really disturbed me, and I resisted strongly. I hated the idea that there was so much wrong with the world, and I hadn’t noticed, or worse, that I’d been duped into not noticing. But then I started to think- I’d always been shy, socially awkward, and struggled with confrontation, because that was my personality. Right? Not because I’m a woman and I’ve been taught to be passive and demure- right? Hmmm. Suddenly I wasn’t sure anymore. Everything I thought was just ‘me’, could potentially be stuff I’d picked up culturally because I’m female. This was quite a revelation, and it flicked the switch in my mind. The Feminist Awakening, they call it, and I was definitely awake.

I became a firmly Left-identifying feminist, and all was peachy-keen. Or was it?

The feminist world can be far from warm and friendly. That ain’t always no sisterhood out there. Sure, there are wonderful groups which support each other, but I quickly learned that just because two people identify as feminist, doesn’t mean they agree on anything beyond the idea that women don’t have equality. What is worse, the level of acrimony and lack of constructive communication between disparate feminist ideologies is startling. It’s a jungle out there. Due to my stance on burlesque and sex work, I found myself accused of promoting rape culture and sexism, of being misinformed and unaware; I was patronised and insulted and sniped at, all by women who were supposed to be fighting for the same thing I was. I would see the beginnings of important conversations, derailed as different feminists couldn’t agree on the goals or on the means to reach the goals. None of us could agree on what feminism was, how we should do it, and what we wanted the end-game to look like, especially when it came to sex work and sexuality.

This shouldn’t’ve been a shock, really. There are millions of women, millions of experiences, hundreds of cultures, thousands of feminists. How could one ‘feminism’ possibly fit all of those lives? What did bother me, though, was the way people were fighting so much over the how and what, that they weren’t actively progressing as much as they could. Why couldn’t we put aside our difference and find a compromise, a way forward? I’m sure there are feminist groups doing just that, but sadly so far that hasn’t been my experience.

Enter the anti-feminists and the Men’s Rights Activists. They love this division. They love to watch feminism eat itself, as they put it, and they ridicule us for being ineffectual.  As a free speech advocate,  I felt obliged to listen more to what the feminist-haters were saying. Again, the level of pure vitriol they had was both astonishing and depressing. According to these people, feminism was (in no particular order):

  • based on false assumptions and inaccurate data
  • biased against men
  • man -hating
  • seeking supremacy over men
  • damaging to men
  • selfish and navel-gazing
  • focused on trivialities while ignoring big issues
  • championed by fat, ugly, angry women
  • worse than cancer

Crikey! These people were working really hard to discredit feminism, and they were getting a lot of attention. Were they all just terrible misogynists, ardent back-lashers? Or was there some truth to what they were saying?

The answer is-yes, there is truth to it.

Some feminists do hate men, or at least, they appear to do so, to some men. Some feminists do want a revolution, and this would involve a reshuffle of power. Some feminism is very derogatory to men and also to women who don’t follow the *correct* ideology. Yes, there are different ways of interpreting data, such as regarding rape or the wage gap, and these things are still up for critical analysis. Yes, one could argue that feminists should be fighting against forced marriage or the massacre of Yazidi women, rather than campaigning against Page 3 Centrefolds or shouting about what some scientist has on his shirt. We know that these important fights are happening, but in poplar media, what people see is the (arguably) less weighty work.

I wasn’t happy about admitting it, but these perspectives are valid, or at least are worthy of discussion. At the very least, I could see where the misconceptions come from.  Some of what these folk are saying, is a more intense version of what I’ve thought about some feminism. I looked critically at my Lefty feminist viewpoint and while I didn’t totally agree with the anti-feminists,  I have to admit, I found my perspective a little one-sided. I hadn’t factored in this whole other school of thought, because it was mainly Right-wing and I’d never really encountered this way of thinking before. So now what? Would I have to break up with feminism?

The answer is no. Never. I would fight in the street for equality, I’d die for it. I will always be a feminist because to be otherwise, means I don’t believe women are equal to men. But I can never let myself stop being critical. I must never block out viewpoints just because they seem abhorrent to me. And I must never dismiss a person, just because I don’t like what they have to say. I’ll never break up with feminism, but I’ll also never consider it to be so weak that it can’t withstand an intellectual onslaught from direct opponents.
Feminism needs to grow, to change. to listen, to have uncomfortable dialogues, if for no other reason than it is wise to know your enemy and keep yourself primed. And the enemy is out there, coming for us everyday, in powerful ways. If feminism doesn’t rise to meet this threat, and instead turns its back with its fingers in its ears, then I worry what will happen.

So feminism, I’ll never leave you, but a successful relationship requires people to move with the times. Let’s just try and remember what we are actually fighting for, and make sure we do it together.

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