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I have been a feminist for over half my life. I was exposed to feminism in my teens as the idea that women should have the chance to reach their full potential as human beings. This would mean freedom from intimate violence, equal access to economic and educational opportunities, to exercise control over one’s own sexuality and reproduction, and honoring the work of motherhood. This also means that women’s value shouldn’t be based in appearance, ability to be sexually objectified, or our ability to caretake and be of services to others. Women should be respected and valued for an inherent worth beyond what we could do or provide for other people. Those are the values underlying my feminism.
As time went on, I began to also see how the system of male domination allows not only for women and girls to be mistreated, but for men and boys to be mistreated, as well. The systematic violence that keeps such a system in place is responsible for attacking, harming, and isolating male members of the society in profound and heartbreaking ways, and that became integrated into my analysis, as well. I came to the conclusion that both men and women would benefit from feminism, and that the fight against male domination in society is in everyone’s best interest.
I also could easily see, as a woman of color, that many people experience oppression based on gender in ways that are inextricably linked with other oppressions. This meant that gains such as legislation for women’s rights in the US, would primarily help privileged heterosexual white women, for whom gender was the main barrier. The rest of us would still have to face the tangle of other obstacles that kept us from having the lives we wanted and reaching our full potential. So intersectional feminism became about extending those gains to all women worldwide.
I have been fascinated by the #WomenAgainstFeminism hashtag on twitter, because it’s given me a chance to engage in conversations with anti-feminist women and men. My goal is to see what we might actually agree on. Here’s some of what I came up with.
One woman said she was against feminism because sometimes she wanted to make her man a sandwich
I wondered, is she saying that she derives pleasure in caretaking? Is she defensive because a feminist has criticized that desire? I have learned that there’s an interesting balance between the feminist value of individual choice and the feminist value of exploring the influence of gender socialization on what we, as women, “want” or “enjoy” or “feel like doing.” Either way, I am here to say that feminism is totally compatible with consensual sandwich making, and while we advocate sandwich reciprocity, we respect everyone’s right to sandwich autonomy.
On a more serious note, many of the #WomenAgainstFeminism are against abortion.
While there are anti-abortion feminists, the right to reproductive freedom is central to feminism, including both abortion and birth control rights, as well as freedom from the forced sterilizations and systematic programs of sterilizations that have primarily targeted women of color. For the anti-abortion feminists, that is often a core value. If the lives of the unborn trump quality of life for living adult women and children, there’s really no room for debate. I have to agree to disagree.
I had a good conversation with a woman who said feminism was no longer needed. She asked about feminism’s recent accomplishments, and then dismissed the need for FMLA (The Family Medical Leave Act, which allows a parent to take time off work to care for young children).
We had a very civil exchange, and when I signed off, I wished her well. Again, we have a core value difference. As an African American woman, I believe in the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” I think that the society should be concerned with the welfare of all of its children. Beyond that, I am unclear on what her plan is for parents who don’t have the resources. It’s one thing to say that the parents should be responsible, but what is the plan when that doesn’t happen? Should their children be allowed to suffer? Taken away? Where will they go? Who will care for them? I am particularly unclear on the logical consistency with this argument when those who hold these beliefs are also against abortion. People should only have children if they have the means to raise them. But if they are accidentally pregnant, they must become parents, even if they are ill-equipped to do so? And how are they to avoid unplanned pregnancy if access to birth control is systematically. Perhaps the logic is that they shouldn’t have sex, but many women report a spectrum of coercion to have sex from feeling pressured to consent to sex they don’t really want to instances of forcible rape. Also, epidemic numbers of sexual abuse of girls means that women have early sexual trauma experiences that directly inhibit our ability to take charge of our sex lives, set boundaries, and expect to enforce them. We can heal from these experiences, but many women make numerous sexual decisions that are not in their best interest before they are able to reclaim their right to decide about their own bodies. How is this reality integrated into the framework of no abortion, no birth control, take responsibility for your kids?
In the various conversations on the hashtag, some people were clearly interested in spreading disinformation about feminism, and would select random websites by unknown people calling themselves feminists, who spewed random, nonsensical rhetoric.
One tweeter took me on & brought up the SCUM Manifesto & I responded:
I also started my own hashtag #ThisFeministWants so that I (and anyone who wants to join me)can identify the real goals of contemporary feminism,as opposed to fabricated, outdated, or fringe versions of feminism that are out there.
One exchange was with a guy whose argument I boiled down as follows:
If someone is determined not to see systematic sexism, it is difficult to prove. Like proving the existence of oxygen. People might just think they are breathing nothing at all.
I found over and over again that if I listened, respected, and went looking for the part of their argument I could validate, that I learned a lot about different views.
Twitter has a snarky one-upmanship culture. I found it took me 2-3 tweets of listening and validating to get them to stop attacking me. But then we could actually converse.
What I learned that was helpful in wading through the hashtag: non-feminists (perhaps I would like to start seeing them as pre-feminists) didn’t like the dismissal of their concerns about feminism or the invalidation of their negative experiences. They didn’t like feminism’s defensiveness about some historical fringe elements. They also didn’t like the name-calling or insults. Fair enough.
I also was able to deepen my analysis about why men are attracted to the MRA (men’s rights) agenda. Because male domination targets both men and women, men feel victimized based on their gender. It’s true that they are systematically victimized by other men and boys from early in their lives. MRA ideology seems to be scapegoating women and feminism for the way men feel victimized. This is a brilliant strategy to maintain male domination: make sure that all those hurt by it are at each other’s throats.
Feminists may want to strategize on a more pro-active way to address men’s concerns, illuminating how sexism hurts them, as well. On the one hand, it seems like yet another way women are pushed to take care of men. On the other hand, part of building an effective movement is to help a broad number of people see that the movement’s goals are in their interest. The positive spin: women have done an effective job of listing our grievances with how our gender gets treated in the society. Men are now getting in touch with their own gender-based grievances, and we need to connect the dots between men’s experiences and ending sexism.
While a lot of feminists said that the hashtag made them want to throw up, I found it really interesting. And hopeful. At the other end of the twitter conversations were people who are thinking. And thinking can always change.