I’m pretty picky about which labels I choose for myself. There are a whole number of them that are applied to me without my consent: a woman, Irish, white, working-class, etc. So I figure that since everyone else is so intent on labelling me, I needed to be careful when picking those for myself. Labels are dangerous. So I have only really accepted a couple that I choose with any consistency: a libertarian (which describes my political views), and an INTJ (which gives at least some description of my personality).
I avoid taking the feminist label for several reasons. It is not that I fundamentally disagree with feminist theory in all of its parts. But part of the reason is that the word “feminist” has such a heavy meaning — and not a consistent meaning depending on who you talk to. So, instead of labeling myself something and causing confusion, I prefer to have an honest discussion about it. That way, I can accurately depict what I think (and learn something about someone else) rather than getting lost in labels that are so convoluted that they are essentially meaningless.
That, however, is a somewhat trivial reason for why I do not consider myself to be a feminist. My real problems with the contemporary feminist movement are numerous, but the three chief ones are 1) I would prefer a focus on individualism as a route to equality 2) The focus on women leaves out men 3) the general exclusion an bigotry within the group (and the group politics in general).
Individualism, rather than feminism, as a route to liberty
This will sound very much like a humanist feminist theory, but I believe that approaching liberty and gender freedom is best done by recognizing individual people as simply that. You will hear many early feminists — many of whom were classical liberals in their own right — advocate this point of view. That people should just be individuals. However, much criticism has been (rightly) put on these thinkers to say that rather than people becoming individuals, what they seemed to be advocating was that women become like men: aggressive, forthright, dominant, powerful. They rightly point out that women are/were a certain way because society made them that way, but they seem to hold that there are a particular set of values that women should seek to embody.
I do not hold a lot of stock with this. I think that we as a society need to recognize both the traits we categorize as masculine and those we categorize as feminine as simply qualities that individuals possess and some people possess them in different ratios, and all such ratios are acceptable. We should allow people to determine who they are without the societal pressures to conform to certain gender roles, or even roles that will make them “successful” in life.
In the contemporary feminist movement, there is a lot of “group” and identity politics. Though there are many components to this that I will discuss later, but essentially I believe that in order to have a group movement, you have to define who is and is not in that movement. You have to define who is a woman and who isn’t. And if and when you look closer at that issue, the lines are more blurred than you might think. When you do this, you do so to the detriment of those who might want to belong to your movement. Plus, defining what a woman is and what a woman isn’t is begins another cycle of categorization, and I feel that is what I would like gender equality to transcend.
Men have gender, too…
The thing that really gets me about the feminist movement is the total and complete exclusion of how gender effects men. We talk about patriarchy and how it puts women into little boxes and we expect certain things out of them, and how that is so awful. But the whole time I hear these things, I can’t help but think: What about men? Gender effects them too. Patriarchy puts just as many chains on them as for women. In the same way that a pedestal is a cage, so is a sword. In the same way that a cocksure, aggressive, go-getter woman receives social backlash for being herself, so does a peaceable, nurturing, non-confrontational man.
More than anything, I wish those who sought gender equality would widen their gaze. Yes, it is important for women to participate in society and feel lie they have options. But we strive for such things under the guise of equality between the genders, yet how can we achieve that when men still feel they have to be the breadwinners? When men feel that they are constrained to a job that makes more money than his wife? When they feel like they have to be a certain way, something that is contrary to who they are?
This is gender oppression, too. And the fact that many of the feminists in the contemporary movement do not agree with me on this (men have all the jobs! They argue), is a large issue that feminism and I will have to reconcile before we can join forces.
Some of the people who are the least-aware of the diversity of ideas within the feminist movement are feminists themselves. This often leads to a lot of name-calling and, again, categorization of who gets to use the f-word and who doesn’t. I find this rather distasteful.
One of the most recent examples of this was Jessica Valenti’s op-ed in the Washington Post and Carrie Lukas‘ response. Valenti accused Sarah Palin of being a “fake feminist” for a lot of questionable reasons, including her pro-life stance. Lukas’ response was well-worded, if questionable in some spots. But the fact that the debate was even happening is just ludicrous to me. This attitude of “you don’t agree with us on how to achieve equality, therefore we kick you out of the feminist club” is far too common for my tastes.
I don’t take the label of feminist because I don’t agree with many of their issues, and I don’t agree with this attitude. If we spent less time on determining who got to use the “f-word” and who didn’t and more time on how to solve problems, maybe we could actually get some stuff done.
To draw this epically long article to a close, I will say the following. I believe in gender equality. But not only in gender equality. I believe in a society where people do not have to take a gender or a race or a class or any sort of label and have it define who they are. I think that much of this can be achieved all at once if we realize the ultimate source of oppression of all kinds. The ultimate source of oppression is impressing upon people that they have to be a certain way because of certain categories, certain labels, certain traits. As soon as we can move beyond that and realize that people are just people, we will be closer to reaching equality.
~V.A Luttrell (stands on the shoulders of those who came before)