“Why is feminism still so afraid to focus on its flaws?”, I read on The Guardian’s website this week and my immediate reaction was: It is? Feminism isn’t flawless, just like any movement and ideological system isn’t, but it surprises me that it would get called out for being uncritical regarding these flaws. Moreover, the word “still” in the headline suggests that this has been an ongoing issue for quite a long time. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.
Among the social movements that I can think of right now, I believe feminism has been among the most self-reflexive, self-critical of them all, to the extent where it has almost eliminated itself. (Remember the postmodern debate regarding the validity of women as a category in the 80’s and 90’s?) Feminists have always tried to integrate new concepts within academia, such as postcolonialism, queer studies, men’s studies, intersectionality. It has been a struggle, and it has been divisive to a movement that had been split into separate camps from the beginning. That’s why it is hard to speak about one kind of feminism in the first place. Radical, liberal, socialist feminism and others; these strands still exist today, and they differ from generation to generation. This heterogeneity hurts feminism, as much as it would hurt any movement, any political idea, but it has also benefited from it, the most obvious advantage being that feminism is still alive and active today, because it has managed to remain or become relevant in all sorts of societies. Don’t believe me? Feminism has become superfluous in our societies of affluence and equality of opportunity? Just a glance further South at the aftermath of the Arab spring suggests that feminism is more relevant than ever. Reducing feminist influence to improving the comfortable lives of well-to-do European and American women doesn’t cut it anymore. Feminism has not been bypassed by globalization; in fact it has embraced transnational connections from the beginning. It now matters to all of us whether or not a woman is allowed to drive a car in Saudi Arabia or love a woman in Uganda. If you are unaware of feminism’s involvement in global affairs, it’s not the flaw of the movement but your own information shortcomings.
But I’m getting carried away. Deborah Orr, the author of the above mentioned article doesn’t criticize any of the things I have mentioned, even though I would have guessed these were the more legitimate concerns: feminism’s global relevance, its often contradictory and hard-to-reconcile stance between academia and political activism…
But Deborah Orr is on to something else. First of all she mentions feminism’s branding problem. There’s probably a lot of truth to that but then again, I believe this is a problem of the Left in general, not just feminism. The movement is divided, just like the Left is, so branding has to be a problem, if you cannot even adequately label yourself without offending someone. But what Orr really wants to point out is this:
“The fundamental and rather serious problem is the blunt and somewhat stubborn emphasis on “equality”, difficult enough in a society deeply divided by economic inequality generally, even without the added complication that it’s the people with care of children, whatever their sex, whose economic freedom is most compromised the world over.” [All quotes are taken from this article.]
Orr goes on to say that feminism has long seized to focus mainly on the rights of middle-class white Western women, and she certainly speaks the truth. Slutwalks and quotas are important issues right next to reproductive rights, migrant women’s rights, and female labor in the developing world, and all of them are heatedly debated within feminist circles as well. So while (in)equality, social or otherwise, certainly is an issue in our society, feminism cannot be blamed for inadequately addressing it. On the contrary, the Sex-and-the-City version of postmodern feminism has been surpassed; class and race issues are more relevant to feminism than ever. But once again, this is not what the author actually tries to criticize. She is only obsessing over one thing in particular:
“But equal opportunity in the workplace has not resulted in equal achievement, and not all of this is the fault of continuing chauvinism. Women bear the children and, far more often than not, they wish to be the primary carer for those children. At its most strident, feminism can be mistaken for an ideology designed to make women feel they are wrong to want that. Worse, feminism has accidentally promoted the idea that it’s pretty easy to work and have children, with the right support in place.”
Um, no. As one commentator has rightly pointed out, that is a capitalist idea. Feminism may promote that the right support will make it easier, not easy. But working, as the author correctly points out, has never been a choice but a means to survive for most women, and continues to be just that. And here is where it would actually make sense to interrupt with a good ol’ “But what about the menz?” Having both a family and a demanding job is never going to be easy for a woman, but I don’t see why it should be any different for a man? I’m sure we can all agree that sharing the responsibilities helps, and since most families develop out of heterosexual relationships, these or other partnerships are needed in order to sustain a happy family life. Women cannot do it all alone, so if they want that, then yes, I believe they’re wrong in thinking it will work out. A family doesn’t just consist of children and a mother. There can be fathers, life partners, grandparents, friends, a commune. Sadly, in our individualist society people often don’t even consider the necessity and power of communities and solidarity, and neither does Orr. She continues:
“On even an average income, it’s never easy, [...]. Your priorities change. Work is no longer the most important thing, for a while anyway. Ambition can dissipate. For many women, that’s a self-evident truth.”
So it is a self-evident truth for women that their children become more important in their lives than work, but it isn’t for men? I wonder how Orr would substantiate that statement without getting into some fuzzy gender essentialism. Rejecting this kind of stereotyping is not a flaw of feminism, it is what modern feminism is all about. So, Ms. Orr, if you believe that women should always be the primary care-takers of children and should postpone or give up their careers in order to take care of the home and family, while for men in the same situation nothing ever changes, then yes, you’re right not to call yourself a feminist, but don’t worry, we’re not gonna make you.