I don’t remember ever not being a feminist. I toddled in marches of the 1970s with my mother. She became a second wave feminist in the 1960s after being denied a mortgage without a male guarantor and being told by her employer that she could not study for accountancy exams because “There’s no accounting for women.” Briefly flirting with radical feminism, she found their views extreme and unreasonable and was berated for her heterosexual relationships and love of feminine clothing (see her poem “Woman the Barricades“). She found her home in liberal feminism and from there was active in writing, marching and protesting for legal changes which would give her the same opportunities as men. By the late 1980s, she felt the main legal battles had been won, and largely retired from active campaigning though she continues to identify as a feminist and study women’s history.
Given this influence, of course I was a feminist, a liberal feminist. Growing up, I spoke angrily about the legality of rape within marriage (criminalized in 1990), and won a personal battle to take woodwork at school rather than cookery (I was terrible at it but not noticeably worse than I am at cooking). I criticized sexist attitudes at work, which were still quite unapologetic in the 90s, informing my boss that he was a “good boy” when he called me a “good girl” and refusing to say anything apart from “cheep” to any man who referred to me as a “bird.” Liberal feminism was aggressive then, but a quite different quality of aggression to the spiteful malevolence we see now. It was optimistic, almost playful. We were confident that we were winning. It was fun seeing how we could disconcert the perpetrators of sexist stereotypes and challenge casual sexism, often humorously. We did not think older men (or women) with sexist assumptions were terrible people or want them punished. We simply wanted them to realize the times had changed and catch up. Women are everywhere now. Get used to it.
At times, we needed to work with the radical feminists. Rape victims were still being dismissed or disbelieved. People still blamed victims for their clothing quite respectably. This needed to become routinely frowned upon. RadFems, who insisted that patriarchy was evident in everything, that the idea of gender needed to be destroyed and that men as a whole were dangerous and violent, were regarded as the biggest internal problem the movement had to contend with by liberal feminists. Mostly, their extreme input into feminist discussion was met with eye-rolling and “Perhaps we don’t need to go quite that far.” We were unprepared for the problem rising in our own liberal branch.
From the 1980s, some internal criticisms of liberal feminism began to be made. Liberal feminism as a whole was charged with not recognizing the additional problems faced by black and Asian women and lesbians, and being largely centered on middle-class problems. These were valid criticisms which needed addressing and prioritizing. All women must have equality. Many liberal feminists began to dedicate more time to LGBT rights and highlight the particular vulnerability of women living in communities which adhered to oppressive patriarchal religion, particularly Islam, and subjected women and girls to “honor” violence and genital mutilation. They did this within universal liberal feminism and some still do but in this decade, the academic shift in the humanities and social sciences towards postmodernism began, and gradually filtered through to feminism in praxis. Intersectionality was forming.
People are often confused about what postmodernism is and what it has to do with feminism. Very simplistically, it was an academic shift pioneered by Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard which denied that reliable knowledge could ever be attained and claimed that meaning and reality themselves had broken down. It rejected large, overarching explanations (meta-narratives) which included religion but also science, and replaced them with subjective, relative accounts (mini-narratives) of the experiences of an individual or sub-cultural group. These ideas gained great currency in the humanities and social sciences and so became both an artistic movement and a social “theory.” They rejected the values of universal liberalism, the methods of science and the use of reason and critical thinking as the way to determine truth and form ethics. Individuals could now have not only their own moral truths but their own epistemological ones. The expression “It’s true for me” encapsulates the ethos of postmodernism. To claim to know anything to be objectively true (no matter how well-evidenced) is to assert a meta-narrative and to “disrespect” the contrary views of others which is oppressive (even if those views are clearly nonsense.) The word “scientism” was created for the view that evidence and testing are the best way to establish truths.
At its height, postmodernism as an artistic movement produced non-chronological, plotless literature and presented urinals as art. In social theory, postmodernists “deconstructed” everything considered true and presented all as meaningless. However, having done this, there was nowhere else to go and nothing more to say. In the realm of social justice, nothing can be accomplished unless we accept that certain people in a certain place experience certain disadvantages. For this, a system of reality needs to exist, and so new theories of gender and race and sexuality began to emerge comprised of mini-narratives. These categories were held to be culturally constructed and constructed hierarchically to the detriment of women, people of color and LGBTs. Identity was paramount.
Liberal feminist aims gradually shifted from the position:
“Everyone deserves human rights and equality, and feminism focuses on achieving them for women.”
“Individuals and groups of all sexes, races, religions and sexualities have their own truths, norms and values. All truths, cultural norms and moral values are equal. Those of white, Western, heterosexual men have unfairly dominated in the past so now they and all their ideas must be set aside for marginalized groups.”
Liberal feminism had shifted from the universality of equal human rights to identity politics. No longer were ideas valued on their merit but on the identity of the speaker and this was multifaceted, incorporating sex, gender identity, race, religion, sexuality and physical ability. The value of an identity in social justice terms is dependent on its degree of marginalization, and these stack up and vie for primacy. This is where liberal feminism went so badly wrong. When postcolonial guilt fought with feminism, feminism lost. When it fought with LGBT rights, they lost too.
So aware of Western imperialism having trampled on other cultures historically, Western liberal feminism now embraced their most patriarchal aspects. A Western liberal feminist can, on the same day, take part in a slut walk to protest Western women being judged by their clothing and accuse anyone criticizing the niqab of Islamophobia. She can demand the prosecution of a Christian baker for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same sex-couple, and condemn the planning of a Gay Pride march through a heavily Muslim area as racist. Many intersectional feminists do not limit themselves to the criticism of other white, Western feminists but pour vitriolic, racist abuse on liberal Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and LGBT activists. The misogyny and homophobia of Christianity may be criticized by all (quite rightly) but the misogyny and homophobia of Islam by none, not even Muslims. The right to criticize one’s own culture and religion is seemingly restricted to white westerners (The best analysis of “The Racism of Some Anti-racists” is by Tom Owolade).
Universal liberal feminists were horrified by this development. Our old adversaries, the radical feminists, looked positively rational in comparison. They might tell us we are culturally conditioned into internalized misogyny, and they certainly had a pessimistic and paranoid worldview but at least it was coherent. The intersectional feminists were not even internally consistent. In addition to the cultural relativity, the rules change day by day as new sins against social justice are invented. We opposed the radical feminists for their extreme antipathy towards men but at least they shared a bond of sisterhood with each other. The intersectional feminists not only exhibit great prejudice against men but also turn on each other at the slightest imagined infraction of the rules. Having not the slightest regard for reason or evidence, they vilify and harass those imagined to have transgressed.
In addition to their failure to support the most vulnerable women in society, intersectional feminism cultivated a culture of victimhood, negatively impacting all women in society but particularly young women. Women are oppressed, we are told, by men explaining anything, spreading their legs on a train and committing vague sins like “expecting unequal amounts of emotional labour.” If they call out to us or proposition us, we should be terrified. If obnoxious men attempt to grope us or succeed, we have experienced an appalling sexual assault from which we may never recover. Not only are we oppressed by seemingly all men but by anyone expressing anti-feminist ideas or feminist ones we don’t like. More than this, we are rendered “unsafe” by them, particularly those women who are trans and may have to hear that a trans exclusionary radical feminist has said something in a place they don’t have to go to. It is hard to imagine how women manage to survive leaving the house at all.
Even in the house, we cannot be entirely sure of “safety.” Men might say mean things to us on the internet, and we couldn’t possibly cope with that. In reality, I find the opposite problem more concerning. Recently, in a disagreement with an intersectional feminist man, he began to change his mind! Much encouraged, I continued the discussion. After some time, I checked his bio and spotted that he was carrying on a parallel conversation with another man in which he was expressing exactly the same views he had since changed in our conversation. Challenging him on this, I was informed that he did not feel he should disrespect my lived experience as a woman by contradicting it with his own views as a man. However, he still disagreed with me and felt able to say so to another man. I could not get him to see that all this had achieved was excluding me from the conversation and wasting my time. I might as well have been made to withdraw to the drawing room to let the men talk.
Perhaps men might criticize our academic writing or blogs? Richard Dawkins was accused of misogyny for mocking a postmodernist sociology essay that happened to have been written by a woman (He’d mocked one written by a man a few days earlier). He was asked, by numerous people, why he hated intelligent women or why he had to criticize women’s writing? Surely, it should be clear to everyone that not doing so excludes women from academic discussion? If we want to be taken seriously as academics (or as bloggers), we need people to be able to criticize our work.
Like many universal liberal feminists of my generation and above, I decided to hang on and try to tackle, from the inside, the problems of cultural relativity, science denial, raging incivility and the disempowerment of women by feminists. This resulted in my being blocked by feminists, told I am not a feminist, called an “anti-feminist,” a “MRA,” a “misogynist” and even a “rape apologist” (I had suggested that the men who invented date-rape drug detecting nail polish were well-intentioned). I have been told to fuck myself with a rusty chainsaw, and that I am a confused middle-aged woman who does not understand society. Following one encounter with a feminist in which I said I did not get death and rape threats from men, a new account with a male name was suddenly set up which began sending me some.
At the same time, non-feminists were telling me that I was not what they understood by “feminist” or even asserting that I was not a feminist. I assured them I was because I was concerned about female genital mutilation, “honor” violence and forced marriage affecting British women today and rarely prosecuted. I am opposed to the disempowerment of young women who are being told that they cannot cope with different ideas and that criticism is abusive by feminists in universities and schools. Are these not pressing issues affecting women? My friend, Kath, a recovering RadFem, helped clarify my thoughts on this.
This is true. I agree with Ayaan Hirsi Ali that western feminism needs to stop focusing on “trivial bullshit.” I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for women who feel traumatized and excluded by scientists’ shirts or video games. When it comes to the little things, the playing field becomes much more even. We all have gendered expectations we’d rather not comply with. I suggest not doing it. There is very little point in complaining about gender expectations whilst perpetuating them. The idea that women cannot defy such expectations because of fear of disapproval seems contrary to the entire ethos of feminist activism and those who have gone before us.
I think it’s time I accepted that “feminism” no longer means “the aim for equal rights for women” but is understood to refer to the current feminist movement which encompasses so much more and very little that I want to be associated with. I posted this on Twitter recently:
The serious issues faced by British women that I want to be involved in are encompassed by human rights activism, and the disempowerment of young women can only be opposed, sadly, by opposing feminism itself.
I used to be pleased when people told me that I had made them think more positively about feminism, but now I fear that this may simply have prevented that person from criticizing a movement that really needs to be criticized. Feminism has lost its way and should not have public respectability until it remedies this. It seems that more and more people are realizing this. A recent study showed that only 7% of Brits identify as feminist although over two thirds support gender equality. My sadness at abandoning the identity bequeathed to me by my mother is mixed with anger when I consider that she too, a woman who was instrumental in getting banking qualifications opened to women, would now be regarded as deeply problematic.
Helen Pluckrose is a researcher in the humanities who focuses on late medieval/early modern religious writing for and about women. She is critical of postmodernism and cultural constructivism which she sees as currently dominating the humanities. You can connect with her on Twitter@HPluckrose