Thursday, 14 January 2016

Feminism vs Egalitarianism

“Feminism: The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes."

“Egalitarianism: The doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.”

The two quotes above are sourced from the Oxford Dictionary. On the face of it, feminism and egalitarianism appear to converge. Indeed, it is not unusual to hear feminists appeal to this dictionary definition whenever they are challenged. I will call this the “reasonable person” defence, e.g., What reasonable person could possibly disagree? The point being, they can't. Not if they want to remain reasonable in the eyes of others,

But similarly, what reasonable person could disagree with egalitarianism? Both premises are highly reasonable.  But as numerous studies and surveys have demonstrated, a majority of people support egalitarian values but do not identify as feminists.[1] [2] [3] [4] What's going on? Are these people confused, ignorant, or both?!


It seems the non-feminist (not anti-feminist) egalitarian majority either know or intuitively suspect a crucial difference between the goals of egalitarianism and feminism. Unfortunately, looking to dictionary definitions does not help us articulate what these differences are.

A visit to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives us a more detailed description of both concepts. The opening preamble to the egalitarian chapter[5] dovetails nicely with the dictionary definition above. The feminist chapter, however, quickly diverges from the dictionary definition, running off into various strands where the key theme is internal disagreement within feminism about what feminism is.  It takes just over 3,000 words before the term patriarchy first appears but when it does, it is neither problematic nor contested.

“Feminism, as liberation struggle, must exist apart from and as a part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms. We must understand that patriarchal domination shares an ideological foundation with racism and other forms of group oppression, and that there is no hope that it can be eradicated while these systems remain intact. This knowledge should consistently inform the direction of feminist theory and practice. (hooks 1989, 22)”[6]

Here is the first hint of what differentiates feminism from egalitarianism. You will note there is no mention of equality by hooks; the goal is “liberation” from “patriarchal domination.”

Ask a feminist what feminism means and you are likely to get one of two responses. The "reasonable person" defence is one, while the other, is what I will call the "atomistic dodge." This entails the feminist stating that feminism is not a monolithic movement, its aims being too complex to pin down[7]. This position personifies intersectional feminism. Note how the descriptions contradict one another. It is easy to get lost in this equivocal maze.
So, rather than trying to discern the differences between feminist factions, I asked what they had in common. The results help us see the difference between egalitarianism and feminism.

In 1963, the liberal feminist Betty Friedan published a book about a “problem with no name.” Seven years later, radical feminists named it “patriarchy." Patriarchy was conceived of as the underlying structure which facilitated men's oppression of women; “a system characterized by power, dominance, hierarchy and competition, a system that [could not] be reformed but only ripped out root and branch.”[8]

This moment marked a fundamental change in strategy as feminists shifted from a liberal policy of achieving equality through reform, to a radical strategy of trying to dismantle patriarchy. Around this time, Friedan was unceremoniously kicked out of the organisation she had founded because she wasn't radical enough[9].  Since this time, patriarchy has remained central to all subsequent waves of feminism. While it is true that the different factions of feminisms have slightly different conceptions of patriarchy, they all agree on the following:

Patriarchy is a socially constructed phenomenon which enforces notions of sex and gender that equate to male supremacy and female inferiority[10] [11].

Patriarchy is the mechanism by which all men institutionally oppress all women[12].
All feminisms are united in the fight against patriarchy (if little else)[13].

But what is patriarchy? Does it even exist? There is a dearth of research on feminist premises which values critical thinking over critical theory, though this is starting to change.[14] Both the existence and origin of patriarchy are assumed by feminists rather than explored, yet the flawed, circular logic of the three premises above represent the ideological bedrock of all feminisms—from radical to intersectional—and social 'justice' activism today.

The feminist concept of patriarchy is embellished from the anthropological observation that in many cultures men appear to hold more social, economic and political 'power' compared to females.  Feminists assume men grasp for power and resources to dominate women because they hate them (misogyny). My research suggests patriarchy is vastly more complex than feminists have ever imagined and that women have just as much influence in its structure and maintenance as men.  As Mary Wollstonecraft noted:

“Ladies are not afraid to drive in their own carriages to the doors of cunning men."[15]

Patriarchy is a system which can both oppress and liberate, both male and female. It is the human fitness landscape.

Paula Wright
And here lies the rub for feminisms today. Heterosexual men and women are attracted to one another precisely because of their stereotypical sexual traits. In fact, they are not stereotypical, they are archetypical. Humans are a sexually reproducing species. Men and women have shaped one another physically and psychologically over millions of years via the process of sexual selection. In turn, we create culture as our fitness landscape. There is a simple dynamic to this: Men want power and resources because women want men who have power and resources.

This isn't because women are selfish gold diggers or men shallow aesthetes. Sexual dimorphism and the sexual division of labour are not patriarchically imposed tyrannies. They are an elegant and pragmatic solution for a species who have uniquely helpless infants with unprecedentedly long childhoods. This dynamic between the sexes, of team work and strong pair bonds, is one of the foundations of our success as a species. The survival of offspring is at the centre of this—whether we choose to have children or not. The sexes simply cannot be understood except in light of one another and the reason we evolved to cooperate; offspring. It will continue to be so for as long as we remain human.

The feminist legacy of social constructionism and patriarchy theory has taken the capricious, delightful and, yes, sometimes cruel battle of the sexes and turned it into a war of attrition. The circular logic also has feminism devouring itself from within.

This past year, one of the the most iconic women of the 20th century, the radical feminist and intellectual, Germaine Greer, was denied a platform to speak at a UK university.[16] Her crime? Greer does not reject biology wholesale and, while she respects the egalitarian rights of men who want to transition and live and love as a woman, she insists this doesn't actually make them biologically women; they remain trans-women. For this she was stripped of the right to speak, verbally abused and labelled a bigot. The middle class, socialist feminist Laurie Penny went so far as to cast Greer in the same light as people who want to murder homosexuals.

Why should women mind? In 2014 a trans-woman in the US was awarded “working mother of the year” despite neither giving birth or being primary carer to her children.[17]  This year, in 2016, Caitlyn Jenner, who has been living as a woman for a few months, will be awarded “woman of the year” ahead of countless women of substance who have made extraordinary accomplishments while facing actual selection pressures unique to their biological sex. Trans-activists are lobbying for a change of language by midwives to refer to people giving birth as “pregnant persons” not women.[18] At a time when people debate whether a woman drinking the odd glass of wine in pregnancy is child abuse, a trans-women took powerful (not socially constructed) hormones to stimulate lactation[19]. A discussion of the nutritional value of the milk extends to the trans-mother reporting the milk is thick and creamy, which seems to identify it as something other than human breast milk, which is highly dilute and low in fat.

Feminists frequently claim that we live in a rape culture, even though rape and all violent crime in the West is in steady decline and rape prosecution statistics are on a par with other crimes at over 50%.[20] [21] In the US there is a feminist movement on college campuses to lower the threshold of proof in rape prosecution trials. It is staggering to think these educated people have forgotten terrible lessons within living memory; the bitter crop of strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

To balk at this is not hatred or phobia but healthy scepticism. We are all equal before the law under egalitarianism. This is not the case with feminism. It places ideology before people.  Individual rights and choices are “problematic”.[22] Women like myself who point out the logical inconsistencies and totalitarian mission creep of feminism are labelled anti-feminist and anti-woman; as if “feminist” and “woman” were synonyms. They aren't. Feminists are identified by their politics, not their sex or gender. They do not speak for women or the majority of egalitarians in society; they speak only for themselves. The dictionary definition of feminism is in serious need of a rewrite.

The egalitarian quest for equality is tangential to feminism. So...which are you?


[1] (link is external)
[2] (link is external)
[4] (link is external)
[5] (link is external)
[6] (link is external)
[7] (link is external)
[8] Tong, R. (1989). Feminist thought: A more comprehensive introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
[9] (link is external)
[10] de Beauvoir, S. (1949/1986). The second sex. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
[11]Cudd, A., & Holstrom, N. (2011). Capitalism, for against: A feminist debate. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
[12] Gamble, Sarah (ed). The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfemnism. Routledge: 2001
[13]Gamble, Sarah (ed). The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfemnism. Routledge: 2001
[14] (link is external)
[15] Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. 1792.
[16] (link is external)
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[18] (link is external)
[19] (link is external)
[20] (link is external)
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Monday, 11 January 2016

The Death of David Bowie

I just found out and I’m somewhat in shock, as I didn’t see that coming at all. Lemmy yes, but then I knew he was ill, and had looked like death on legs for years. Bowie, I thought, would live another 15 years at least. Or possibly forever, the way gods are supposed to.

How do we mourn today? How do we mark the passing of a great, illuminating soul? We change our facebook profile picture. We post a one-sentence tweet. Then we go back to our glowing screens. There is so much war and disaster and novelty and death these days there’s no time for anything more. And besides, we all know another one will be coming along any moment now.

As I get older I’m beginning to glimpse what it’s like to be old, with a funeral every week of someone you once laughed with and loved. But it’s not the people I slept with yet, it’s the heroes I grew up with, the figures of beauty and genius I looked to as beacons of wonder and a higher plain of existence, signposts to a richer, deeper world beyond the narrow mundanity of family life and small town stagnation.

I grew up before the internet, when there was no portal to the group mind of the western world a finger motion away. To be an outsider finding another human being sharing ANY of the same passions and ideas as yourself was the rarest and most treasurable thing in the world, and you could go your whole life without meeting one. Books were your safest bet, if you were lucky enough to find one which told the truth. So for someone to break through the carefully maintained inanity of the TV and the Radio and use those mediums to bridge the gap between millions with something challenging, alien, pure, heartfelt, dangerous and dissident was an extraordinary and seemingly impossible act. I sometimes wonder if it’s actually possible for people younger than me to appreciate just how hard it was to make that happen, and what it therefore meant to those who were touched by it.

In the age of reality TV and YouTube sensations, ‘fame’ doesn’t really mean any of what it once did. We really should have another word for karaoke contestants and celebrity chefs leaking their own sex tapes to eke out one more week of recognition. You’re not truly famous in my book unless people know your name a hundred years later. You’re certainly not Great.

David Bowie was famous because David Bowie was truly great: like The Beatles and The Stones before him, Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, his songs are just as loved and played and celebrated today as they ever were, almost 50 years on, and changed pretty much everything that followed, both in music and popular culture. I won’t even try to name all the lesser cul-de-sac acts that sprang up in his wake, all the New Romantics and Goths, the Art-Rockers and Gender Benders: none of them achieved anything comparable to their idol either in breadth or popularity, and none of them would have - or could have - existed without him.

What was his gift? What made him special? What did he do first, before anyone else?

Bowie was the first magpie of rock n roll, the first to take on whole styles of music as nothing more than colours for him to paint his own unique creations with, and he did that all the way through his life, touring whatever excited him in the moment from folk and rock and plastic soul all the way through krautrock and ambient and jazz and drum&bass, but turning all of them into simply ‘Bowie’. The songs Space Oddity, Ashes To Ashes and Hallo Spaceboy are all thematically linked, all directly referring to the same character, though each is more than a decade away from the one next to it, and in a different genre of music. And every one of them a hit.

David Bowie was the first rocker to explicitly make his life’s work the wearing of a series of masks and personas - starting with Ziggy Stardust, he forced the audience to step back from the ecstasy of the moment and see an artificial creation - an ‘Actor’ before them playing a part the man behind the mask was writing. In doing so he deepened and expanded the vocabulary and possibilities of popular music, adding a knowing detachment and artificiality that would have been unimaginable in rock n roll before he came along. At a time when Showaddywaddy, The Carpenters and The Bay City Rollers were his competition in the charts, he was introducing high-art ideas from experimental theatre and other mediums into rock music, such as utilizing William S Burroughs’ “cut-up” method of writing novels for writing lyrics.

If that wasn’t enough, he was also the first openly gay pop star (even though he wasn’t really, perhaps just a little bi from time to time, though no-one knew that then). In his unprecedented androgyny, and still shocking antics onstage like simulating oral sex every night with his guitarist Mick Ronson back in the Ziggy days, he kicked open the door for all the Boy George’s, Antony Hegarty’s and Marilyn Manson’s to saunter through years later, though of course it goes without saying none of them have created anything like the enormously varied yet immediately recognizable body of work he put together, and never will.

I don’t see my family all that often but my mother often rings me up to tell me of the death of some person from the past she swears I once knew, some distant aunt or uncle, some old family friend whose house I once stayed at, long, long ago. And I have to tell her over and over again I don’t remember who they are, I don’t know who she’s talking about. They mean nothing to me.

If I was writing all this for a man I’d never met just because he was someone I once saw on Top Of The Pops and on the cover of some magazines, someone who made a few nice songs I hummed along with, that would be a sad thing to confess. But if that person was a creature of flesh and blood who somehow came to symbolize, for millions of people, boundless experimentation, intelligence and curiosity in the dumbest of all art-forms, constant movement and change, agelessness, uncompromising artistic vision and endless possibilities, a land of pure thought above the mire we can visit every time we put on one of his records... well then that would be the most natural thing in the world.

And that was David Bowie.