The Basic Questions

Helen G posted on The F-Word asking the fundamental question: What is feminism anyway, and why are you one? It was asked in context of whether or not it’s actually possible for there to be such a thing as trans*feminism, throwing out the idea that maybe, just maybe, there’s not enough common ground to work with (and naming that as an extremely depressing though. She says:

It’s entirely possible, I think…that my experiences as a trans woman, including my questions about my gender identity and expression and so on, are such personal things that maybe it really isn’t possible for me to do a Vulcan mind-meld with feminism. Transitioning is primarily about surviving, I believe, and sometimes that makes it difficult for me to raise my head and look for the bigger picture.

I’ve seen more than one woman renouncing the self-identification of “feminist” because they feel that, as trans*women, WoC, poor women, women of faith, queer women, sex workers, etc, the media impression of feminism, the feminism that gets the press and the book deals and the credit, the feminism that gets assumed about you along with the label, just does not work for them, does not apply to them and does not take their voices into account. I mean progressive women, radical women, angry women, women who are passionate about social justice and equality and feel that “feminism” has been co-opted, limited and stripped of any relevance or power.

I’ve been shaking my head at this article in “Comment is Free” for a couple of days now, wondering exactly what to do with the damn thing (since it seemed impossible to let something that arrogant and narcissistic pass without comment), but it seems relevant in that presuming oneself to be the “antichrist” of something presumes a pretty solid understanding of what the goals of the something’s idealized messiah-figure might be. The feminism that the mere existence of this woman apparently destroys exists simply to assuage the egos of young privileged women who need some grandiose cause that will give their lives meaning. These “feminists” need to imagine that they are part of a struggle well beyond themselves, need to situate themselves as having been oppressed, because if they haven’t, they won’t be able to explain their pain, when what that pain is, according to the antichrist, is mere selfish indulgence.

he “feminists” need to recruit for the sake of recruiting, so we will personally shift the definition of feminism just so we can get our numbers up, even if that means having to move so far that we let in such riff-raff as the “stay-at-home-mum”, the “Page 3 girl”, the “High Class Prostitute” and the “crack addict on the corner”. As a stripper, this woman was apparently our Messiah, our holy grail, our manifestation of our newly free sexuality, to be enshrined on all of our trophies and held up for future generations as the symbol of our victory (I must admit, it would be an interesting life to have been both the Christ and the Anti of anything within just a few short years of one another).

OK, so now I’m getting sarcastic and therefore drifting away from my point. I have seriously considered whether “feminist” is a good term for me, because when I see stuff like that “this is what a feminist looks like” video that’s been going around, it just feels schlocky and self-congratulatory, and when I see yet another story about mainstream feminists with power (I’m talking to you, Seal Press) dismissing, mocking and marginalizing the stories of women of colour or women who aren’t bouncy, cute and marketable enough, I wonder whether the term has lost its descriptive relevance for me. I don’t know how well I’m doing on that whole “Vulcan mind-meld”, thing, myself. In fact, as I wrote that first paragraph about our supposed antichrist friend, I realized that what she was saying wasn’t all that different from the “Activist Martyr Complex” I wrote about a few days ago, just with a rather different spin and argumentative purpose.

So how do I answer the questions?

Feminism, for me, is part of a larger complex of beliefs that come down to a search for unity and community with others. It’s been the gateway to learning to see the ways experiencing and being experienced by the world have influenced me and others differently. It’s about breaking down the categorizations and subdivisions and in group and out group distinctions that isolate and dehumanize and divide us from ourselves. It’s about recognizing oppression as systemic, and expressing a wish to take that entire structure back to its roots, strip it all away and start impossibly fresh.

That’s not a good definition, I realize, and it covers more why I continue to use the word than what it might actually mean, but if nothing else, writing some of it down let me clear my head just that little bit more.

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5 thoughts on “The Basic Questions

  1. Jay says:

    It’s a good question…it’s a large part of why I used to resist being a “feminist”, why I still hesitate to call myself one, and I why I wonder at the etymology of the word itself.

    I’ve always wondered: if feminism isn’t just about women, but about equality for all human beings and opposition to oppression/discrimination of all sorts…why is it based off the root word “female” (and it’s precursors)? Is this what feminism was always about? Is this what it has evolved into over time? If the latter, why not an evolution in terminology as well?

    I’ve had a hard time understanding feminism, and a large part of it is because it covers so much ground, envelopes so many alternate views and philosophies. It has, in a way, tried to become all things to all people. And when you broaden a philosophy like that, it’s bound to lose some of it’s “self”, it’s cohesiveness. Simply watching/reading the debates and criticisms you have with/about other feminists online has shown me the immense diversity of thought in feminism. If even self-declared feminists end up at odds with each other, where do I fit in?

    Re: your definition:

    1.) A search for unity and community with others is good.

    2.) I’m going to sum up the second as mostly “putting oneself in other’s shoes”…this is also good.

    3.) Breaking down categorizations/divisions/distinctions…this is one I’m learning about. I know you gave the important qualifier (ones that dehumanize/isolate), and that’s good…but I think the hard part is determining which distinctions are harmful, and which are benign. I don’t believe in a world without distinctions of any sort…so the quest is really about analyzing and finding out which are which.

    4.) Recognizing oppression as systemic. I need more clarification on this, as I’m struggling with it. I can get behind the idea that oppression is more than just oppressive people, it’s oppressive systems. But I can’t accept that all of western society is poisoned, because of systemic oppression involved in it’s development. I still believe America (as an example) can be cleansed, healed…not that it needs to be razed and a new foundation laid on the ashes.

    5.) (continuation of above, really) I don’t have that fundamental wish to “start fresh”. I just don’t. Maybe this is my privelege, that I don’t want to because I don’t have to. Maybe I still need to reach a better level of empathy before I can understand. But I mostly don’t want to because I believe it is, as you mentioned, impossible, and I’ve never seen worth in striving for the impossible (this is, perhaps, at the root of some of my religious troubles, as well).

    Western Civ, I can admit, is a multi-tiered building where people are at different levels, and movement between levels is easier for some people because they have access to the elevators. But what I want to do is throw the doors wide and let people flock to the roof…not to destroy the building and build a new one.

    But still…in all that, I didn’t see the words “woman”, “female”, etc. mentioned once. So why are we still using a word rooted in the latin for female? I don’t have objection to the word itself…I just wonder if it’s clear enough for outsiders. I mean, my brother Jim is a raving liberal…but he’s opposed to “feminism” (or thinks he is) because he thinks it’s about femme-supremacist man-haters. It is a weird day when I need to educate my brother on what is largely a liberal sub-culture. 🙂

  2. purtek says:

    Your introductory paragraphs are full of interesting thoughts to explore, and I knew my choice not to refer in any way to women in my “definition” was going to be a pretty noticeable flaw, but I’d say that despite that, the etymology/focus on women is still important. I avoided it because feminism has been the springboard for me (personally) into an understanding of all sorts of other oppression. One thing that was definitely invisible to me, pre-feminism, was that we honestly don’t talk about women’s experiences in the same natural, casual way we do men’s. Moral and value judgments are attached to biological realities (like menstruation or pregnancy), sexual behaviours and interactions with others. I do believe that the systemic reduction of one or of one group results in the systemic reduction of everyone, but in order to balance the equation, you can’t avoid the part where you work to raise the condition for that first half, the ones who are being brought down in very concrete, very practical ways.

    Terms like “humanism”, thus far, have been problematic both because there are other philosophical attachments to that word in particular, and because, in my experience, it turns the conversation back on to the privileged straight white male and his voice becomes the most important one in the conversation again. We still need to make a point of setting aside the space and the energy to focus on women’s concerns, hearing about he experiences of women and others who’ve been ignored to greater or lesser degrees, and developing a way to normalize those lives as a stepping stone to a place where that won’t happen.

    Your brother, I’m sad to say, is not a rare breed at all, and I would probably find less fruitful ground for conversation with him than I do with you.

    Re: breaking down distinctions. I see what you’re saying about some being harmful and some beneficial, but I think it’s more about recognizing the limitations of the use of categories rather than specific categories that have to go while others can stay. So, for example, when I talked about “women’s experiences and voices” above, I didn’t mean that in a gender essentialist way, though if you’re not looking, you could choose to make that interpretation. Cognitively speaking, I believe that categories have to happen because we’re physically incapable of treating every experience like a “blank slate” issue. We *need* to be able to see how what is happening now tracks back to where we’ve already been, to recognize the connections in order to have any idea at all how to behave/react in this new context. When it comes to humans, however, the categorization is useful in so far as it applies, and only that far. It seems to me that, instead of working super hard to force the specific to fit the general assumptions (a la gender essentialism/stereotyping) or developing elaborate theories for why the exception exists, we would do a lot better by ourselves if we were to start learning to let go of the category-driven model of interaction when it’s apparent that it’s not useful in a given situation.

    I’m not sure I’m making any sense, and I would really like to respond to your bigger problems, but this is already so frickin’ long and I do want to mention this:

    It has, in a way, tried to become all things to all people.

    “It” being feminism. It’s really important to remember, when talking about this, that “feminism”, can’t *try* to do anything. “Feminism” does not have agency, does not make conscious decisions, does not mold itself. A mishmash of people call themselves feminists, behave as agents and makes conscious decisions, a bunch of *other* people call themselves anti-feminists and do the same thing, and gradually “feminism” has formed. A lot of feminists jokingly say “Feminism is not the borg”, meaning that, as you note, feminists have a lot of different opinions, and we often end up at odds with one another. Where do you fit in? Honestly, I don’t think it depends on whether you accept the mantle of the feminist label or not.

    So much more to say yet, but now I have an actual job (such as it is) to get to.

  3. Jay says:

    “I avoided it [the focus on women] because feminism has been the springboard for me (personally) into an understanding of all sorts of other oppression.”

    This makes sense, and (in a way) is somewhat true for me as well.

    “was that we honestly don’t talk about women’s experiences in the same natural, casual way we do men’s.”

    Society as a whole? Women as well?

    “Moral and value judgments are attached to biological realities (like menstruation or pregnancy), sexual behaviours and interactions with others.”

    Okay, let’s see…
    –I don’t believe in assigning value judgements to biological realities (the fact that women do menstruate, and the fact that women can become pregant)…BUT one can assign value judgements to biological acts (the act of becoming pregnant), depending on related circumstances and acts.
    –I believe one should not assign value judgements to sexual desires/orientations/etc…BUT again, one can assign value judgements to sexual acts and practices.
    –I don’t see why one should not assign value judgements to interactions with others, based off the nature of those interactions and the effects on both parties.

    Am I misunderstanding? I think I may well be.

    “…you can’t avoid the part where you work to raise the condition for that first half, the ones who are being brought down in very concrete, very practical ways.”

    Agreement.

    “Terms like “humanism”, thus far, have been problematic…because, in my experience, it turns the conversation back on to the privileged straight white male and his voice becomes the most important one in the conversation again.”

    Ah. Okay, twofold:
    –I can totally see how this is a problem.
    –I can (and have) seen this used as a way to shut the straight white male out of discussion in the first place…in a “this isn’t FOR you” kind of way. I can’t deny that it’s necessary for straight white men to listen to everybody else, and not hog the spotlight…and even that this is hard for them to do, since they’re so used to hogging it. But I don’t think that in order to listen, I need to “shaddup whitey”, in the memorable words of a recent person.
    This is not to say I’m put-upon, or “feel bad for poor ol’ priveleged me”…it’s just an observation about the need for a middle ground somewhere. Sometimes that middle ground seems more like a no-man’s land, and people would rather stay behind the barbed wire.

    “We still need to make a point of setting aside the space and the energy to focus on women’s concerns…”

    No argument. But then, I don’t see why we can’t refer to this philosophy/action as “feminism”, and acknowledge it as a branch of the overarching umbrella of empowering humanity (what do you call it…anti-oppression? I dunno).

    “Your brother, I’m sad to say, is not a rare breed at all, and I would probably find less fruitful ground for conversation with him than I do with you.”

    My brother, sad to say, can be a wooden-headed dummy sometimes. 🙂 I used to call him the worst sort of liberal, but I’ve since amended my terminology (out of respect for liberals): he is the worst sort of pseudo-intellectual, who forms strong opinions about things without bothering to understand them or even attempt to, and who, when offered education or understanding, refuses it if it conflicts with his preconceptions.

    “I think it’s more about recognizing the limitations of the use of categories rather than specific categories that have to go while others can stay.”

    An excellent point, for which I thank you.

    “Cognitively speaking, I believe that categories have to happen because we’re physically incapable of treating every experience like a “blank slate” issue. We *need* to be able to see how what is happening now tracks back to where we’ve already been, to recognize the connections in order to have any idea at all how to behave/react in this new context.”

    I actually don’t agree fully with this…this is an old “free will vs. subconscious motivation” argument. While I won’t deny we are influenced by our past experiences, upbringing, and even (to an extent) subconscious conditioning, I firmly believe that people don’t necessarily need to understand all that to know right from wrong, to understand someone else’s point of view, or to change one’s views/actions. I also feel that while understanding underlying systems and historical lead-up is valuable in terms of promoting understanding, it can also be used for the purposes of blame-settling and excuse-making (and this is not limited to race/gender issues).

    “When it comes to humans, however, the categorization is useful in so far as it applies, and only that far.”

    Agreed.

    “I’m not sure I’m making any sense…”

    Au contraire! Tremendous sense.

    Re: feminism is an it, and doesn’t do things, feminists do.

    You are correct, and I apologize (I was doing what I hate…treating the overall category as some sort of monolithic entity).
    That said, I feel so many people of differing views and philosophies all trying to crowd under the umbrella of “feminism” dilutes the word to the point that it may not be useful.

    “Where do you fit in? Honestly, I don’t think it depends on whether you accept the mantle of the feminist label or not.”

    I tend to agree…but this makes me wonder at the value of the feminist label. If it doesn’t really matter whether I call myself one or not, why does it matter for anyone?

    You were speaking of categorizations having value only in utility…in it’s present sense, what is the utility of the categorization “feminist”?

    Say what you can, when you can…I’ll be around.

  4. purtek says:

    Okay, I’ll get as much out as I can, here. 🙂

    Society as a whole? Women as well?

    Absolutely. Women can be some of the worst about normalizing men’s experience – for example, taking the “men just don’t understand our complicated girl brains” kind of approach to relationships.

    I don’t see why one should not assign value judgements to interactions with others

    This is a really good point, and it makes me realize how ridiculous what I wrote was. On the morality of sex vs. sexual behaviour, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree for now, but on the whole, what I meant was that moral value is assessed differently for women’s vs. men’s actions in those interactions. So my female supervisor, for example, gets called a “bitch” behind her back, or suggestions are dropped (audibly, in a crowded “open concept” office) that it is “rag day” when all she’s done is provide constructive suggestions for improvement that would have been welcome from our male manager. So no, you weren’t misunderstanding, I was just being incredibly unclear.

    a way to shut the straight white male out of discussion in the first place…in a “this isn’t FOR you” kind of way.

    This is a tough one to navigate. I, personally, have absolutely no desire to shut the straight white male out of the conversation (obviously), but there’s a difference between welcoming the dialogue and turning the conversation back onto men’s concerns about feminism. It happens so damn often, and given that we (as feminists) feel like we talk about men’s concerns all the time, in our workplaces and churches whatever other spaces we’re in where we *don’t* go into all of these issues, I hope you can recognize that it’s draining and we sometimes reach the point where we have to say “not this one, not this time, sorry”.

    You often thank me for engaging in this dialogue with you respectfully, but the truth is, you make it easy to do so, because you’re pretty much handling the whole thing properly. First, you’ve gotten to know me pretty well (virtually) over the past couple of years, and you’ve always, always, always taken the time to ask me to clarify my opinions, checking any initial defensiveness and trying to see where I’m coming from with what I’m saying. You stop and think in response to what I say, and sometimes you’ll walk away and still decide you disagree, but you’ve listened, and that’s the main thing we’re asking for (and not getting) from straight white men (including pseudo-intellectual liberals). At least occasionally, you do some research on concepts I’m talking about that are unfamiliar to you (eg. the “privilege/invisible knapsack” issue), rather than making the assumption that you understand exactly what I’m talking about and approaching me as though you already know the answer. You raise these questions on posts where the questions are appropriate – one called “The Basic Questions” is a good place to challenge concepts of what feminism is, while one about my experiences of sexual violence (for example), is not.

    I get that a lot of this seems like common sense to you but that’s because you are what I like to classify as “Not an Asshole”. If you start looking through a lot of feminist-blog comment threads (or worse, moderation queues), you may start to appreciate more where the “This is not your space” is coming from, and why it’s sometimes said with a harshness.

    Which brings me to the “Skip to the end” point, and the question of the feminist label. First, I fully agree with your (earlier) point that we can call this feminism thing just one branch on the tree that is trying to build a better humanity. There’s just no convenient, overarching name for that whole damn tree, is there? Which is part of the value of the feminist label – it at least gives me *something* to say to initiate this conversation with people. In this case, the category has at least some use in everyday language. People have some basic understanding of what I’m talking about when I use the word (whether it’s a misconception or not) and we suddenly have a starting point for raising issues that normally get ignored. It loses its utility when we start assuming that we can figure out each and every angle on my political opinions or defining who gets to be “in” and who gets to be “out” of the group. In terms of its applicability and diversity, it’s not all that different from choosing to use the word “Christian”. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, isn’t it?

    And still, so much more to say in this one, when what I really need to be doing is my dishes.

  5. Jay says:

    Re: “men just don’t understand our complicated girl brains”

    Why is that normalizing men and denormalizing women? I don’t think women understand our complicated boy brains either.
    I know this is one where we disagree, but I honestly believe men and women think differently, and often have a hard time understanding each other…this is why I think communication is so important in relationships. I’ll concede maybe we are taught to think differently, rather than just being “wired” differently…but I think nature has something to do with it, I seriously do.

    “what I meant was that moral value is assessed differently for women’s vs. men’s actions in those interactions.”

    Aha, gotcha. Yeah, we can agree that double standard = suck.

    “…but there’s a difference between welcoming the dialogue and turning the conversation back onto men’s concerns about feminism.”

    I can understand this, and will take any reasonably gentle rebuff (“that’s not what we’re talking about right now”) pretty well, I think. I was referring more to the sitch where there’s an issue for discussion, but when StraightWhiteMale has an opinion on it, his opinion is invalid because he’s StraightWhiteMale and doesn’t understand the issue.
    Trust me, I have no problem with shutting out folks (even if they’re mostly StraightWhiteMen) who are obviously not trying to be part of the solution (and are usually trying to deny they’re part of the problem).

    “There’s just no convenient, overarching name for that whole damn tree, is there?”

    No…but dammit, there should be, shouldn’t there?

    “Which is part of the value of the feminist label – it at least gives me *something* to say to initiate this conversation with people.”

    I guess I see your point…I just think there has to be a less “shotgun” way to approach the topic.

    “In this case, the category has at least some use in everyday language. People have some basic understanding of what I’m talking about when I use the word (whether it’s a misconception or not) and we suddenly have a starting point for raising issues that normally get ignored.”

    All right, I get you (I think)…better to have some way to get a foot in the door and at least bring these topics up then to never bring them up at all, right?
    But I think the problem is that the “feminist” label IS so misunderstood and misconstrued that even though it lets you bring up the topic, it does so in a way that often sets the tone for the discussion as adverserial from the get-go. And I’m not trying to say this is the fault of feminists (in general), or necessarily a reason to discard the label. I’d prefer re-education about what feminism really is…but that’s hard when we don’t ourselves have a solid definition, let alone one that fits the term.

    “It loses its utility when we start assuming that we can figure out each and every angle on my political opinions or defining who gets to be “in” and who gets to be “out” of the group. In terms of its applicability and diversity, it’s not all that different from choosing to use the word “Christian”. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, isn’t it?”

    Touche. I prefer to deal with the problem (in the Christianity case, for example) by defining it as broadly as possible while still holding to the common usage and/or etymology of the word. Much as I might respect some atheists (if they do good humanitarian work), I’m not going to envelope them under the “Christian” umbrella if they don’t follow Christ (in at least some fashion).

    Lots of good discussion, few if any real answers. Par for the course, neh? 🙂

    (and as the dishwasher in my family, let me add that I sympathize with your plight…my sink is full of dirty crap right this moment)

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