Here are some thoughts on #WomenAgainstFeminism, an online collection of reasons given by women for opposing “feminism”. You might notice that for this piece I’ve put the term “feminism” in quotes. These are not scare-quotes; I do it because I argue that it is difficult to pin down a single definition based on people’s usage. If I use the term without quotes, then I am using my own definition.
The term “feminism” has come to mean many different things, depending on who you speak to. The gulf between definitions is so great that it is not only possible but common to find “feminists” and “anti-feminists” who believe practically the same things as each other about gender equality, yet differ only in what they call themselves. This shouldn’t really matter, apart from two considerations:
The first is that some people seem to really really like the word, such that they distrust anyone who rejects it (even if their socio-political beliefs are very similar). Conversely, some people seem to really really hate the word, such that they distrust anyone who accepts it.
The second consideration is that the disconnect between definitions can cause conflict; Sue thinks that “feminism” means gender equality, finds out that Jo claims to reject “feminism”, and concludes that Jo is opposed to gender equality. What Sue doesn’t consider is that Jo defines “feminism” as the actions of the group that call themselves “feminists”, and has, in general, had pretty negative experiences with those she has encountered. In fact, Jo assumes that Sue supports the bad “feminists” she has encountered, and thus the well is poisoned for her too. Regardless of who is right, any animosity between Sue and Jo could have been avoided if they had either agreed on a mutual definition* of “feminism” or simply used other terms to describe their respective positions.
I feel this mutual understanding about what is meant by “feminism” is what’s missing from the interactions between #WomenAgainstFeminism and their critics, and explains why they seem to be talking past one another. It doesn’t actually matter if someone has got the definition “wrong”, so long as everyone in the discussion understands the details of the others’ positions.
The response to #WomenAgainstFeminism contains numerous examples of sexism and hypocrisy. There have been some good responses, even if many commit the error outlined in my first point, above. However, there have been plenty of examples of those defending the “feminist” cause acting like the stereotypical “anti-feminists”, and I haven’t seen a lot of their fellow pro-“feminists” addressing this.
One sort of behaviour that I find objectionable is trying to parody them by “translating” what they’re saying into what they’re “really saying”. I like parodies, but this “translating” fad is often done out of spite rather than humour. Take this for instance. It “translates” #WomenAgainstFeminism into things like “I have poor reasoning skills” and “I like shitting on other women”, while contriving an ugly or vacant facial expression.
Another disappointing response (and you can see an example of this on the previous link) is the claim that these women are only saying this to impress men; “so that the boys will like them”. Perhaps these critics are being deliberately ironic, but that isn’t very clear from their tweets; in fact it looks like the irony went right over their heads.
If either of these things was done by a man against “feminists”, then it would be held up as an example of egregious misogyny. How will this approach help convince rational and enlightened people to call themselves a “feminist”?
Many, if not most of the #WomenAgainstFeminism seem to have sincere gripes with “feminism”, whether rightly or wrongly. If people are serious about “feminism” (however they define it), wouldn’t it be more productive to try to understand where these women are coming from? The responses I’ve seen have at best just told them they’re wrong and they don’t know what they’re talking about, and at worst have mocked and abused them. I’d wager that the more rational ones on each side would find very little to disagree about, save for a definition here and there, and if there was some sort of real attempt at a dialogue then it could prove quite productive.
For instance, if Tina is against “feminism” because she doesn’t hate men, and Rita replies that actually “feminists” don’t hate men but just want equality, then Tina can explain why she thinks that. Perhaps she’s encountered a “feminist” who was sexist against men. I know I have. Rita (unless she’s one of those who’s committed to the dogma that it’s impossible to be sexist against men) could reply that she’s a “feminist” who doesn’t hate men – in fact Rita doesn’t think a consistent feminist could hate men, since feminism is about gender equality. Who knows, perhaps Tina will end up re-thinking her position, and Rita might be a little more understanding of those who don’t like calling themselves a “feminist”.
Ultimately, what matters is that people can have a discussion, using terms and concepts that are mutually understood. No assumptions should be made about what is believed unless it has been made explicit, and if contentious terms like “feminism” are to be used, then the definition much be agreed in advance. If it can’t be, then for the purposes of the discussion the term is useless and other words must be preferred.
* Fairly recently I devised a strategy to overcome this problem. I sometimes hear some very clever atheists and agnostics say things like “when someone asks me if I believe in God, before answering I always ask them ‘what do you mean by God?'”. These days, if someone asks if I’m a feminist, I ask them “what do you mean by ‘feminism’?”. If they say it is the opposition to sexism, or the belief in gender equality, or ‘the view that women are people’, then I answer emphatically “yes”. If they say that it means I must engage in identity politics or believe vague conspiracy theories about ‘The Patriarchy’ then I can say “no”. Making it explicit like this reduces the likelihood that an honest person will misinterpret my position.