What if I called myself a conservative – but virtually all of my writings on the subject were devoted to passionately denouncing conservatives, and I didn’t actually favor any conservative policies to address any of today’s problems? What if I had virtually never published a positive word about conservatism (apart from “however…” type passages in essays denouncing conservatism?) What if my self-styled conservatism had the practical effect of giving myself a better platform from which to denounce conservatism?
My guess is that, if all that were the case, most conservatives would find my claim to conservatism suspect. Modern conservatism encompasses many different views, but it doesn’t encompass the view that modern conservatism is a terrible idea that ought be done away with.
On a feminist mailing list, I recently called Cathy Young an “anti-feminist journalist.” Cathy has taken issue with this:
I think that labeling me (or, say, Wendy McElroy) “anti-feminist” (1) is inaccurate and (2) establishes a rigid ideological definition of what “feminism” is. I also think that, whether or not Barry intends it that way, “anti-feminist” is a pejorative. Indeed, I would say that Barry himself uses it as a pejorative: the section on his blog dedicated to critics of feminism is called “Anti-Feminist Zaniness,” and in this 2004 thread, he says, in a partial defense of yours truly, “I’m not saying that … she doesn’t say stupid, anti-feminist things…”
Okay, let’s take this a bit at a time.
Is “Anti-Feminist” Always A Pejorative?
Do I use “anti-feminist” as a pejorative – that is, as the OED puts it, as “a word or expression which by its form or context expresses or implies contempt for the thing named”? I don’t think I do. I use it just as I use words like “libertarian” “republican” and “conservative” – terms which describe political philosophies.
It’s true that in the loose talk of a comments section that was (at that moment) pretty much all-feminist, I wrote that Cathy said “stupid anti-feminist things.” In hindsight, I should’ve put that more diplomatically (i.e, “endorses terrible anti-feminist ideas”), but I’m sure I’ve also referred casually to “stupid republican things” at some point in my life – and I bet many conservatives have done the same with words like “feminist” and “liberal,” when they’ve been talking casually among the like-minded. That doesn’t make any of these words pejoratives which can’t be used in a good-faith debate.
What Does “Feminist” Mean?
Before we can define “anti-feminist,” we have to discuss what “feminist” means. And here, we immediately run into trouble: feminism has dozens of meanings, depending on who you speak to. And, clearly, I have no authority (or desire) to define feminism for anyone apart from myself; people who want to think of themselves as “feminists” are free to do so regardless of if I agree.
So I’ll just talk about what “feminist” means to me. Here’s how I’ve put it in the past:
1) Believes that there is current, significant, society-wide inequality and sexism which on balance disadvantages women.
2) Advocates for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
Cathy would presumably find that a “rigid ideological definition of what ‘feminism’ is.” One of Cathy’s anonymous readers is harsher, writing that “Anyone with whom [Ampersand] disagrees on gender issues is ‘anti-feminist’ and is therefore a complete reactionary bigot.”
I don’t think either of these claims hold up to scrutiny. Far from being “rigid,” my definition of “feminist” is a vast sprawling tent, easily encompassing countless contrary feminist opinions (radical feminist, eco-feminist, liberal feminist, socialist feminist, womanist, cultural feminist, trans feminist, third wave feminist, etc etc). And although I disagree with aspects of most of those views, I’ve never called them “anti-feminist” views – because they’re not.
What is Anti-Feminism?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an anti-feminist as “One opposed to women or to feminism.” Cathy doesn’t oppose women, but you’d have to impossibly distort her work to argue that she doesn’t oppose feminism; virtually all her writings on feminism are attacks on feminists and feminism. The OED offers a second definition: “a person (usu. a man) who is hostile to sexual equality or to the advocacy of women’s rights.” Cathy isn’t hostile to equality (and she’s not a man!), but her writing clearly is “hostile to… the advocacy of women’s rights.” She thinks women already have virtually all the rights they need, and therefore further advocacy is unnecessary.
In the introduction to her book Ceasefire!, Cathy concedes that in one area – the family/work balance – women might still have a legitimate complaint. But virtually all other concerns that justify a “case for continued feminist activism,” she dismisses as illegitimate. There’s a big difference between criticizing some feminist views, and denying that there’s a legitimate need for a women’s movement at all. How can anyone who doesn’t see a need for a movement for women’s equality, be a feminist?
As I wrote two years ago:
My main problem with “ifeminism” and other conservative brands of feminism is that they seem to be premised on the idea that (at least in this country) feminism has already won. The essential message I see in McElroy’s iFeminist columns and books like Who Stole Feminism? is that women are already equal; there is no need to agitate for change in order to bring women’s equality about.
So, for example, conservative “feminists” argue that we shouldn’t worry about the wage gap, because it’s merely a matter of worker’s individual choices, and has nothing to do with discrimination. They argue that the rape crisis is fiction, a result of feminist exaggerations and morning-after regrets. They argue that domestic violence has nothing to do with sexism because (as Christina Hoff Sommers argued) men are equal victims of spouse abuse.
Note the common theme – in each case, the conclusion of the argument is that sexism against women is no longer a problem, and political, activist solutions – that is, feminism – is no longer necessary.
Well, that’s nice – but it’s not feminism. Feminism is and has always been about activism; feminists are trying to change society. In particular, feminism is about changing society so that women, who are unfairly kept down in our society, can at last experience full equality.
If you don’t believe that sexism is an important problem keeping women down today, then you may be a nice person, and you may believe in equality – but you’re just not a feminist.
Why This Matters: Does Feminism Have Any Meaning At All?
The danger I see in Cathy’s views is that, if they were generally accepted, the result would be that the word “feminist” would be drained of meaning. If Cathy is a feminist, then feminism is no longer “an organized movement for the attainment of… rights for women” (to quote the definition of “feminism” Cathy cites). Feminism no longer means fighting sexism against women. Judging by Cathy’s writings, her brand of feminism involves attacking feminism at every turn while generally supporting men’s rights activists.
In Cathy’s view, being a feminist doesn’t require endorsing any feminist policy positions, or ever taking a pro-feminist stand in public, or being part of a movement for attaining women’s equality, or thinking such a movement can do any good at all. In the end, Cathy seems to think “feminist” is a term that can reasonably be applied to anyone who doesn’t explicitly oppose equality. But nowadays, virtually everyone says they favor equality, so that means nothing.
I agree with Cathy that a “rigid ideological definition” of feminism would be a mistake. But the opposite mistake – being so all-inclusive that “feminism” ceases to mean much of anything – is just as bad.
Uppdatering: There seems to be a related discussion going on here. Unfortunately, I can’t understand a word of
it Swedish. If any “Alas” readers can read that language Swedish, please let the rest of us know the gist of their discussion.
Uppdatering Uppdatering: There’s a translation, by the author, posted in the comments now. Yay!