Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why we need feminism (to get out of its own way)

Part I: Feminism stories

I’d like to begin this post by telling a series of eight stories. The stories are brief, numbered, and true. Some of them may be triggering to people who have had traumatic experiences. All eight relate to feminism in one way or another. Ready?

Story #1 takes place in Afghanistan, where more than 50% of females are married or engaged by age 12. Most girls marry far older men — some in their 60s — whom they meet for the first time at their wedding. By law, married girls do not continue their education. Even before marriage, only 40% of females attend elementary school, and only 1 in 20 attend beyond 6th grade. Most are illiterate. By law, women are neither allowed to be doctors, nor allowed to be examined by a male doctor. When in the home, they are treated as servants, and beaten regularly. Marital rape is legal. They are rarely allowed outside the home (by law as well as custom), but when they are, nearly every inch of their skin must be concealed.

The story itself about a twenty-two year old woman who was executed for adultery in 2012. By law, her testimony was worth ½ that of her male accusers.

Story #2 takes place in Argentina, where 7,000 feminist protesters attempted to vandalize a Cathedral last December. They were prevented from doing this by a rosary of 1,500 Catholic men, who linked arms to form a protective ring of bodies around their place of worship. Their efforts thwarted, the angry feminists decided to physically assault the praying men by smacking them, tearing their clothes, drawing on them with marker and lipstick, spray painting their penises, adorning their heads with lingerie, spitting on them, rubbing their breasts on them, and putting things in their mouths. Although the Cathedral was mostly protected, the mob did manage to burn an effigy of St. Francis before departing.

Story #3 takes place in sub-Saharan and northeast Africa, Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan and many other places. It’s about the 125 million girls – roughly 1/30th of the world’s female population – who have had their clitorises cut off in a backwoods tribal ritual. The procedure rarely utilizes anesthesia, and is designed mostly to make sex so painful and difficult that it will ensure the girl’s premarital virginity. The health complications these girls face are too numerous to describe here.

Story #4 takes place in Spain, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and many other places, where a feminist organization named FEMEN enlists “sextremists” to interrupt religious services, political rallies, or other events they find unsavory. They do this by rushing the speaker’s podium topless and then chanting over the speaker until they are removed by police. A photo of one such protester, rubbing her breasts on the Cardinal and Archbishop of Quebec while screaming into his microphone, can be seen here.

Story #5 takes place in Canada, and it’s about a girl named Rehtaeh Parsons. When Rehtaeh was 15 years old, she was gang raped by four of her classmates. One of the boys took photos of the event, and these photos were circulated throughout Rehtaeh’s school. Despite clear evidence of criminal behavior, no charges were filed. Instead of receiving support and love for her abuse, Rehtaeh was blamed for her victimhood, and bullied mercilessly for over a year. Outcast, and tormented with no place to turn, Rehtaeh hung herself at the age of 17. Her parents took her off life support three days later.

Story #6 also takes place in Canada, and it’s about the feminists at the University of Toronto. On at least three occasions in the past two years, feminist groups have disrupted campus speaking events whose messages they disliked, with the open aim of silencing the speaker at hand. Tactics they’ve employed include pulling the fire alarm, threatening and insulting would-be attendees, attempting to block the entrances, ripping down posters, blowing air horns, and simply yelling over the speaker. Sometimes the events were able to continue after the venue was changed and the police intervened; on other occasions, the speaker was forced to give up.

Story #7 is about a woman named Jodie. Jodie was a straight A-student in grade school, and wanted to be a veterinarian. She was smart enough, hard-working enough, and ambitious enough…until she went to secondary school, where she was bullied for being “ugly.” Desperate for validation, her ambitions to become a vet became replaced by ambitions to be sexually attractive. These ambitions were reinforced by a pop culture that idolized thin, makeup covered, sexually attractive women in magazines, music, and film. After awhile, Jodie began to tie her self-worth to her ability to be desired by men. She wore revealing clothing, and posed for provocative photographs. She got a nose job…and was further bullied for having gotten a nose-job. She considered suicide. She struggled with insecurity for much of her life. She never became a veterinarian

Story #8 is about a woman named Dr. Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor in the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Feminist Studies. In March of this year, she encountered a Pro-Life group demonstrating on campus. The group was holding a large and graphic sign depicting a late term abortion. An argument ensued, which ended in the professor grabbing the poster, wrenching it from the protesters’ hands, and walking off with it while sympathetic students cheered. Pursued by the signs owners, she retreated to her office, at one point shoving the pursuing students out of an elevator so that she could escape with the sign. Once in her office, she and some other students destroyed the sign. Pressed for comment, Dr. Miller-Young insisted she “did the right thing” and “set a good example for her students.”

The injustices described by the above eight stories are not comparable. The wrongdoings are not equally wrong. I by no means wish to equivocate overzealous radical feminists guilty of censorship with a patriarchy guilty of rape, murder, and systematic oppression.

What I mean to do, in writing this post, is lament the fact that when normal, everyday people hear the word “feminism”, it is very often the even numbered stories which first come to mind.

I’m writing this post because the group people in the world who “get it” about gender relations is too damn small for the members of that group to be behaving like total ass hats.

To those who are not already feminists, I am writing to explain why we need feminism, and why you should join the cause.

To those who are already feminists, I am writing to explain why we need a better feminism; a feminism capable of engaging in a respectful clash of ideas; a feminism that welcomes debate instead of shutting it down; a feminism full of responsible social activists who see the bigger picture; a feminism that works.

I’m writing because the world needs a feminism that is of, by and for the women in the odd numbered stories, but repudiates the women in the even numbered stories.

Part II: Why we need feminism…

We need feminism because of the odd numbered stories.

We need feminism because violence against women is the most common but least punished crime in the world. We need it because, according to the United Nations, somewhere between 113 million and 200 million women are simply “missing” from the figure demographists would expect to see. These women died off, researchers deduced, from either deliberate infanticide (because someone wanted a boy) or from receiving less food or medical attention than their brothers, fathers, and husbands.

We need feminism because globally, women between the age of 15 and 44 are more likely to be maimed or die as a result of male violence than through cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war combined.

We need feminism because at least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise physically abused in her lifetime.

We need feminism because around two million girls are genitally mutilated per year, a rate of one girl every fifteen seconds.

We need feminism because systematic rape is used as a weapon of terror in major conflicts – conflicts like the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which saw the rape of somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 women.

We need feminism because somewhere between 700,000 and 4 million women are sold into prostitution per year, and sex slavery is a $12 billion industry.

We need feminism because even in civilized Western nations, sexism is pervasive and well entrenched. We need feminism because a woman’s outrage is dismissed as being emotional, while a man’s is lauded as passion. We need it because women are referred to as ‘sweetie’, ‘sweetheart’, ‘doll’, and ‘babe’ in situations men would not be; because Ms. and Mrs. define women based on their marital status, while Mr. does not. We need it because promiscuous men are seen as players, while promiscuous women are seen as sluts or whores.

We need feminism because men are still the default in Western culture and language. We need it because the Bechdel test is still necessary. We need it because in Missouri, a woman must be 26 to consent to be sterilized, but men can be sterilized at age 18. We need it because being courageous or assertive – aka “ballsy” - should not be associated with maleness. We need it because women are asked if they plan on having children in job interviews, and judged negatively no matter how they respond. We need it because many women are too self-conscious to go outside without makeup on.

We need feminism because in your daughter’s school or college, girls are taunted and pressured to drop out if they get pregnant. They are taught to be pretty instead of studious, but then mocked for being air-headed bimbo’s or “dumb blonde’s.” They are taught their worth as a person is tied to how effectively they can attract men, but never to have sex with those they attract. They are taught they don’t deserve love if they enjoy casual sex, and don’t deserve good casual sex if they’re in love.

We need feminism because in your son’s school or college, boys are taunted and beaten up for acting “like pussies”. They are taught that their worth as a person is tied to how many women they can both attract AND have sex with, but rarely taught to ensure their partner’s are also into it. They are taught to be this guy, but most importantly to never be this guy.

We need feminism because the patriarchy is real, and it creates all sorts of massive injustices – to include, off the top of my head:

Bear in mind that the above is a woefully incomplete list, assembled in haste to finish this entry sometime this month. Most feminist websites will do a far better and more elaborate job at enumerating these injustices than I can in one little blog post.

It suffices to put it this way: feminists are usually right. Their concerns are mostly valid, their critiques are mostly fair, their ideas are mostly correct. Society needs to make many of the exact changes they advocate for, and the world will continue to perpetuate sharp injustice until those changes are made.

To make those changes, we'll need break down the antiquated stereotypes, barriers, biases, and bigoted mindsets that prop up the patriarchy. To do that, we'll need sexist people to change their behavior by making sexism and its implications more widely understood. And for them to do that, we'll need to accelerate the process of progress by convincing as many people as possible that feminist ideas are sound, just, and righteous.

This is why we need feminism.

This is why we need feminism to grow and prosper and spread its message.

And unfortunately, it is also why we need feminists to stop being so full of their own shit that everyone else has trouble taking them seriously.

Part III: …(to get out of its own way)

Eight months ago, I joined the Hopkins Feminists Facebook page with the sincere and optimistic intent to become a better friend of the feminist movement. I harbored no preconceived ill-will towards feminism; to the contrary, I was sympathetic to its general tenets. I didn’t always agree with feminist arguments (most recently, on the Blurred Lines controversy), but I enjoyed frequenting much of the vast and interesting feminist blogosphere, and agreed with most of what I read there. That said, I knew (and still know) that my status as a feminist was novice, so I truly hoped to learn more about the movement.

For awhile, I did. Just by listening and watching, I read intriguing and insightful perspectives I had not previously considered. I picked up on some new terms. I agreed with probably 70% of the posts that were made.

Of course, mere exposure to an unfamiliar opinion cannot quiet all skepticism. No matter how many Jezebel entries or Feminism 101 blogs I scoured, sometimes I just disagreed. This shouldn’t be surprising; after all, much of what feminism advocates involves the upheaval of deeply rooted biases we are immersed in from childhood. How could I not have doubts? Even today, there remain elements of feminism I’m not completely sold on.

Nevertheless, I was sold on enough of it to feel that I owed feminists the opportunity to rebut my objections. So, after sitting back and watching for a month or so, I gathered the confidence to participate in group discussions. This was a nerve-wracking decision, mind you, because I had seen prior attempts at this go horribly wrong. One guy in particular was simply eviscerated every time he spoke. I studied his mistakes meticulously, and did my best not to replicate them. Sooner or later, an article arose that caught my interest, so I summoned my courage and left a comment.

Five years of debate team experience reminded me to stay professional and calm. My tone was at times skeptical, but never confrontational. I was not some troll who had already made up his mind and was trying to pick a fight with the other side; my questions were sincere, representing the pinnacle of my prior rumination on the matter. I made no outlandish remarks. I levvied no personal attacks. I omitted no trigger warnings. I broke no group rules. I don’t think any of my posts were offensive, and if they were nobody ever told me how or why. I hoped only for a productive and respectful exchange of ideas from which all participants – but mostly myself – could benefit and learn.

In response, I was called an “oppressive douchebag” and told to “eat shit.” When I asked what I’d said that was so oppressive, I received no answers, but plenty of additional vitriol. Recoiling at this, I tried adopting a conciliatory tone to make my intentions clear. This only inspired even more animosity. To this day, I remain convinced that my only crime in that first instance was daring to disagree with a woman. Perplexed, I backed out of the conversation, and refrained from commenting for several days.

After things cooled off, I tried a different strategy. Instead of presenting my own opinions, I reserved my infrequent comments and questions to the factual clarification of what others had said, in a meek attempt to further discussion among others from which I could listen and learn. I made extra-double certain that nothing I said was even the least bit subjective or open to attack. In fact, I spent hours (no exaggeration!) combing over my comments to ensure they contained nothing objectionable. I daresay I was successful; each of my posts was respectful, thoughtful, articulate, and polite.

But for the Hopkins Feminists, that only fueled the fire. Some group members became so antagonized by their inability to controvert anything I’d said that they controverted things I hadn’t said, and then accused me of having said them. One woman campaigned to have me blocked from the group as punishment for these fantasy quotes. When I pointed out they were putting words in my mouth, they redoubled their attacks on a new basis. This time, they conceded my content was harmless, but complained that my tone was oppressive – on account of the fact that it was rational and above-the-fray! So hair-trigger sensitive were their offense-o-meters that any man who dared say anything at all without preemptively prostrating himself before any woman present was to be ostracized for his sins.

To be fair, genuine sexism probably had an indirect role in prompting this reaction. Female feminists are accustomed to being dismissed as irrational creatures of emotion, often by men who bloviate about how objective and level-headed they are themselves. I sympathize with how infuriating that must be, especially when the privilege which helps men detach their personal lives from feminist disputes is the very thing feminists are trying to fight. I can understand how feminists are programmed to be on the lookout for those men. Given all this, they can be forgiven for misinterpreting my timid caution as a mockery of their unchecked passion (at least until I clarified that I came in peace. The first time).

None of this changes the fact that any intellectual movement worth its salt needs to encourage rational discussion, and all modern feminism seems to do is vilify it.
The point of my anecdote was not to incite sympathy or “make it all about me,” as feminists are wont to accuse of the men they insult. I’m neither so sensitive to criticism nor so new to online disagreements that being treated unfairly by internet blowhards makes me throw a self-conscious pity party months after the fact. Trust me: I’m over it.
Rather, the point of my story was to exemplify, from personal experience, how people on a clear trajectory towards embracing feminism are impeded from doing so by feminists themselves. It was to illustrate how the culture of feminism in 2014 has become so aggressive, and feminists themselves so unapproachable, that any meaningful conversation with non-feminists is next to impossible – even after Herculean efforts from people willing to bend over backwards to accommodate them.

Nor are newcomers like me the only ones silenced. It would be one thing if this cyclic circle-jerk of feminist outrage were some sort of freshman hazing: an initiation ritual designed to purge you of privileged perspectives or test your true devotion to the cause. Sadly, it appears not even the most respected and accomplished feminists are given much room to discuss anymore. This masterfully written article from The Nation, titled “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars”, gives some examples of the rage machine in action:
  • When 21 feminists (9 of whom were women of color) held a summit in New York to discuss new ways to fund online feminist activism, and released their findings under the hashtag #FemFuture, they were savaged as a cabal of white opportunists. People were upset that the meeting had excluded those who don’t live in New York…There was fury expressed on behalf of everyone—indigenous women, feminist mothers, veterans—whose concerns were not explicitly addressed. Some were outraged that tweets were quoted without the explicit permission of the tweeters. Others were incensed that a report about online feminism left out women who aren’t online…the response was so vitriolic, so full of bad faith and stubborn misinformation, that it felt like some sort of Maoist hazing. [Intersectional feminist Mikki] Kendall, for example, compared #Femfuture to Rebecca Latimer Felton, a viciously racist Southern suffragist who supported lynching because she said it protected white women from rape."
  • When a feminist named Jo Freeman wrote a Letter to the Editor of Ramparts magazine complaining about a photograph they had published, and Ramparts chose to publish hers instead of the longer version submitted by the other feminists in her group, “Freeman was excoriated at their next meeting. “That was a public trashing,” she says. “I was horrible, disloyal, a traitor.” It went beyond mere criticism: “There’s a difference between trashing someone and challenging them. You can challenge someone’s idea. When you’re trashing someone, you’re essentially saying they’re a bad person.””
  • When British feminist Laurie Mensch wrote in passing that "vertical stripes don't make you look thinner, jogging on the treadmill for half an hour five times a week makes you look thinner", Feminist tweeter Jonanamary took objection. This, she claimed, was fattist. “Why should anybody want to have a healthy body weight?” a bemused Mensch later satirized. “How dare I say that fashion models aren't "normal women"? What about those women who are just naturally the size of spaghetti sticks? Anyway, what are normal curves? This is cis-ist to transsexual women who don't have wombs…”

They don’t come from the fringe, and they’re not as horrible, but these too are even-numbered feminism stories. Like the incidents I described to open the post, such trivial squabbles serve only to shut down debate, while accomplishing little of importance. And like those stories, they have unfortunately come to define feminism to the average observer.

The result is that mainstream feminism is now tripping over its own obsession with privilege checking. One gets the impression that everyone in the movement is constantly walking on eggshells. They are terrified that they might inadvertently anger some member of the ever-growing list of identifiably oppressed peoples. And they know that if this happens, they will not only be assumed wrong before they can get a word in edgewise: they will be castigated by hordes of equally terrified privileged people, each longing to prove their own allegiance to the oppressed! Feminists have lent so much energy to constructing a protective cocoon around anyone they view as oppressed, and are so devoted to shielding these people from ideas that might offend them, that even prominent and respected feminists cannot tweet 140 character opinions without fear of inciting vicious backlash.

Again, don’t take my word for it.
  • “I fear being cast suddenly as one of the ‘bad guys’ for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication…I have feared stumbling over the Tumblr trip wire and falling into the abyss of “call-out culture” to be discredited with every slur and slander in the book by the people who I ought to be able to trust the most…To suddenly be tarred by the very people that I’m supposed to be able to work with, my allies, as being a sellout or being infatuated with power or being an apologist for this, that and the other privilege—if that kind of reputation gets around, its extremely damaging.” – Katherine Cross, a Puerto Rican trans woman working on a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, writing about how often she hesitates to publish articles or blog posts
  • "Everyone is so scared to speak right now.” – Samita Mukhopadhyay, former Editor of Feministing.com
  •  The author of the forementioned article, Michelle Goldberg, writes that feminism is “racked by furious contentions over ideological purity” in a “climate of perpetual outrage and hair-trigger offense.” Online intersectionality, she argues “is overwhelmingly about chastisement and rooting out individual sin…The expectation that feminists should always be ready to berate themselves for even the most minor transgressions—like being too friendly at a party—creates an environment of perpetual psychodrama, particularly when coupled with the refusal to ever question the expression of an oppressed person’s anger.” The result of all this, she concludes, is that “people…are disengaging from online feminism.”
  • “There is a problem with toxicity on Twitter and in social media. I think we have to say that. I’m not sure that black women are benefiting from the toxicity…[being targeted by other activists] leaves you feeling threatened in the sense that you’re getting turned out of your own home…. The one place that you are able to look to for safety, where you were valued, where there is a lot less of the structural prejudice that makes you feel so outcast in the rest of the world—that’s now been closed to you. That you now have this terrible reputation… I know a lot of friends that live in fear of that.” - Brittney Cooper, an assistant professor at Rutgers and co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective blog
  • We have the unfruitful spectacle of some of the most leftwing commentators in Britain wondering if they are being leftwing enough, or if their background even gives them the right to make an argument.” – Mensch
  • “What’s disgusting and disturbing to me is that I see some of the more intellectually dishonest arguments put forth by women of color being legitimized and performed by white feminists, who seem to be in some sort of competition to exhibit how intersectional they are. There are these Olympian attempts on the part of white feminists to underscore and display their ally-ship in a way that feels gross and dishonest and, yes, patronizing.” - Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel and columist for The New York Times Book Review, who is black.
When asked if she would start a women’s website today, Holmes replied “Hell no…[The women’s blogosphere] feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing. It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

When the founder of Jezebel magazine, a black woman who has contributed immensely to the feminist cause and can be accused of neither racial nor sexual privilege, confesses that even she would not dare run a woman’s website in today’s climate, feminism is in deep shit.

This is why we need feminism to get out of its own way.

We need feminism to get out of its own way because it is now infamous for a set of rhetorical tactics that are just preposterously infantile.

We need feminism to get out of its own way because this reputation is so severe that even women who agree with feminist ideas are nonetheless reluctant to call themselves feminists. They are embarrassed to affiliate themselves with a movement known for language almost as degrading, aggressive, and condescending as the misogyny it fights.

We need feminism to get out of its own way because it has an image problem, and the patriarchy is not to blame.

We need feminism to get out of its own way because entirely too much of feminists collective ink is spilled talking about other feminists. The Mensch article laments that this “is what the modern feminist movement has become. Full of intersectionality, debates about middle-class privilege, hand-wringing over a good education (this is again "privilege" and not well-deserved success), and otherwise intelligent women backing out of debates and sitting around frenziedly checking their privilege….[T]hey and all those like them leave the impression of a feminist version of Monty Python's splinter groups – the Judean People's Front screeching "Splitters!" at the People's Front of Judea.”

Libertarian Lou puts it best: “The paradox of feminism is that it’s not just about feminists: it’s not about us, it’s about all women. Feminism is useless if it’s only interesting to the women who are on Newsnight, or watching and tweeting about it. It’s useless if it’s only about people who know they deserve to be treated with respect, and to feel safe.”

In other words, we need feminists to stop making it all about them.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js20LWLbgCA

    70% of women reject the term feminism. More evidence of it's image problem.

  2. Another great article.