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We’re NOT all feminists

March 8, 2014

A few friends of mine are fond of recounting a particular anecdote they all share. It comes from marginally different events, but it is all the same anecdote: a person in a position of learned authority asks a class of younger people how many of them consider themselves feminists. All but a couple keep their arms rigidly down on the desks.

Then the learned authority asks the same younger people how many of them believe that women deserve equal rights to men. All but a couple tentatively raise their hands one by one, not because they are unsure of the answer but because raising your hand in this country carries with it a heavy social burden. Everyone knows the answer because it’s obvious, so they let someone else give it because we are all lazy and also worry greatly about being That Person who answers every damn question, even when we’ve never in our lives so much as lifted an arm above elbow level except to scratch an itchy back. Plus, we’re wary it could be a trick question and we don’t like to be wrong. Or, maybe our arms are just tired.

The point the learned authority wishes to make, and thus the point my friends wish to reiterate, is that we are all feminists, because a feminist is a person who believes in equal rights for women.

While I can see that the aim of this is to promote feminism as a reasoned way of thinking, and consider this a perfectly laudable endeavour, I don’t buy into the idea that we can all be feminists by sitting on our arses. By this definition, a woman will be a feminist whenever she acts in self-interest and takes affirmative action to up her own status. A man will be a feminist simply for being culturally trained to tread carefully or risk being a social failure in this multi-gendered world.

Neither deserve the heady title of feminist. The may both “believe” in equal rights, but both will go home to their TV sets and uncritically accept an over-saturation of body and value judgements on women. Feminism is a movement and as such cannot remain passive and sedentary. I know it is the current culture to call oneself an X-ist without actually doing anything, including the hardly taxing task of having a discussion. In every movement, this strips the power from it.

If we are all feminists, then a feminist is nothing. We find ourselves in a situation where “feminism” had become sanitised and accepted into the mainstream. We know women deserve equal rights to men, without properly engaging with the fact that they don’t have them. Because we know this, it allows us to blithely flap away the concerns of genuine feminists. Feminism is old! It’s defunct! It serves no purpose! The cries come thick and fast. We think of feminism as being static, a movement that changed the world to the way it is today and ended, as opposed to a movement that could change the future. As you can see, this automatically heads off discussion before it starts.

Another example is race and the civil rights movement. The emphatic tone of Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers caught the imagination of people in a time of unrest, who saw that there were big problems and wanted revolution. Back then, the idea that black people should be treated equally to white ones was by no means a commonly held view. Thus, the movement had a weight to it that caused uproar and dramatic changes. Since that change we have “accepted” that people of colour deserve equal rights to white people and thus refuse to engage in the conversation that suggests that they still do not get them.

That emphatic tone is alienating because we have developed a tendency to hurriedly accept (and thus, brush over) radical views of others and box them off into a corner. Yet, some of the proposals set by these movements have still yet to pass into public consciousness, including the more ones which may simply have been impossible at the time (Shulamith Firestone wanted liberation from giving birth, something which is still physically impossible with our current technology).

Because some equality was gained, the oppressed and the oppressors alike said “Well, that’ll do for now,” and settled into a society that is comparatively calm but still problematic and turns its head from the experiences of others, not out of overt prejudice and malice, but out of naïve and blindly optimistic disbelief in the continued presence of inequality.

Every movement that is about social change needs to be niche because its needs to be emphatic. If everyone believes in it (even if they don’t act s though they do) then of course the presence of forceful rhetoric seems misplaced. When someone yells angrily at you, telling you things you already know, your first reaction is bafflement followed by irritation. This is the response of most people to “feminists” as they perceive them. Saying that we are all “feminists” looks to tackle this but in fact exacerbates it. Feminism was always intended as an inflammatory word and should not be considered the standard order.

The emphatic nature of any movement is essential. There is always room for cool headed rationality; this is the politics of government. But it is not the politics of the street. On the street, people are free to, and need to, engage in idealism and fantasy. People who grunt into their toothbrush moustaches that what is being demanded is “not realistic” have missed the point. The point is often not to instantly instil the change that is being asked for, as social change is a marathon not a sprint. It is to heighten awareness in the hope of slower, lesser changes that will improve society without breaking its infrastructure.

Talking beyond the realms of what is currently possible is an integral part of the discussion of what should be. Dreaming a society which could not yet exist gives a direction to the argument and a standpoint from which to work. It might sound logical that we should start small and work upwards, but that is only true in practical application. When theorising, it almost always works the other way around – the utopia is imagined is like an umbrella over everything. The changes that need to be put in motion to create that utopia drip down from the tips of it. The puddle on the floor will be the changes that occur; far removed from the umbrella, but unable to exist without it.

There are people who live for revolution. They will join just about every rally, march, parade and protest within a fifty mile radius because the push for change is like a drug to them. As our voting numbers suggest, pen-to-paper politics doesn’t get people’s blood going. Government schemes are the puddle, the rain drops are the protest and the umbrella is the concept which may never be achievable in its entirety. There will always be room for rationality. It’s essential. But so is passion.

So when we say “feminist”, let’s not use it to describe that majority who have no passion for gender equality but rather a tacit acceptance, marred by ignorance of what it entails and an unwillingness to make the changes that may slightly inconvenience them. Let’s save that honourable term for the people who think, who march, who write and who speak. It belongs to the people who are concerned with the umbrella, not just the puddle.


From → Gender Politics

  1. Akriti permalink

    You nailed it when you wrote – Let’s save that honourable term for the people who think, who march, who write and who speak. It belongs to the people who are concerned with the umbrella, not just the puddle.


  2. guchubrenda permalink

    Reblogged this on munchywritings and commented:
    Ah! This is so on point!

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