What sort of feminist are you?

by lizmckinnell

A while ago, I wrote a piece for the New Left Project about transphobia in some strands of feminism. I faced a number of (very politely) critical responses from people in feminist circles with whom I discussed the article over a few pints. It turned out that much of their concern was not so much with the substance of the article, but with the fact that the link to the article (presumably written by a sub-editor) took my remarks to be critical of ‘radical feminism’, which, in contemporary discourse, pretty much lands me in the ‘liberal feminist’ camp. This was the one concern I had with my dealings with the New Left Project, who, apart from this, had been amazingly helpful and good fun to work with. This led me, over the intervening months, to reflect a bit on the ways that we categorise feminism, and in particular, the use of the words ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’.

What might we take ‘radicalism’ to mean, in the context of feminism? First of all, I want to dismiss the poorly thought through uses of it as a catch-all pejorative term. It is a great shame to see the way that the word ‘radical’ has been hijacked by certain interests in the political and media landscape. Very often, what is meant by ‘radical’ here is ‘extreme’, or even ‘extremist’. In a culture that is purportedly ultra-liberal and in favour of freedom of expression, it is a way of cutting out voices that are not regarded as part of the reasonable spectrum of opinions. You can be a feminist, but you can’t be too feminist. This often goes along with the cartoon image of the hairy-pitted dungaree wearing ‘feminazi’. You are allowed to discuss these issues in the public sphere with us, provided you get a nice haircut and do your make-up first. If you are not prepared to conform to visual expectations of femininity, then you are ‘radical’, and therefore not part of the conversation. ‘Radical’ as a pejorative term is, in this context, utterly obnoxious, and aims to shut people out of public discourse. More on that shortly.

Now, that paragraph looks very much like a liberal feminist point, and to a degree it is. I place a great deal of importance on there being a diversity of voices, opinions and ways of living. Following in the liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill (and not in the liberal tradition of John Rawls) I believe that this vibrancy and noise is part of how we can learn to develop and flourish as individuals and as a society. Notice that what is implied by this is that some ways of living and associating are better for us than others – there is such a thing as development, progress and a good life for human beings. This form of liberalism is sometimes called ‘perfectionist’ liberalism.

For a Rawlsian liberal, the political theorist is supposedly neutral between different ideas of what good lives, and good ways of associating, must be. Sure, they might have their own ethical views, their own ideas about what it would be to flourish as a person and as a society, but in terms of deciding how the basic structures of society should be set up, they have to keep those under their hats when they are thinking about political theory. This embodies a presumption that we should not take one person’s view to be ultimately authoritative, and to trump the views of others. Political theory must be neutral between different conceptions of the good life for human beings. This is known as ‘anti-perfectionist’ liberalism.

Now the problem is that this is, contrary to what Rawls says that he intends, an embodiment of a particular view of the good – namely, liberalism. This means that while non-liberal ethical and political views can be aired within a society, it is only the liberal voice that gets to determine its basic structures. This takes the force out of all non-liberal positions – all voices that are simply permitted within the structure are a clamour of different cries for attention, or perhaps nothing more than a range of lifestyles that one might choose, just as we might prefer different flavours of ice cream. Marxism, for example, is a viewpoint that might be expressed within such a context, but the context strips it of all meaning. This relates to something that concerned Mill – it wasn’t enough that we should simply be able to utter particular forms of words as though they were some sort of incantation – they had to be living breathing ideas with whose meaning we engaged.

When applied to feminism, the problem with the anti-perfectionist approach is that it leads to the conclusion that, provided people are given certain legal negative freedoms, the battle has been won. It is not simply that pornography, strip-clubs, pay differentials and so on are not banned, it is that it is not valid to argue about them, to suggest that they are bad. They are someone’s free choice, and therefore not something that can be reasonably disputed or criticised (or at least, dispute or criticism can be registered, but not really debated, because it is simply a style of living, or a matter of taste). In addition to this, arguments about reorganising the basic structures of society – the mechanisms of government, the institution of the family, and so on, are simply invalid or meaningless.

Now while liberalism of the anti-perfectionist kind is often hallowed as being properly liberal, where perfectionist liberalism is regarded as in some sense illiberal because it dares to base the structure of society on a particular ethical outlook, it appears to me that the converse is the case. Liberalism of the Rawlsian kind renders certain kinds of discourse meaningless, reducing certain viewpoints and opinions to mere clamour. It is a constant source of frustration to me that merely questioning the ethical and social implications of a certain act or institution is taken as equivalent to saying that the thing in question should be banned, and when it is made clear that this is not what is meant, the response is often ‘well, that’s just your opinion, why are you bothering to even discuss it?’ It is as if I have just walked into the room an announced that I like cheese and onion crisps – well, so what?

Now it might be argued that this is no imposition on freedom, because, after all, you can still express your views. Nobody is telling you to shut up. But anyone familiar with the workings of patriarchy will be aware that freedom is not as simple as that. Nobody forces us to wear clothes that restrict our movement, to put on make-up every day, to spend huge proportions of our incomes on our physical appearance, but we live in social conditions that make it very hard not to do these things, and this is all the more pernicious because the coercion is all around us, and not easily pinned on an identifiable patriarch. As Sandra Bartky puts it:

‘…the disciplinary power that is increasingly charged with the production of a properly embodied femininity is dispersed and anonymous; there are no individuals formally empowered to weild it; it is, as we have seen, invested in everyone and in no one in particular. This disciplinary power is peculiarly modern. It does not rely upon violent or public sanctions, nor does it seek to restrain the freedom of the female body to move from place to place. For all that, its invasion of the body is well-nigh total’ (‘Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’ in      Bartky, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (London: Routledge, 1990)

So in short, I do not reject liberal feminism, but I reject forms of it that do not take liberty seriously. There are more ways to dominate, control and silence than simply passing laws or imposing physical constraint.

So what about radical feminism? Well, as I have already said, we must reject the pejorative sense of the word (sorry New Left Project) for reasons that might be described as good liberal ones (albeit Mill’s liberalism, and not Rawls’ version). But many feminists describe themselves as radical feminists. As with liberal feminism, this might have a number of different meanings, which may or may not overlap. In a discussion with my friend Jamie, we picked out four different broad groups of ideas that might be taken as hallmarks of radical feminism. There are probably more, and we might quibble about the way that they are grouped. This is not supposed to be exhaustive or authoritative.

1. Omnipresence of patriarchy

I have already talked about this one. The idea here is that we can’t separate off individual pockets of life that are or are not ‘feminist issues’. Gender oppression, in a patriarchal society, is something that is constantly present to those affected by it, and it imposes itself on a whole way of being in the world. This is something that I agree with. Although there may be some situations where gender oppression might not be the first thing that we mention, it is constantly a factor in female experience. One way in which I ascribe to this that may be controversial, even by the standards of those who broadly agree with the ‘omnipresence of patriarchy’ thesis, is that I take the role of the body to be a foundational aspect of this oppression. The ways in which women are socialised to experience their bodies at all times as objects, rather than as the loci of consciousness, experience and activity, is to me a vital aspect of my feminism. This is somewhat in tension with some aspects of liberal feminist thought, where freedom is often conceptualised as transcending the body, or as ‘mind over matter’.

2. Transformation of consciousness.

Related to this is the idea of what liberation would consist in. For many who describe themselves as radical feminists, freedom from explicit legal or physical constraints is not sufficient. Radical change requires a personal transformation of consciousness that cannot be achieved only through legislation or superficial equality of opportunity. As I made clear earlier, I also agree with this.

3. Gender as the primary or foundational mode of oppression.

Here I disagree. This is something that came up years ago when I was discussing feminism with a late and much-missed colleague called Soran Reader, whose conversation was as exciting and stimulating as it was frequently infuriating. Soran has been a great influence on my feminism, and on my philosophy generally, and, true to what she would have wanted, I don’t always agree with her. She said that when she described herself as a radical feminist, she meant that she held the foundational form of oppression in the world to be the oppression of women by men. Other modes of oppression were secondary to that, and any solution to oppression had to begin with the emancipation of women.

At first glance, this may look very similar to the point about the omnipresence of patriarchy in patriarchal societies, but it is distinct from it. For example, a Marxist might accept the omnipresence of patriarchy thesis, and still maintain that the path to human emancipation had to begin with class-consciousness and the overthrowing of capitalism. I would agree with neither point of view. Volumes have been written on this subject, and volumes more probably need to be written, but in short, I believe that modes of oppression are intertwined and multifaceted. Some critiques of the notion of the foundationality of gender oppression have argued that this is related to the fact that feminism is dominated by white middle-class women like myself. I think that they probably have a point.

4. Gender Essentialism

Many who describe themselves as radical feminists hold some thesis about the correlation between a certain kind of body and a female gender identity. There are variations on this theme, but often the idea is that the way that women are oppressed, although historically conditioned, relate to aspects of the female body which are not historically conditioned (the reproductive body, for example). Variations on this thought often reach a range of conclusions that I would want to reject. For example (a) gender is binary (b) there is no such thing as a trans woman (c) men can’t ever be feminists, only allies, (d) we can understand gender in a way that is totally abstracted from history, and so on.

The opposite of this view is often taken to be a kind of gender constructivism – the idea that gender identity doesn’t really map onto anything – that it is all down to social conditioning and arbitrary social categories.

I want to reject that idea too. In general terms, I think that ‘nature or nurture’ talk is often horribly misguided. The idea that we can look at biological bodies in isolation from culture, or some kind of free-floating disembodied mind which is free from biology, strikes me as a way of thinking that we are best off without. I haven’t fully explored my ideas about gender essentialism in particular, but my suspicion is that both horns of this dilemma rest on a fundamental misconception of the relationship between human beings and the world in which they exist and associate with each other. Further to this, there is interesting work by ecofeminists about the association between nature and the feminine, which aims to challenge a lot of dichotomies that underpin both the oppression of women by men, and the oppression of nature by humanity. We’re talking stuff like nature/nurture, nature/culture, active agent/ passive matter and so on. Look up Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, you won’t regret it.

So, what sort of feminist am I? Am I in the liberal camp or the radical one? Am I a gender essentialist, or a gender constructivist? Am I sex-positive or sex-negative?

Well, this week, I suppose I am a radical liberal socialist ecofeminist. Ask me next week, and there will probably be different words in there, or the same ones in a different order. The point is that any labels and terms like this can be useful, they can sometimes act as shorthand for a complex of ideas. But just like many other notions within feminism, such as ‘privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ (yes- I know I haven’t explained what I think about this one much) they can sometimes mask a vast array of finer distinctions, create false enmities, discourage us from thinking for ourselves and lead us into serious error. What sort of feminist am I? I’m the sort of feminist who likes to think about ideas, preferably over a pint in a nice pub with a bunch of friendly people with different perspectives. Or, you know, we could talk about other stuff too.