Why aren’t more people feminists nowadays?

Picture of Laurie Penny, a white woman with red hair wearing a black top with a red and yellow collar and two yellow stripes across the top of the chest.Laurie Penny: Feminism is the one F-word that makes eyes widen in polite company (from this week’s New Statesman)

The other week, one of my Facebook friends (who has severe ME) wrote that it made her sad that only one in seven women called herself a feminist, as being a feminist did not mean you could not be feminine. Laurie Penny, in the most recent New Statesman, notes that while touring the world “giving talks about anti-capitalism and women’s rights”, she’s met men who called themselves “equalists” rather than feminists, and young women who said “that despite believing in the right to equal pay for equal work, despite opposing sexual violence, despite believing in a woman’s right to every freedom men have enjoyed for centuries, they are not feminists. They are something else, something that’s very much like a feminist but doesn’t involve having to say the actual word”. She suggests that people regard feminism as angry, man-hating and unfeminine, and quotes bell hooks as saying, “most people learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media”.

I will start off by saying that I’m not a feminist, but some people need to be, because some people need to be addressing issues like sexual harassment of women in the street and the workplace, domestic and partner violence against women (and the lack of adequate facilities for victims, which is getting worse because of government funding cuts), the prominence of the sex industry and pornography (although the former has improved a little in the last few years, in large part due to feminist campaigning), sexual exploitation of young girls (especially those in the care system in some places), rape and the inadequate police and judicial response to it, hostility to and disbelief of some women refugees, and the inadequate care given in the health system to those with certain chronic health conditions that mostly affect women, such as ME. However, these issues don’t affect everyone, they often overlap with issues which affect groups of both sexes, and are often subjects that need sensitive and well-informed people to campaign on them, rather than mass movements. Mass movements worked on the initial equal pay and sex discrimination laws, for example; subsequent advances were won by a well-organised group of campaigners, academics and lawyers, and a similar movement exists for race relations and equality (often called “the race industry”).

Most people support the things Laurie Penny mentioned, but they are not things that any longer need campaigning on to achieve the basics. Equal pay and opposing sexual violence, and equal legal rights with men, are no longer controversial. Girls are no longer told by people in authority that they cannot follow this or that career path because they are female; women no longer have to leave a professional job when they marry and cannot openly be refused employment or paid less because of their sex; women can divorce relatively easily and are more likely to retain guardianship of the children. The fact that there is still a gender pay gap or fewer women in the highest-paid positions and boardrooms, for example, does not detract from the fact that point-blank sex barriers are a thing of the past, that the law is on the side of anyone facing discrimination, and that these things are largely uncontroversial. Supporting equal pay and sex discrimination laws would have made you a feminist in the 1960s. Now, it’s just normal. Enough women are doing fine, and do not feel constrained by their sex, to feel they do not need to be feminists.

Feminists have moved on, and the things they often campaign for now are often quite irrelevant to most people. If young people regard feminism as negative, man-blaming and anti-feminine, they might not have got this from “the patriarchal mass media” but from feminists themselves. There are numerous separate sets of women (and sometimes men) with widely diverging opinions all calling themselves feminists, and none of them has more or less right to the title than any other. These include the so-called radical feminists who talk of women being oppressed, as femininity being a source of oppression, of male violence and rape being “how men keep women down”, despite most women appearing to get some joy out of femininity (for women like my friend with ME that I opened this with, it may be one of their few pleasures and makes them feel like normal women, rather than sick people) and not being beaten, much less raped. There are other feminists who peddle outlandish theories about gender which, equally, have no relevance to most people as they are at variance with their observation of the world (here is one example). As I mentioned in a previous post on intersectionality, some women may find that the feminists of their acquaintance are preoccupied with progress in the workplace, but have little to say about race or disability issues that affect their lives or their families’. Women from some minorities find that mainstream feminism is white-dominated and privileges white women’s ambitions and norms, and find this profoundly alienating. Some Black women call themselves womanists, so as to distinguish themselves from “white” feminism; others call themselves things like “radical women of colour”.

As for men, the reason some of us are not feminists is fairly simple: feminism is at least partly a sectional interest lobby, much as farmers, businessmen and workers (and certain ethnic and religious groups) have, rather than a moral cause, and they have every right to advocate for what they regard is good for them, but those things might not be good for us, or good for children (or even another group of women beyond whoever is doing the campaigning), or might be thought just plain morally wrong (free abortion on demand, for example). Men may agree with some feminists on some issues, or take an interest in some issues that particularly affect women (as with the health issues covered on this blog), but may not be particularly concerned with women’s issues just because they are women’s issues, as it is to be expected that women might be. I don’t subscribe to any of the movements that go under the banner of feminism today, and nor do I primarily concern myself with the welfare and interests of women, qua women. So, I’m not a feminist.

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