Apr 26, 2008

Schrödinger's Feminist

Apparently, according to the somewhat confused Cath Elliott of the Guardian, men cannot be feminists (depending on who you believe). As she notes in her article:

Can everyone who supports the idea of women's rights call themselves a feminist, or are there other criteria that have to be met before people are allowed to sport the label? Like having a vagina for example, or having experience of life as a female and all the attendant discriminations that that brings?

I have to say, this mostly caught my attention because earlier yesterday, before I read this article, I had been reading another one on Alternet where American feminist and blogger Amanda Marcotte (who had previously worked for John Edwards) was being interviewed about her new book.

When questioned about male feminists, her view was that:

The biggest thing a man can do is be a feminist but quit piddling about it. I was reading your blog [Feministe] the other day and there were all these women who were like, 'My boyfriend is great, he cleans, and he is a feminist, he just doesn't call himself one, he's a humanist, blah blah blah.' It's OK, guys, get your mouth around the word "feminist." Say "patriarchy" out loud. Accept it.

Which I think is a fairly sensible viewpoint. If Feminism is an ideology, as I understand the term from my old Ideologies class (in other words, it has a Descriptive, Prescriptive and Strategic element to it, which is the entire ideology) then it should be open to men. Holding a particular world view is not limited to one's genetalia, and neither is accepting or implementing that solution.

Yet despite Cath Elliott concluding she has no problem with men calling themselves Feminists, she quotes those who do. Some such quotes include these lovely gems:

Some men, they argue, automatically assume a dominant role when they become activists, claiming to be better feminists than feminist women, and failing to recognise and challenge their own sexist behaviour. These so-called fellow travellers merely reinforce the tired gender stereotyping that feminism seeks to subvert, and by their domineering behaviour, they silence women's voices and perpetuate existing male power and oppression. They jockey for control and appoint themselves as spokespeople, in a diverse non-hierarchical movement that neither needs nor seeks figureheads or leaders.

And according to a member of the National Organisation for Men against Sexism:

"Although I believe that men can be pro-feminist and anti-sexist, I do not believe we can be feminists in the strictest sense of the word in today's society. Men, in this patriarchal system, cannot remove themselves from their power and privilege in relation to women. To be a feminist one must be a member of the targeted group (ie a woman) not only as a matter of classification but as having one's directly-lived experience inform one's theory and praxis."

Now, ignoring for the moment the issue of transsexuals (of either birth gender) or those women who have never themselves experienced discrimination, I think these statements are very revealing, if not misleading in their conclusions. According to these people, one can do the exact same things a female Feminist can do, yet at the same time they are disqualified from that descriptive name for reasons beyond their actions.

That I find interested, far more so than another piece of tedious political infighting. Apparently, there are distinctions between actions, factors which do not in any way effect those actions, and identity.

I find such distinctions...uncomfortable. To say the least.

Let us assume an anonymous internet blogger or forum goer. Their name is gender neutral, and they never reveal their identity throughout any public or private exchanges, even by use of pronouns or implications concerning sexuality and relationships. Yet, at the same time, they do refer to themselves as a Feminist and have been very vocal in aiding Feminist concerns and the understanding and spread of the ideology. In short, they support the descriptive, prescriptive and strategic elements that make up Feminism, of one brand or another.

Is this a person Feminist or not?

Apparently, we cannot know until we collapse the field by opening the box - that is to say, until we ascertain their gender identity. They may be a Feminist, and they may not be. All their actions are consistent with Feminist thought, yet they themselves can be considered only one until they reveal they are male, which is of course a real possibility. And what if they lied, and said or implied they were female, and thus were accepted even by the above Feminists who do not believe men can be one? Inconsistencey abounds in this worldview.

I find this amusing, because if one accepts the above argument it totally undermines essentialism in some schools of Feminist thought. Naturally, the Nietzschean in me finds this both amusing and somewhat vexing and sad at the same time.

It also suggests, to me, that the distinction between what one is and what one does is in many ways so pointless, unless what one does is impacted by what one is in the first place, limiting or allowing certain actions. While there is certainly room for debate over what one's actions signify, one cannot declare that if two people do the same thing, they are not, in that sense, sharing the same signifier, based on attributes that have nothing to do with their actions.

You can, of course, but you only invite contradiction and fallacious invention (a la Plato) into your ideas. And while that may be fine for some merehumes, it doesn't really cut it with me. A little Saturday afternoon philosophy for you to ponder.


Jeremiadist said...

I'm inclined to just say that "feminism" is a meaningful word, but that it is not useful or accurate to call anyone a "feminist". In general, categorizing people abstractly - even oneself - is an activity fraught with peril. A person can't really *be* anything, they can only *do* or *experience* things, and these are far from consistent to the degree they need to be for categorization to make sense. I suppose you could say that I call your Nietzsche, and raise you two Sartres. So, yeah, boo on essentialism.

Cain said...

I plead ignorance in the case of Satre. I got about a couple of hundred pages into Being and Nothingness and said "fuck this, lets go bowling instead". Its something I keep meaning to get back to, but as things stand, I have about 10 years of reading to get around to!

The statement seems sound, but I havent had the time to think it over (I'm not that quick on my feet, its all an illusion).