“Do we still need feminism?”
This is what a student of mine asked in an essay recently. It was a bit of a shocking question, I admit, given what’s going on in the world today.
At first I thought that maybe this young woman didn’t know what feminism was. But she went on to say that even though she had always described herself as a feminist, she felt that maybe it was time to focus on equality, for both sexes, instead of creating a divide between men and women. And while I think feminism is far from obsolete, I also get her point, I do.
Yes, I understand why this 20-something Finnish woman would make this point. She is privileged in many ways, as am I. But I’m not talking about economic or social status here. And I’m not feeling even a little bit guilty for my apparent privilege.
But, back to the student… When she was born, her mother (who is probably my age) had a long maternity leave, with (slightly reduced) pay. Most likely her father also took some time off to take care of her. Her parents had access to affordable full-time day care and could give her quality education completely free of charge. Nobody ever told her she couldn’t do something because she was a girl (after all, when she was a child, the president was a woman), and nobody would even dream of questioning her reproductive rights.
But, both I and this young woman live in a Nordic welfare state. This makes both of us not only very privileged but also a bit naive, maybe even a bit smug, when it comes to understanding some of the issues and struggles that many western women still face today. Yet, many of the things I and my students take for granted are either under threat or a long way off in countries where (mostly male) politicians see women’s bodies (and lives) as something subject to state control. And this means that neither I nor my students can afford to be complacent about feminism. If for no other reason than that we don’t want the fringe elements of our right-wing populist movements to copy these attitudes to women and women’s bodies…
I want to feel empowered
When I was studying Women’s Studies (as it was called back then, long before it was rebranded Gender Studies) in the university, I was hoping to gain practical tools to help me, then a young woman and a self-proclaimed feminist, in my daily life. Instead, I ended up reading a lot of very theoretical drivel about biology as destiny, discrimination, otherness etc. Not to mention all those competing strands of feminism, all of which proclaimed to have the one and only recipe on how to be a proper feminist.
What was conspicuously lacking was empowering success stories of high-achieving women sticking it to patriarchy. Of course, there were plenty of those stories in the media, but all those very accomplished women were always almost neurotically repeating the same mantra: “I’m not a feminist, but…” In my opinion, they were either deluded or downright ungrateful for all the hard work previous generations of feminists had done to make their success possible.
For the record: I have never used the “I’m not a feminist, but…‘ phrase in my life, but I’ve called myself a feminist on many occasions.
Anyway, I remember feeling so let down by academic feminism because I felt it tried to convince me to join one of the many cliques in commiserating the myriad ways women were objectified and marginalised. It didn’t seem in the least bit interested in finding ways to break the glass ceiling, or changing laws and rules to accommodate women’s needs. But the worst thing was it was dragging me down: making me feel miserable for being doomed as the perpetual ‘other‘, or angry at being constantly guilt-tripped for not being oppressed enough or oppressed in the right way. I thought it was completely reasonable to expect that a movement for women should make women feel empowered, and provide kick-ass feminist role models for young women to emulate. Otherwise I could have just kept watching Xena Warrior Princess…
Cliques kill feminism
So, I was reminded of all that when I was watching in awe the Women’s Marches around the world. Isn’t this what feminism should be? Women (and men) from all walks of life coming together, united for a common cause, and empowering people to demand change. Yes! Tangible political goals, a clearly defined enemy, and women (and men) walking together, putting aside their social, economic, ethnic etc differences…
Until various cliques start bickering about who’s the most oppressed and who owes the others some sympathy. And because nobody likes being guilt-tripped, some women feel rejected and think they don’t fit the narrow idea of what a ‘real feminist’ should be like. And before we know it, it’s various feminist groups battling each other instead of the common enemy.
Focus on racial, ethnic and socio-economic divides has turned feminism into a fragmented battlefield of identity politics instead of a global movement for all women everywhere. And that is not a good thing. It makes feminism useless as a political movement, and makes very capable activists waste their time and energy fighting other women instead of the system that oppresses them all.
But isn’t it important for ‘white women‘ to understand the challenges of women of other ethnic groups?
I’m a ‘white woman‘. That does not mean that I could somehow automatically relate to the problems of, let’s say, American ‘white women’. Or British, or German, or… From my point of view, they live in a different world, subject to behavioural norms and cultural conditioning that are different from mine. Hell, they even speak a different language!
Sure, we can ask if a Nordic woman can ever understand the challenges that for example a (insert your choice of an ethnic/cultural group here) woman faces. What I would like to ask is why should I understand her culture. It may not be a very politically correct thing to say, but to be completely honest, I don’t give a shit what the particular problems of (insert your choice of an ethnic/cultural group here) women are. Besides, understanding is always a two-way street, so we could just as well ask shouldn’t a (insert your choice of an ethnic/cultural group here) woman try to see the world from my point of view. Except that I don’t really care whether she does or not because that’s beside the point.
What I do care about is that all women (irrespective of their ethnic origin or socio-economic background) everywhere can trust that their human rights are respected, that they are not seen as inferior to men, and that they have full control over their own bodies and their lives.
It doesn’t mean we should pretend there are no differences between various groups of women. It just means that instead of this competitive cult of ‘victimhood‘ we should focus on what we all want. And instead of guilt-tripping women we see as ‘more privileged‘ we should see them as allies, and focus on how we can work together to get what we want. We don’t have to consider our allies as friends; we don’t even have to like them. But we need them, if we want feminism to be an effective political movement.
And that’s the challenge feminism faces today, in my opinion: focusing on goals rather than differences. Less talk, more action, that sort of thing. It’s only then that women can work together to fix political systems that see women’s lives and bodies subject to state regulation.
What’s your feminism like?
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What van I say, this goes much further then feminisme,here in the Netherlands they are talking about slavery. And how did that effect black people today. The person who talks about that in talkshow has now a political party to fight discrimination. But she also host a radio program, music, with only,,black music,,.It feels to me like she keeps the discriminaton alive that way. Just like that stupid discussion about ,,zwarte piet,,. Don t know if you know what I mean by that because I think it s typical Dutch. But what I am trying to say is : less talk, more action!
I hear you… I'm not saying we shouldn't talk about slavery etc, just that it might be more efficient to fight discrimination by bringing more diversity into the mainstream. It's probably not a very efficient strategy to antagonise people by guilt-tripping them…
Really interesting discussion, Tiina. Part of the job when I was still teaching high school was to disavow teenage girls of their outmoded view of what feminism is.
Thanks, Susan. Yes, some young people have really strange ideas. But I have to say that recently I have been positively surprised by the smart young people I teach. Many of these young women, and men, seem more aware of feminism, and even describe themselves as feminists. Maybe feminism is getting hip again?
I enjoyed reading your blog today and couldn't agree more. I especially liked your sentence.. "instead of guilt-tripping women we see as 'more privileged' we should see them as allies" This is especially a problem in the US where, women can't see beyond what she thinks is "right" to allow a privileged woman to fight for equal wages, child care and education.
Thanks, Monica. Yes, I can imagine the class/race etc divisions are quite a bit more significant in the US than in Nordic countries. Of course, we have people who are 'privileged', too, but since we take subsidised child care and free education for granted, income disparities don't play such a role in everyday life.