Feminism-ism, or something

Be what you are

It seems to me that as feminism enjoys a necessary resurgence it is becoming slightly easier to formulate the critique we need to get beyond it. What do I mean by beyond feminism? Possibly not what I thought I used to mean.

For a long time now I have been sitting uneasily on the feminist sidelines, refusing to refuse the label of being a feminist. Not only am I genuinely disturbed by the thought of feminist friends or any other women I know thinking of me as a non-feminist, a woman who doesn’t think women’s problems (such as structural inequality), are real or serious or worth campaigning or complaining about, I also feel by turns passionate about discrimination against women in its many forms, vile, violent and mundane, and that’s a central feminist sentiment right there.

What’s the but? I often come back round to the term pro-feminism, especially with all the waves overlapping and with post-feminism being such a hopelessly compromised term. What does it mean to be pro-feminist? What could it mean? I wonder whether identifying as a pro-feminist marks me out as not-a-woman somehow.

What does it mean to be pro-feminist if that means not quite feminist, or not feminist? Are there well-developed strands of actual feminism which I am simply not doing enough reading or research to discover, which perfectly situate me and my feminist perceptions?

To me, being pro-feminist is an essential ethical position for a man in this political and cultural moment, and I think it’s great that many more men now identify or describe themselves as feminists per se, often with explicit reference to their wives, daughters, relatives and friends, and the struggles and treatment they witness them withstanding. Is one better than the other? Is being a pro-feminist ally different from being a feminist ally? If you are a man, perhaps not. If a man calling himself a feminist was ever considered to be stepping on the toes of a woman’s identity, that time seems to have well and truly passed.

If you are woman however, and you are uneasy about the degree to which the philosophical essence of feminism may (or may not) be self-defeating, perhaps being a pro-feminist is a more honest position. Or perhaps it is just cheating, evading an honest position. If I want to support feminist causes and campaigns, but fear that there is a self-limiting aspect to the wider project, the best thing would probably be to be braver and say that I don’t identify as a feminist (because I cannot get fully behind it philosophically). But that would leave me estranged from my feminist friends: women who might be working harder than I am to effect real cultural change, which I will benefit from… back to square one. As a woman, my very indulgence in philosophy is probably indebted to past feminists.

It seems time may be a key factor. My wishfulness may be another. My perspective on men and on humans in general is obviously heavily involved, but perhaps it is the self-perpetuating nature of -isms that is at the heart of the issue.

Looking into the future I want to see feminism become redundant; arguably any feminist who doesn’t want this is a weird kind of feminist (a career feminist?). It can’t be that I want this more than most, so that therefore I distance myself from the movement in an ultimately pointless gesture of comforting, delusional futurism, or something. It can’t be that I think gazing into a post-feminist future helps anyone win battles, and it doesn’t help me feel less angry or less vulnerable each time I witness or learn about new (or old) affronts to women.

My thoughts are pushed forward by the inevitable question of what will result from our actions, or inactions. There are plenty of examples of things getting worse because of inaction and plenty of successes achieved. But where each of these are amalgamated to promote an overarching movement or philosophy, we must draw on huge generalisations – like men, and women. These are always dangerous. The million dollar question is: do they obscure far more than they reveal? I suspect they do.

My pro-feminism is about wanting to support a just cause without becoming an -ist. I have long felt happy to abstractly denounce ‘isms’ in their own right, and so this remains the simplest thread in my memory of doubt in adopting the feminist label, as my daily life and other struggles (related to my structural position as a woman and a mother), push and pull me so very far from this place where my intellect gets the luxury of forming opinions at all. I like to give isms a wide berth and I’m not afraid to say so, so why can’t I refuse (femin)ism? Because saying I am not a feminist aligns me with anti-feminists? This is the danger with isms, they are world-views, and thus by their very nature they encompass everything, and that includes everyone. If you’re not a feminist you’re part of the problem.

As a way of analysing gender relations in order to redress social inequality and improve the cultural attitudes towards women which have crushed them, feminist movements are superb and vital. Analysts still regularly provide new conceptual tools with which to assess common behavioural patterns which are covertly or demonstrably gendered power-plays, leading to real-life improvements for many people. How many of these particular gains could be achieved, or not, without the rubric of feminism? That’s not a rhetorical question. I know I don’t know.

Meanwhile, what if holding our image of ‘men’ firm, so that our project retains coherence, could prevent us from witnessing, and maybe even conceiving, the future we want where all individuals are held equally responsible for their own behaviour towards others (and, crucially, deserve the assistance of all others if they are not taught well in the first instance)? Maybe the categories of man and woman underpin a feminism-ism, an ideological layer which perpetuates the adversarial thread within gender relations. We know not all gender relations are adversarial, hell we love each other don’t we? And boy are there some noxious women about. Sure, some women’s noxiousness is rooted in their patriarchal subjection and identification. That’s exactly the same place men’s is rooted. They are still women, suffering the loss of a more enjoyable life, in the same way horrid men do.

Women aren’t responsible for teaching men how to treat women mind you; well yes in a way, but not any more than anyone else. We are all responsible for each other, because we are never really individuals in more than name. Are women responsible for their own abuse because they allowed it to happen? No. Maybe every woman who has been abused by a man because she trusted him had a father she could trust. Maybe every woman who has entertained a dangerous man even though she did not trust him had a father she loved but could not trust. Is it therefore every father’s fault if and when his daughter is abused? If not, can it be the fault of mothers that their sons abuse women and girls? How? Maybe every man who has been abused by a woman inhabits a special minority category, which we should research and give a label to? Maybe, maybe not.

To go beyond feminism used to mean to me: envisioning a post-feminist world, in the sense that major feminist goals were realised and the discourse around it fell away, and became a matter of historical interest and reflection, a celebration in fact. But it won’t be that simple. I am certain that there are fundamental obstacles to a true re-visioning of gender relations which the feminist framework holds in place. I still believe we need thousands of concerted ‘feminist’ actions and campaigns to keep bringing a better future closer, and to prevent the conditions of life for women from getting worse. I also believe we can make massive contributions to social change using feminist networks and women’s networks. Going beyond feminism means finding something which does all the work we need feminism to do, even better. It’s a sexy challenge, no?

I suspect that class now underpins virtually all social and cultural sexism and gendered abuse. (I believe that there are some evolutionary psychological reasons why it served societies to demean and devalue women. But it does not serve women, and the costs to societies of this strategy is now painfully obvious.) If ever there were a time when male and female persons were treated with a fundamental asymmetry of justice, within coercive social structures, and class was not a relevant factor, that time is literally prehistoric. The fact that men are a bit bigger is pretty interesting, but a strong person bullying a weak person isn’t sexism, it’s simply violence, it’s human immaturity. It’s also really easy to imagine through hypotheses about the work males have done while women nurtured babies, which they simply did a lot.

My basic understanding of humanity is that a civilisation or tribe or society which does not condemn almost all internal violence is more or less unheard of, and yet, yes, in every case still it erupts. I am categorically not an expert in evolution or anthropology, but I think the class roots of most contemporary sexism and oppression are sitting there waiting to be found.











Writing / Sex / Mistakes

headinhandsHaving got officially sick and tired of hearing myself think about blogs I might write complaining about not knowing what to write (having exhausted in reality the topic of complaining about being too afraid/too anxious/too busy to write), I am back and ready to write actual stuff.

Not that these topics aren’t important at all, but certainly I am hoping to develop my ideas into a conversation other than the one with other writers about the experience of writing. But you know, one day I will look back at the obstacles I faced from a distance (she says willing this to be true) and on that day I may well see something more interesting than what I’ve had to say on the subject so far.

I ought also to wonder whether the book I’ve written (but not published, or sent out very far) is ultimately a veiled account of what it feels like not to write. I wrote it precisely while I was supposed to be writing a PhD. It was an escape from a harder task, and it caught me up in its deeply satisfying mental-health-giving properties. My blog posts about writing itself have probably all popped out when I have not been at work on it for some time.

In fact the book is about a lot of things, a great many, and on my to-do list long before approaching publishers, is to re-read it expressly to find out what my themes were (sex, gender, justice?). I like to describe it as a philosophical stream of consciousness confessional, but hey, who likes them? Maybe lots of people would like it, but equally, maybe I wrote it just for me. When I say it’s philosophical, I mean it’s full of questions. Literally, it’s full of questions. When I re-read it, it will take me back to them all and maybe from there I can get some clarity about what it matters most to me to write about. (Sex, gender, difference.)

Because I am only just beginning to bring the strands of my life together to see that my obsessions actually matter. For instance, this week my work bit me hard in the personal-interests department. For that piece of code, read: my ‘boss’ called me ‘rather a strident feminist’ to a male colleague because I called out sexism. I reeled at the grilling I was given, though I should have expected it and, logically, it’s a fair cop; I tried hard not to name names and events, so my claims must have seemed pretty vague. But the real reeling is in the insane laziness of this characterisation. He was literally implying that if I’m a feminist then my view of sexism is inherently inflated. Worse, his emotional reaction (in a nice way) at being called out suggests that he thinks his workplace practices are feminist. He obviously doesn’t know that this is the right word for the things he is proud of in his workplace, not to mention in his personhood, but it is.

In fact I was really trying to call him out for his sexist positive treatment of arseholes. I suspected that a particular issue affecting two women colleagues would illustrate this weakness. In fact people thought that the guy in question was the root of the sexism I was calling out. What a fricking mess.

When I say sexist, I mean shockingly blind to an affection (weakness) for certain men who personify a brash confidence, but are rude or mad. Perhaps they got good results, but they were paid more than and treated with far more respect than the women whose jobs they made infinitely harder. It’s painful to throw another stereotypical judgement onto my own karmic log sheet but these guys are in marketing. The sex of an arsehole or an empty suit shouldn’t matter, and women should get employed for their skills and competencies, and men should not get employed when they lack these. And I should know better than to think I can fix a very old and entrenched psychological problem by flagging up how it disadvantages certain staff, using the method of professional observation and reporting. Apparently I have “a bee in my bonnet”.

Before I run screaming back into gainful relative unemployment (I’m freelance so it’s nicely vaguer than that), I need to reap some ‘lessons’ from this that are going to make me real goddamn happy but not smug. And I need to finish the work on my plate like a grown up, albeit a grown up in a team of grown ups with an overgrown child at the helm, calling the shots and giving me glare-eye.

Are there lessons? Hell yeah – you’re reading it now… I am coming to realise that, even if my report was strictly speaking true, my belief that it would work was in contradiction with the reality I know. Each time I tell myself that I don’t really know what I need to write about (sex, gender, sexism), I am making a temporary escape from dark shit that depresses and scares me. Then I go about my daily life thinking that all the tools we need to fix things are just there and we can use them and change things. Well they’re not. They need making. I need to remember that, much as I hugely value making discoveries through direct human contact, writing is a way to create some of these tools.


The Mother of all Confessions

Last week I started a post called Confession time Part 2. I started it with a confession about not having followed up Confession time Part 1 straight away with Confession time part 2. I couldn’t actually remember what the second confession was supposed to be, but had something else to confess; now I can’t remember what I was going to confess last week either. Oh dear.

Then suddenly, before I stood a chance of finishing Confession time Part 2, I realised I am ready to confess something SO BIG, personally speaking, that it can only be done to an anonymous group of online bloggers who don’t know who I am and won’t be remotely shocked.

I have to confess that I am not comfortable being a woman. Okay, so, the disadvantage of confessing to a large group of members of the 21st century public is immediately obvious. This is not rare or surprising nowadays, so barely warrants a gasp. But confessing it is a big deal for me. I’d say that everyone who knows me very well knows I’m a bit iffy when it comes to my gender, but many people who know me quite well would never guess. Then there’s the very close friends and family who are probably pretty sure (hoping) I have got over this by now.

It all started when I became a mother and ‘wife’. Before this, and during many years of it, I wore skirts and dresses in many colours, particularly in purple, red, green, orange and anything multicoloured, patterned and flowery. I had long hair and wore it up, down and around about. I wore necklaces, earrings, rings, bracelets and hair accessories. I thought little about being female, I was and it never caused me a problem. I liked men: somewhat mysterious I suppose but mainly compelling and fascinating. My friends were mainly girls and I was proud of having male friends.

Being a mother was something I took seriously, and intended to be good at. Being a wife was not in my vocabulary: we would be a partnership sharing the raising of children equally, this being the only way to be fair to ourselves and the children and show them that they too could fully participate in family life when they were adults. Didn’t quite happen that way.

My first pregnancy was relatively free from professional interference, though during my second I discovered that I dislike being treated like an idiot. But what really changed things around the birth of our second child was that their Dad got his first full-time job. Before that we were poor students, juggling a beautiful baby and determined to get our qualifications too. Work for him meant home for me, and I have never recovered. I was raised an only child by one parent, so I didn’t understand the concept of self-sacrifice. I barely understood sharing.

Ex and I were very committed, determined to break our family patterns of parental separation. We compromised and worked hard and tried to combine traditional needs like money, food and housing with progressive ideals like men knowing their own kids. Desperate for a life outside the home, I volunteered, did paid work part time, and became more and more critical of the social rules I was cruelly forced to argue with.

Thirteen years on from that birth, I am still angry about my gender. I’m not angry about being born female, nor, in all honesty, about being born into a rich, white, stiff-upper-lipped society with dodgy preconceptions about what men and women should be. Pushed, I could probably think of a hundred worse times and places to be a woman, in ten minutes flat.

My real problem is, as my awareness of the twisted reality of womanhood has grown, so has my empathy for men. Every place I feel empowered to change my life, driven to fight for women’s rights, called upon to challenge prejudice, I see men suffering. Instead of embracing an empowered femininity, I can have nothing to do with it.

Now I wear black a lot, but I mix this with a few colours so as not to draw too much attention to it. I wear black in mourning for the colours that men aren’t supposed to wear. Then sometimes I wear colours, because it seems perverse to neglect the liberties one has because others cannot exercise them. Then I wear black again.

Opposite sex friendships

One thing that makes me insanely angry is the unspoken assumption that women are not supposed to be friends with men other than their husband. This makes me want to kill. The logic seems to be that a woman only needs a man for sex (children), for money, a house, and to keep other men at bay so she can get on with her work and looking after her family. After that, men are presumably useless to her.

Maybe I am a little oversensitive about this. (A similar logic applies to ‘married’ men having female friends.) Neither law is written anywhere that it can be challenged, as far as I know. I read it in people’s faces, in the assumptions people make about me and my friends, and in the assumptions I make about other people.

In my reality men are often very interesting, and occasionally, loving, caring, intelligent, affectionate and helpful, even without sex or family ties. I don’t think a man has to be a brother or cousin in order for a woman to be safe if she is left alone with him (not that she always is of course).

That much said, I spend much more time making friends with sexually attractive men than I do with men I find a bit creepy, or slimy, or weird, or nasty, aggressive, sexist, homophobic, racist, massively capitalist, smelly or unable to stand or speak properly due to intoxication. I spend very little energy getting to know men who demand my phone number because their friend has just introduced me to them and I am not married or being stood over by some other man.

My closest male friends are gorgeous men, many of whom I would have sex with in certain hypothetical circumstances. The same is true of some of my closest women friends, although the circumstances are probably a degree more hypothetical. Because some of my friends are so gorgeous I would probably not sleep with them, and they know why. But I have some gorgeous friends who I could sleep with (and have) without being sexual. That’s why I’m writing this blog.

Ideally, we base our decisions about who we do and don’t have sex with on an understanding of the risks and rewards of having sex, and the rewards of not having sex. I am very fortunate in only having had one night stands with gorgeous men (very fortunate indeed), but I really don’t mind not having made friends with them. On the other hand, I would be gutted if I lost a close friend through badly timed sex.

If there was ever a time when one man could provide all the interesting perspectives on life a woman might ever want to hear, that time has gone. Close friendship often involves conversations that simply can’t happen when someone else is listening. We cannot treat a sexual partner as an elevated representative of the whole of the opposite sex – no-one can bear such a burden.