Feminism and Victimhood

What’s this I keep hearing about feminism promoting “victimhood”?

Anti-feminists often suggest that feminism encourages women to “see themselves as victims,” that feminism is actually insulting to women because it suggests they need “special rights” in order to be able to compete with men. The concept of programs that encourage women to pursue STEM professions or that teach men not to rape, therefore, implies that women are poor defenseless victims.

But does it really?

I never really understood this critique of feminism because I remember how powerless I felt before I became a feminist, and I know how powerful I feel now. Maybe there are feminists who feel like hopeless victims of the patriarchy. I don’t know; I haven’t met any.

You know what really sounds like victimhood to me? Anti-feminism.

Anti-feminism says that women must act “feminine” and men must act “masculine,” no matter how they personally feel like acting.

Anti-feminism says that sex and romance must follow certain scripts, and if you don’t like those scripts, too bad. If your desires fall outside of those scripts, again, too bad.

Anti-feminism says that all-male (or mostly-male) legislative bodies can make laws telling women whether or not and on what conditions they may obtain an abortion and how they may acquire birth control. If women don’t like that, well, they can just run for elected office themselves because this is a democracy after all. How they’ll do that while popping out all those babies they didn’t want? You tell me.

Anti-feminism says that men can’t control their sexual urges and refrain from raping women that they find attractive. It says that women do have the power to prevent their own rapes, but only by not having consensual sex, not drinking, not going out alone, not flirting–pretty must just staying home where it’s safe.

Anti-feminism says that if a dude keeps making inappropriate comments to you at work, you should suck it up and learn how to take a joke. Guys will be guys.

Anti-feminism says that if you’re a woman who wants to have children, you’ll have to accept the fact that caring for your children will reduce your career opportunities while the man you had those children with continues advancing through the ranks. If you wanted a more successful career, you shouldn’t have had children.

Anti-feminism says you should spend hours of your day putting on makeup, removing your body hair, fitting yourself into uncomfortable clothes, and tottering around on high heels–in fact, many of these things are often required of women in the workplace. It says that appearance is a reasonable factor to judge people by, because if you’re ugly, you can just choose to take better care of yourself.

Anti-feminism says that if you’re fat, you should spend your time, money, and energy on getting thin. Otherwise it’s acceptable to discriminate against you.

Anti-feminism says that you’ll be happier, a better woman if you marry a man and have kids. Even if you think you won’t. Do it anyway.

Anti-feminism says that if that man abuses you, you should make an effort to be a better wife.

I can’t think of anything more disempowering, more victimizing, than to live by an ideology like this one.

I know why people think feminism is all about victimhood. The reason is that feminism, like all progressive ideologies, rejects the idea of meritocracy. Feminism acknowledges the fact that while hard work and perseverance matter, some people still start out the race already ahead, while others must run the race dragging weights behind them. Acknowledging this reality, documented by decades of academic research and personal narratives, isn’t promoting victimhood. It’s lifting a rug that we’ve swept so much crap underneath.

The meritocratic worldview can be beneficial both to individuals and to society. On an individual level, it maintains the “just world hypothesis,” the idea that the world is fundamentally fair, that those who deserve success will get it and those who get screwed over must’ve deserved it somehow. It can be much more comforting than believing that sometimes people get screwed over for no good reason. And not just because of bad luck, either, but because our society may be set up in a way that screws over certain groups more than others.

On a societal level, the meritocratic worldview keeps people working hard. After all, if you truly believe that hard work is all you need to succeed, well, you’re probably going to work pretty damn hard, unless you’re just lazy and don’t deserve success anyway.

But understanding that hard work isn’t all there is to it doesn’t mean that people won’t work hard. It means that people will try to fix the world’s broken parts rather than pretending they’re not there. Feminism is empowering to me and to so many other people precisely because it shows us that we don’t have to accept the world as it is–even if some of the realizations it provokes are uncomfortable and jarring.

Most people will feel like victims at some point in their lives. Life has a way of putting almost everyone through shit that’s completely reasonable to feel sorry for yourself over. For what it’s worth, I’ve never felt like a victim as a woman. I’ve felt like a victim as a child who was bullied by her own teachers, as an adolescent who lived with untreated depression for nearly a decade, and as a young adult who sometimes feels like there’s just no way to get anywhere in this world without tons of money. Sometimes.

But there are people out there who have had their lives irrevocably altered by sexism in ways so horrible I try not to think about them. If those people feel like victims from time to time, I think they’re completely justified.

And that’s not something that can be blamed on feminism. That’s something that feminism, unlike the dogmatic pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps crap we keep getting fed, is actually trying to address.