Hello there! Are you growing tired of the ongoing criticisms of sexism in the skeptical community? Do you feel like one of the essential values of freethought and skepticism is lost when we set up “sacred cows” like feminism? Do you believe that feminism, like anything, needs to be held up to critique, and that the way that any questioning of feminism or dissent from the growing feminist consensus is met with the “thought police” coming to gag you? Do you feel this crushing of dissent is creating an echo chamber that is preventing us from being able to have a free, open discourse? Do you feel all this petty infighting over such trivial issues is destroying our movement? That people seem wholly incapable of discussing sexism in a rational way? That it’s distracting us from more important issues? Do you believe that we need to be more skeptical of feminist dogma?
If so, knock it off. You’re being silly. There is no such thing as feminist dogma.
Why? Because feminism is not a unified, monolithic ideology. Feminism is primarily a field of inquiry, interrogating the socio-cultural dynamics of gender, and a movement, towards political, legal, social and cultural equality of the sexes. In so far as it can occasionally be described as an ideology, it has one and only one unifying tenet: that women are no less valid and deserving than men. That’s all.
To insist on being skeptical of feminism is to insist on being skeptical of the concept that women are not inferior human beings, and therefore to posit that men are indeed the superior sex. Or that we should not be thinking or talking about social and cultural treatment of gender, and that it is all fine as is. If that’s the position you really want to take… well, I certainly can’t stop you. But don’t be surprised if people aren’t exactly sympathetic to your viewpoint.
This is, however, not what most people mean when they say they would like us to be more “skeptical of feminism”, or oppose “feminist dogma”. Instead they mean we should question specific beliefs, concepts, practices or rhetoric within feminism, but they make the mistake of believing that feminism does in fact have a unified position on these specific issues. When conflating specific concepts they find problematic with the entirety of feminism, they set themselves up to go after the wrong targets, and fundamentally misunderstand what feminism really is. They also position themselves to be dismissed by feminism who could, under the right circumstances, actually agree with them about the specific issue in question.
Just like skepticism and atheism, feminism is a HUGE tent, united by a very simple tenet and assumed value. Everything else is up for discussion.
Debate of the specifics that follow from the original assumed value (equality of the sexes) is not only tolerated by feminism, but is an extremely valuable, indispensable aspect of it, and something that has long been central to feminism. I’ve met many men with an anti-feminist tilt who seem to believe that all feminists agree with one another, and that feminists who dare break the party-line are driven out of the movement with pitchforks and torches. But… although the internal debates of feminism have at times certainly gotten nasty, it’s been one of the definitive features of the movement all along. There are countless branches of feminism, diverting from one another over specific concepts and ideas, and feminism has undergone countless evolutions and permutations as these debates and conversations go on. That is part of the process. While the image of Straw Feminism is that feminists sign up for The Party, burn their bra, trade in their heels for a nice pair of birkenstocks and immediately subscribe to the package of feminist positions, the reality is that finding any two feminists who agree on everything is virtually impossible. Sort of like trying to find two skeptics who agree on everything.
Take for instance the ongoing problem of transphobia within the feminist movement. This is an issue of no small personal significance for me. To what degree do you imagine I unquestioningly accept feminist positions on it?
Transphobia has long been an issue within feminism. Trans women are often regarded as appropriating women’s body, committing an act of rape through claiming the female body for themselves, have been described as infiltrating women’s spaces and compromising their safety, have been described as “artificial” women designed to devalue “real” women further, have been described as “colonizing” womanhood, of reinforcing the gender binary by supporting claims of a fundamental femaleness, of furthering the concept that culturally gendered personality characteristics are necessarily tied to gendered biology, of being a construct of patriarchy designed to assert a bio-essentialist image over the social construct of gender, of being the supreme embodiment of men’s domination of women, and so on and so forth. Trans men, conversely, are regarded as traitors and quislings, women who have internalized misogyny so deeply that they’ve come to loathe their own bodies and chosen to become men, women who have turned their backs on their sisters in order to join up with the oppressor, and similarly ridiculous concepts. These views are especially common amongst contemporary branches of radical feminism and current variations of second-wave feminist philosophy, but they also show up in the mainstream.
Germaine Greer in particular, despite being a very mainstream, widely recognized figurehead of the feminist movement has repeatedly said some incredibly hateful things about trans women, rather recently making a public remark in the wake of the Caster Semenya controversy (an Oympic athlete who was discovered to be intersex), that trans women are merely “delusional” men:
“Nowadays we are all likely to meet people who think they are women, have women’s names, and feminine clothes and lots of eyeshadow, who seem to us to be some kind of ghastly parody, though it isn’t polite to say so. We pretend that all the people passing for female really are. Other delusions may be challenged, but not a man’s delusion that he is female.”
I’m particularly disturbed by her use of “us” in the first sentence there. Who is this “us”? Cis people? Women? Feminists? Transphobes? It’s frightening that she simply presumes to include the reader in her bigotry, treating as a matter of course that people will have the same hateful, prejudicial attitude as her own. And further hints at the usual “political correctness gone mad!” trope as the only possible reason anyone would disagree with her position. Not unlike the attitude towards dismissing people’s criticism of anti-feminist positions, describing feminism as nothing more than a hive mind group-think.
Greer’s history of transphobia is certainly shameful, but nowhere near as appalling as the personal crusade against us taken up by Janice Raymond, author of “The Transsexual Empire: The Making Of The She-Male”. She in particular adopted the rhetoric and attitude that we are “colonizing” womanhood, “raping” women’s bodies by “reducing them to artifact” and “making women according to man’s image”. She also holds up many of the usual tropes and myths, such as the ironically misogynist myth that SRS is defined by cutting off the penis (a de-sexing of the body rather than re-sexing… the misogynist aspect being that it lends credence to the concept that women are incomplete men -men minus a few pieces- and that female genitals are merely the absence of male genitals).
You win the internets if you can find a trans woman who has heard of Raymond and doesn’t bristle with rage and disgust at the mention of her name.
These views are espoused, in varying degrees, by many other feminist leaders and writers, such as Sheila Jeffreys and Mary Daly. There have also been many incidents of trans women being forcibly expelled from feminist spaces… some of the notable ones have been Sandy Stone, a sound engineer pushed out of Olivia Records, the trans exclusionist “Womyn-Born-Womyn” policy of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Fesitval, and the expulsion of rape crisis counselor Kimberly Nixon from Vancouver Rape Relief after her gender status became known (the argument in that case was that Nixon couldn’t possibly understand the experiences of her clients, despite the fact that she herself had indeed been a victim of abuse, the transphobia in this case being used as a weapon to erase the legitimacy of her own victimhood).
In most contemporary third wave feminism, the issue of transphobia within the movement has begun to be recognized, and the value of trans-feminism and trans feminists has accordingly begun to be acknowledged and embraced. However it’s still an ongoing problem, and whenever entering any kind of feminist or women’s space I always have to be on guard, and always experience a level of anxiety, knowing that technically all it will take in a given situation is one or two women with a negative view of transsexuality to result in my being forced out of such a space.
Beyond that, there is also the issue of micro-aggressions, dismissal of the validity of my experiences and gender, a sort of sense often that my being allowed a presence within a feminist space or group is purely conditional and nonetheless I’m expected to meet certain standards in order to prove that my experiences as a woman are valid and legitimate. There is also often resentment of my tilting discussions in such a way that they become “unbalanced” in the direction of LGBT issues (it typically takes very little for cis or straight people to begin feeling there’s “a whole lot” of LGBT discussion going on, sort of like the cognitive distortion wherein white people will perceive themselves as being in the minority despite that not being the case in cities where there is any significant level of racial diversity), resentment that the inclusion of trans perspectives in some way comes at the expense of other perspectives (???), that gender theory and trans theory is pointless, navel-gazing or unimportant relative to other feminist concerns, that my voice somehow detracts from the voices of “real” women, etc. Things are certainly getting better, but definitely it is a dangerous and anxious thing to be both an openly trans woman and a committed, active feminist.
Though despite the personal difficulty and risk, I absolutely reserve the right to question transphobia and cissexism when I do encounter them, even within feminist spaces. Because I am a real woman, and I have just as much a right to fight for respect, equality, my basic human rights, and a presence and voice as any woman.
But do you see what I’ve done here? I’ve voiced criticism of a specific problem within feminism rather than stating that feminism itself is the problem. Watch how quickly the feminazis come to squash my dissent and tear me to shreds for committing the thought crime of questioning their dogma. Though I don’t recommend holding your breath.
If, on the other hand, what I said here was “feminism has done some things I don’t like, therefore feminism is EVIL!”, someone would likely be along pretty swiftly to call me an idiot. And rightly so.
There are three primary “waves” of feminism. Each wave had certain particular priorities, responsive to the political climate of the time in which they first emerged, each had certain failures and problems which were addressed in subsequent iterations, each had certain strong controversies and points of internal debate or contention that led to alternate branches or paths, and each wave has in some way attempted to become broader, more inclusive, and more refined, with the goal being to improve on the shortcomings of previous iterations of feminism. Alternate branches and pathways did, of course, occur, and at this point, although things can be loosely grouped into the three main waves, we also have more a pluralism of feminisms rather any particular distinct “contemporary mainstream feminism”, and this is likely to become even more the case as time goes on. Kind of like an evolutionary tree, with biodiversity increasing as time and life progresses from a particular common ancestor.
First wave feminism was the initial struggle for voting rights and property rights, the basic assertion that women were not themselves property, but were citizens and human beings, capable of offering input into a collective society. First wave principles are largely taken as a given in contemporary North American society, even amongst people who are not only non-feminist, but emphatically anti-feminist (except for the absolute most extreme sexists).
Second wave feminism was the variation that lasted from the 60s to the 90s. It was concerned with things like reproductive rights, the role of women in the home, socio-cultural parity of the sexes, access to certain professions, the wage gap, etc. It is considered to have begun with the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Most basic second wave principles are also taken for granted amongst the North American left-wing, but not necessarily amongst more conservative factions of society.
Second wave was criticized for certain failures of inclusivity, such as how it seemed primarily focused on the concerns, problems and experiences of middle-class, straight, white women (The Feminine Mystique in particular primarily concerns the anxiety and sense of unfulfillment amongst middle-class housewives). This led to new branches emerging, which held varying positions on issues such as race, sexual orientation, the relative role of men in a feminist movement and society, etc. Some branches became highly radical and adopted strongly misandrist viewpoints, and these became the sort of protean material from which much of today’s Straw Feminism is constructed.
Straw Feminism, if it isn’t sufficiently self-explanatory, is the ridiculous caricature of man-hating, hairy-legged, bra-burning, crew-cutted “feminazis” that are used as a strawman arguement to discredit feminism and avoid addressing the actual points and actual arguments being raised by actual feminists, which are typically quite substantive and do indeed demand an answer. Example “why should a 15 year old girl on reddit be subjected to a slew of rape jokes at her expense?”, answer: “God you feminazis are so shrill and can’t handle any disagreement! Not ALL men are like that! Stop with your misandrist generalizations. If you were really interested in equality you wouldn’t be a feminist, since feminism just wants female supremacy. You dislike the rape jokes because you despise sexuality. You probably think all guys are rapists. Well we’re not going to let you castrate and emasculate us. You’re just unattractive and angry at men for not giving you more attention.”
From the second wave also emerged certain highly gender-essentialist branches, such as Cultural Feminism, which held the idea that there was a sort of universal sisterhood or universal female experience and female mind and female ability. This form of feminism sort of leaned into essentialist concepts of “what women are like” and instead of allowing them to be means of denigration instead reclaimed them as virtues, and believed that the problem in our society was not prescriptive, institutionalized concepts of gender but instead that the feminine (intuition, emotion, passivity, etc.) was not suitably valued and that society was being run on distinctly masculine impulses. This is the feminism we associate with dated concepts like “if the world were run by women, there would be no war”. It is also the form of feminism that laid the groundwork for the pattern of transphobia within the movement.
While it’s certainly something that can be debated, I hold that there is no universal female experience, there are only individual women, and that although certain qualities or concepts that are culturally gendered feminine may be very much unfairly devalued in our culture, there is nothing inherently female to the feminine, and that it is the prescriptive and binary models of gender and the inability to accept variance as a natural element of sex and gender that are the greater problem. That and how women are still positioned as the secondary Other within the binary while men are still positioned as the default, neutral, primary category. And how we still cling to a basic model of sexual dynamics and feel threatened by any deviations from the script: male as active, aggressive sexual agent whose desire is to dominate and possess the female, female as passive, submissive sexual object whose desire is to be dominated and possessed by the male. And a whole bunch of other stuff too, which if I don’t stop this paragraph now I’m bound to remember and begin listing off into infinity.
Third wave feminism started emerging in the 80s and came to prominence in the 90s, largely emerging from the debates within feminism over issues of sex-positivity, pornography and the like. Third wave is the variation you’re most likely to encounter today. It includes a more nuanced, pluralistic and inclusive concept of feminism. Within third wave, a few key features are important that distinguish it both from second wave and more importantly from the straw-feminism caricatures. Third wave is generally sex-positive and does not regard things like sex work and pornography as inherently oppressive of women. It regards men as potential allies (and potential feminists), and both patriarchy and sexism as emergent systems for which no one is necessarily individually accountable. Instead we collectively, as a culture, bear accountability for the systems of sexual, gender-based discrimination and prescriptive binaries and there is no definitive “bad guy” we need to seek out and stop. It is not solely focused on the issues and needs of women and instead recognizes how all genders (women and men, trans, intersex and cis, binary-identified and genderqueer, etc.) are all harmed by the current socio-cultural dynamics of gender. It works towards bearing in mind issues of intersectionality and acknowledge the unique situations and challenges of women of colour, queer women, transgender people, women with disabilities, working-class or under-class women and so on.
Most importantly, given the intense diversity of issues incorporated into third wave, it is defined by a vast number of individual sub-branches (such as trans-feminism, the sub-movement into which I can most easily be grouped), and particular positions taken on particular issues, as well as various systems of prioritization of the many concerns of the movement. Much more than a singular, consistent ideology, it is a group of individuals with many different unique perspectives and evaluations of the situation working through the discourse, engaging in numerous individual actions, and cooperating collectively towards the singular shared value of gender-equality. But it is a discussion. A grouping of individual voices, perspectives and concerns. A field of inquiry. It is not a unified, consistent ideology, and is not a dogma.
One single agreed upon tenet: women are human beings too.
Yes, that belief is held as a sacred cow, and it is a value assumption taken on a leap of faith. But you know what? Such assumptions of value are necessary. Reason, logic and skepticism are incredibly valuable and important, but they are utterly pointless without some kind of value or goal to set those processes in motion. We all take leaps of faith in terms of our values, and without them we’d be paralyzed in nihilism. We have to make some assumptions: murder is wrong, life is worth living, ethics are worth having, human beings deserve basic rights and liberties, etc. We all do it on a consistent basis. Skepticism is all well and good, but one inevitably arrives at a point where you have to say “just because”, and sometimes that is perfectly okay as an answer. Such as in response to “why should we treat women as equal human beings?”
Even skepticism itself has a “sacred cow” value assumption underlying it, a unifying principle for a field of inquiry (just like feminism): truth is preferable to falsehood, even when the falsehood is more comfortable.
When someone approaches me saying we ought to be skeptical of feminism, without specifying any particular issue or concern, and merely saying we ought to be skeptical of it simply because a lot of us happen to be feminists and happen to agree with one another, it sounds completely meaningless to me. Sort of like:
“We should be more skeptical of atheist dogma. Everyone here just treats atheism as a sacred cow, and always criticize the views of people who aren’t atheists. You atheists can’t seem to handle any disagreement. Some ‘free thinkers’ you are! Stop silencing dissent.”