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Why I am a Feminist – Richard Carrier

I am a feminist because feminism is simply the belief that women should be treated as fairly as men, and there is no factual or rational reason to want the world to work any other way. I would be a feminist even if women all the world over were treated as fairly as men and there was nothing more to be done. Because feminism is the view that that is the way things should be, and thus the way we should endeavor to keep things going.

But in fact the world is not there yet. Certainly not in the so-called third world. But even here in the first world, we are still a long way from a just and reasonable society, not only in this issue but in many–from the way gays and lesbians and atheists and all other minorities must still fight bigotry at both the social and institutional level (yes, appallingly, even here in the U.S.), to the way we allow stupidity and dogma and emotion to block us from doing the right thing in every national domain, from prison reform to tax reform to the elimination of antiquated (and ultimately religious) “vice” crimes. If you see how wrong we as a society are in every other domain, you should not be surprised that we are still as wrong in the matter of embodying the ideals of feminism.

If you believe women deserve equal treatment under the law (as the 14th amendment requires) and if you believe women ought to be treated in business and culture and personal relations as individuals the same way men are, then you are a feminist. If you don’t believe those things, you are a sexist. That people must be treated equally under the law stems from the same fact that they must be treated as individuals in every other domain: each person has their own assets and liabilities that often defy gender averages–for example, women may on average have lower upper body strength than men, but many individual women will be stronger than the average man just as many individual men will be weaker than the average woman, so the right standard to judge a person is by the abilities of the individual and not the averages of their sex, perceived or real. Even when differences are pervasive (e.g. many women can get pregnant, most men cannot), these have no bearing on most matters of evaluating a person’s merit (such as strength, intelligence, emotional resilience) or legal status (in most cases whether a given tax or law applies to you should not be determined by whether you have a womb or a penis, or indeed even your intelligence or strength), and even when they do they are still reducible to matters of individual difference (many women cannot get pregnant, for a variety of different reasons, while many transsexual men can, thus no law can simply assume all women can get pregnant and no men can), or even individual differences don’t matter (e.g. women should simply have the same right to divorce, vote, or own property as men, regardless of any differences, individual or otherwise, provided they are all legally competent adults).

None of the above should even have to be explained. Yet routinely I find it does. That measures how far we are from being a fully humanist society.

Besides the reasons to want this fairness (of treating people as the individuals they are rather than irrationally mapping on to them the perceptions and averages assigned to their gender) there is the fact of the harm that is done by defying or denying any effort to realize this fairness–in society, in our communities, in ourselves. Denying that this defiance or denial happens is the first pillar that ensures it frequently does. Especially since cognitive biases can be pernicious in being undetected even in oneself, if you don’t even know to look for them and then compensate or correct for them; or worse, if you deny you even have to. It is easy to assimilate stereotypes and act and think in accordance with them without being aware that you are, or without being aware that it’s irrational (but instead trying to rationalize it, by finding clever ways to convince yourself those stereotypes are more pervasively true than they really are).

A rational person is someone who cares about living a self-examined life in which they look for these kinds of biases not only in their society and community but in themselves, and then doing something to fix it. And a feminist is someone who does this in regard to not just overt, but latent sexism. Thus, since a rational person is someone who does this generally, all rational people will be feminists. Conversely, if you aren’t a feminist, you aren’t a fully rational person. This does not mean all solutions to any discovered problem are the right solutions or even good ideas at all, but one cannot find the right solutions, the good ideas, if you aren’t even looking for them in the first place. And you won’t really be looking very hard if you aren’t passionate about the result. In other words, if you don’t deeply care that your society and community be as wise and as just as it can be. Which entails deeply caring about sexism and its purge and defeat.

Religious prejudice comes in many levels, from religious supremacism (e.g. Christians are the master race deserving of full support from the government and atheists are barely human scum who deserve to have their rights taken away or even kicked out of the country) to unconscious religious bias (e.g. treating Christians with more favoritism than atheists, as when deciding to listen to them or befriend them or employ them or how much to pay them or whether to promote them or when blaming anything they do wrong on their “being an atheist” rather than finding the same reasons as when a Christian does something wrong, all without even realizing you’re doing that). Prejudice against women comes in the same spectrum, and I have seen all points on that spectrum realized in the United States, the supposedly enlightened culture–and not just in the United States, but within the atheist movement as well. All the way from male supremacism (e.g. women are just inferior to men in nearly every way and government and business should simply recognize that and distribute rights, benefits, and privileges accordingly) to unconscious sexism (e.g. treating men with more favoritism than women, as when deciding to listen to them or befriend them or employ them or how much to pay them or whether to promote them or when blaming anything they do wrong on their “being a woman” rather than finding the same reasons as when a men does something wrong, all without even realizing you’re doing that). I have seen it all, the whole spectrum, in my country and in the atheist community.

We should be doing something about it. We should be debating what’s to be done. Not whether anything is to be done. Because rational and enlightened people identify problems in themselves and their communities and do what they can to fix them. Sexism is a problem. It would be a problem to prevent even if it didn’t exist. But it certainly does exist, even in our supposedly advanced culture, even in our supposedly rational community. And I care about that.

That is why I am a feminist.

Comments

  1. gwen says

    It is frustrating that every discussion I have on forums and FB boils down to what feminists ‘look like’. In the estimation of the loudest men on the boards– even so called freethought boards, all feminist women are ugly shrill lesbians. I was raised to be a feminist, my sons were raised to be feminists. I know feminist women of all types. Feminism SHOULD be the default position for EVERYONE.

  2. says

    Thank you for posting this, Talisma. And thank you for writing it, Richard. This is perfect and well articulated. If only more people would be willing to read and understand this with out asking for proof or pointing out differences and complaining about how misandry has replaced misogyny.

    I’ll be passing this along to everyone I can.

  3. Jay says

    “I would be a feminist even if women all the world over were treated as fairly as men and there was nothing more to be done. Because feminism is the view that that is the way things should be, and thus the way we should endeavor to keep things going.”

    So your saying you would continue to refer to yourself as a feminist even if all things in the world were equal? Whenever I ask someone, why they would label themselves as a feminist rather than just a humanist or an egalitarian the common answer I get is that until women around the world achieve equality, the word “feminist” should still be used. They say the word feminist is necessary precisely to draw attention to the fact that women are still often second class citizens. I’m fine with this answer, but I feel like if thats the case then our goal should be making the label “feminist” completely obsolete. After all if men and women were both treated as equals, what sense would it make to continue to use a word that only points to one sex? If we did achieve equality would those that still work to maintain gender equality still refer to themselves as feminists out of respect for past crimes against the female sex? For how long? What if, 100 years from now we live in a female dominated world where discrimination against men becomes common place? Would people advocating for equal gender rights still call themselves feminists? Would that really make sense?

    The older I get, the more I find myself in agreement with Neil Degrasse Tyson. I understand why labels are useful and indeed often necessary, but I still hate them. They come with baggage and often times people tune you out based on preconceived notions about certain labels. Moreover people become attached to labels with a fervor that dangerously approaches religion, especially once more and more viewpoints start to get attached to that label.

    • says

      Jay said:

      So your saying you would continue to refer to yourself as a feminist even if all things in the world were equal?

      No, that is not what he said. He said that he would still be a feminists. As for what he means by the word, it is in his article (equality between men and women).

      There is nothing in it to suggest that he would cling to the term and adopt whatever philosophy it may come to mean in the future as opposed to keep the philosophy that he associates with feminism today and use whatever term is associated with it in that same future.

      What in his article makes you think that he cares more about the term itself than about the philosophy he uses the term to refers to?

  4. says

    Jay: There is value in allowing marginalized groups to have specialized spaces for the development of philosophy and policy. Feminism, in my view, will always be necessary because it provides a specialized theoretical space for the formation of resistance theory and practice.

    And space to conceptualize oneself differently than how the culture conceptualizes one.

    • Jay says

      @mouthyb: I understand what your saying, but what I was trying to get at is, would there be any value in keeping the label of feminism after we’ve achieved a more equal society? You say it is important to give marginalized groups a space, but what if women were no longer marginalized? I’ve read articles about how this recession has affected men harder than it has women. Women are also earning degrees in higher rates then men. I see articles all the time about how men will soon be “finished” or how the future belongs to women. Yes, there is still much sexism, but our grandchildren and their children may very well be growing up in a female dominated world. At that point, will the label “feminist” still have value? The way I look at it feminism is a subset of humanism, one concerned with the rights and treatment of women. The label was chosen to bring attention to the inequality often faced by women. You also bring up how it is important for groups to have a space to conceptualize themselves differently from how the culture conceptualizes them. If thats the case would the label “masculinist” suddenly become relevant in a female dominated world? Some would argue that its relevant today. The image of masculinity being pushed by our culture is controlled by those in power, which means other men. But that doesnt mean men as a whole are comfortable with the way society portrays them and tells them how to be. Men today are clearly conflicted about what society says is masculine and while every man plays apart in enforcing gender roles, women often contribute in that as well, at times even more so then men. Thats why I feel like spaces like the Goodmenproject are good and necessary as well, but as we move towards a more equal society I feel like some of these labels should be dropped in favor of more inclusive terms like egalitarian. In the future, I don’t think we should feel the need to come up with new labels every time we notice a group being marginalized or mistreated.

      Sorry for the rant, but Neil deGrasse Tyson’s video has had me thinking a lot lately about the nature and usefulness of labels.

  5. says

    Here’s another set of links:

    http://www.caseyfoundation.com/~/media/Pubs/Topics/Economic%20Security/Asset%20and%20Wealth%20Development/WomenandMenLivingontheEdgeEconomicInsecurityAftertheGreatRecession/EconomicInsecurityAfterGreatRecession.pdf

    http://www.northeastern.edu/clms/wp-content/uploads/Labor_Underutilization_Impacts_of_Great_Recession_of_20072009.pdf

    Characterizing the recession as ‘mostly impacting men’ ignores the differential effects. The paper on economic discrepancy, in particular, points out that women consistently suffer the effects of economic problems in a disproportionate fashion.

  6. says

    Here’s a link to a report discussing the causes of male unemployment during the recession (including things like being disproportionately employed in the sectors hit hardest by the recession (like the tech industries):

    http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=mCL1ajLkWP4C&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=women+recession+US&ots=lUpMTk00_V&sig=pVKSOIvvwSfIUXb2OfPJpu-kH3c#v=onepage&q=women%20recession%20US&f=false

    Here’s one which discusses the discrepancy between gender and race on wage prioritization, and the effect of the great Recession:

    http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/content/1/c6/11/69/28/Fontana.pdf

  7. says

    Jay: I’ve just sent in six research studies in comments. Sufficed to say the objects you raise to the term feminist on an economic basis are specious.

    As far as the idea of a ‘woman-dominated’ society, you misunderstand feminism. That is not the goal for feminism, nor will it ever be the outcome. Feminist thought and theory, circa the third and fourth wave of theory, is opposed to the system of domination based on gender, period. It’s also opposed to dominance based on race, economics and zero-sum conceptualizations of society.

    It is a fantasy to think things will somehow, suddenly be equal. It is a goal, in the same way world peace is a goal, but equality (like the current state of world politics) requires constant vigilance against forces in culture which attempt to make these things out to be necessarily tied to conflict. Even should we get to a place where things are equal, that equilibrium will need constant, constant vigilance and attention to ensure society does not wander somewhere else.

    • Jay says

      I think you misunderstood me. I never meant to imply that feminists are plotting a female dominated society. What I was saying is that in the future, women as a class may hold more power than men. Thats not because feminism is working towards such a future, but that may simply be the direction in which society goes. You say that will never be the outcome and I don’t think most feminists would want it to be, but that doesn’t mean that society won’t move in that direction. As we continue to fight against sexism, and women continue to out number men at universities this may very well become reality, and plenty of articles out there have been written on this subject. If that happens then we may live in a society where women are no longer marginalized the way they are now. Of course we’ll never live in a perfectly equal society, but thats not my point. What if we reached a society where men started to become marginilized in the way women are now? I think we can agree that women suffer from sexism today far more then men do, but what if that situation was reversed? Would those advocating for gender equality still call themselves feminists?

      I feel like your sidestepping my main point, which is about the label of feminism and its continued importance, not the idea of feminism itself. Ok, maybe the recession isn’t affecting men more, but you do acknowledge that in the future women as a class could hold more power than men right?

      To sum it up, my ultimate point is this. Human society has for the most part been patriarchal. The word feminist as I understand it was coined to bring attention to the problems women were facing and to encourage people to work towards a more equal society. People often ask why a word like feminist would be used, when the word points to only one sex. The response I usually hear is that we shouldn’t leave the word behind yet as long as women still have second class citizen status. Of course the philosophy of feminism, that the sexes should be equal, will always endure, but I’m talking about the label we use. What I’m asking is, would the label of feminist still be appropriate if we ended up reaching a future that was more female dominated (the way our current society is male dominated). Heck, I’m not even saying a slightly more female dominated society would be a bad thing. They do outnumber men and if they are earning more degrees that may be the way things should go. After all, as you say total equality in all respects is impossible and objectively speaking one group will always hold at least a little more power compared to the other.

      • says

        I don’t think that it’s possible in the foreseeable future that women will be equal or hold more power than men in society. I have grave doubts that this will be possible in fifty years, let alone the rest of my lifespan.

        Because of this and the things I know about history and policy, I don’t think the term will be retired any time soon, let alone anytime in either of our lifetimes (~50 years, statistically, for me.)

  8. Patrik says

    Richard, you have mixed-up feminism with humanism.

    Your definition of feminism would include pretty much the entire population of the western society and most of the world. You are however neglecting some requirements of feminism. For instance you must believe in the patriarchy and that this unverifiable force favors men over women. Gender and sexual orientation are social constructs that society create and thus can change. And finally that men have an inherent stronger “power” than women.

    Rejecting any of these is like rejecting God, Jesus or the Holy Ghost and call yourself Christian…

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