Revisiting difference feminism

A Twitter discussion of skeptical feminism caused me to go look at one of the first things I wrote for the ur-B&W, the website not the blog. It’s an “In Focus” article on “difference feminism” with a collection of resources at the end.

I started with a defense of a certain kind of radical feminism (which is not to be confused with the term “radical feminism” as currently used by the troll-crowd, who don’t know what they’re talking about).

Second wave feminism has always had a radical strand. It has always been about more than equal pay. It was also, for instance, about exposing and then discarding banal conventional unreflective ideas that led to banal conventional unreflective behaviour. Ideas about cooking and cleaning being somehow naturally women’s work, for example, which led to men cheerfully lounging about while women put in what Arlie Hochschild calls a second shift. And even more than that, unexamined ideas about what women are like, what they want, what they should be and do. David Lodge once remarked that women became much more interesting after feminism, and his own novels bear this out, as do those of Michael Frayn and other male novelists who started writing in the ’50s or ’60s. The pre-1970 female characters are non-entities, the post-1970 ones–Robyn Penrose in Nice Work, Kate in Headlong–take up a lot of space. The very way women are perceived and noticed and thought about changed with feminism, and that would not have happened if mere institutional reform had been the only goal.

The way women are perceived and noticed and thought about changed with feminism, and that’s a good thing. It’s not better to have half of humanity perceived as just a little cleverer than the family dog.

But there are radical ideas and then there are radical ideas. One of the less helpful ones was difference feminism. The foundations of this shaky edifice were laid in the ’70s, when a popular rhetorical move was to label many usually well-thought-of attributes and tools–reason, logic, science, “linear” thinking, abstract ideas, analysis, objectivity, argument–as male, and dub their opposite female. So by a contortion that defies “male” logic, it somehow became feminist to confine women all over again to intuition, guesswork, instinct, feelings, subjectivity, and arm-waving.

If you’re going to rant and rave about feminism gone wrong, rant and rave about that. Don’t rant and rave about women refusing to be treated as inferiors; that’s the wrong thing to object to.


  1. Suido says

    I, as a male product of Australia, subscribe to the arm waving philosophy, as described by Bill Bryson:

    “No, no. Just keep your wits. Don’t try to swim against the cur-rent. Swim across it. And if you’re still in trouble, just wave your arm like this” — she gave the kind of big, languorous wave that only an Australian could possibly consider an appropriate response to a death-at-sea situation — “and wait for the lifeguard to come.”

    Anyway, look at you being all reasonable, and analysing the idea so logically. You must be pumping with testosterone after that.

  2. Stacy says

    Apologies in advance for a post with a looong quotation–

    YES. Your article made me think of what that great atheist feminist, Angela Carter, had to say about mythic representations of women. A whole subculture of “women’s spirituality,” which focused on reclaiming goddess and nature worship, was growing at about the same time Carol Gilligan and the “different ways of knowing” brigade were writing about women’s special wisdom, and like difference feminism a lot of the appeal was compensatory. The idea was, we’re (women) not less than men (as we’ve always been told,) we’re just different.

    In her 1978 book The Sadeian Woman, Carter talks a bit about Freud and the notion of the female as a castrated male, mentions graffiti and The Story of O, and then says:

    Sometimes, especially under the influence of Jung, a more archaic mouth is allowed to exert an atavistic dominance. Then, if I am lucky enough to be taken with such poetic pseudo-seriousness, my nether mouth may be acknowledged as one capable of speech–were there not, of old, divinatory priestesses, female oracles and so forth? Was there not Cassandra, who always spoke the truth, although admittedly in such a way that nobody ever believed her? And that, in mythic terms, is the hell of it….[M]y vagina might indeed be patronisingly regarded as a speaking mouth, but never one that issues the voice of reason. In this most insulting mythic redefinition of myself, that of occult priestess, I am indeed allowed to speak but only of things that male society does not take seriously. I can hint at dreams, I can even personify the imagination, but that is only because I am not rational enough to cope with reality.

    If women allow themselves to be consoled for their culturally determined lack of access to the modes of intellectual debate by the invocation of hypothetical great goddesses [or “special ways of knowing”], they are simply flattering themselves into submission (a technique often used on them by men.) All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciling mother, are consolatory nonsenses; and consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth, anyway. Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths of these cults gives women emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place.

  3. says

    So, what would one call a feminism that necessarily implies INTEGRATION. See, critical thinking is imperative, to me, in all social sciences — where it’s sorely lacking, I think. Yet, I see in the skeptical/freethinking/atheist communities a neurotic denial of the emotional. As if we’re not primates, as if we’re machines, as if we don’t have emotional drives. And that denial makes us unbalanced and sick. So, I think we need hard sciences in Feminist, Queer, QUILTBAG, etc. studies. AND I think we need to address emotional needs/impulses, too. How do we do that? IS anybody doing this?

  4. Ken Pidcock says

    If the evidence truly supported their idea that women prefer to maintain “connectedness”, make everyone feel good, and promote understanding and acceptance over judgment or assessment, then clearly the response ought to be loud and urgent demands for remedial education for women starting yesterday.

    I don’t have anything to say, just using the thread to highlight that.

  5. Dave says

    It is important to be attuned to the significance of emotion. But it is also important to recognise that emotion very often leads people to be wrong. Emotional constructions of collective attachment lead people into unthinking nationalism; emotional responses of disgust – which are very close to being biologically ‘hard-wired’ – can be used to trigger racist or homophobic reactions and stereotyping. Emotion, in contemporary western cultures, is far too often used as a ‘get out of jail free card’ for the avoidance of thought, reflection, and appraisal of whether one might, in fact, be mistaken.

    Emotion is one of the great things connecting us to our animal nature; and as such, the things that it causes us to do, because of how we feel, should always be subject to critical appraisal – because our animal nature is selfish, and short-sighted. One could ask, why, for example, so very, very much money is spent keeping very, very old, sick people alive for another few days or weeks. It has no rational basis, it can only have an emotional one – but it is very costly, and quite possibly inflicts real suffering on the dying in order to salve the feelings of their carers and relations. Is it “a neurotic denial of the emotional” to take a cool view of such practices?

  6. asquith says

    I liked the denunciation of this attitude which was made by Dawkins (in ch. 8 of “Unweaving the Rainbow”) and of course in your own books. The worst thing is the insult to, and even the discouragement of, women and girls who are trying to pursue a scientific career, often in developing countries where Western science is exactly what they want and need to alleviate their sufferings.

    And it’s not just along gender lines, but also by those racists “arguing” that universal standards of human rights shouldn’t apply because wogs don’t really mind the horrific treatment meted out to them by their elites. I recall something on the old site casttigating Terry Eagleton for sneering at progress. It is referenced here, though the link to the original no longer works!

  7. John the Drunkard says

    Worth considering how this tendency discourages atheist women, keeps women chained to woo and religion and helps protect trolls and creeps by discouraging women from using reason and clarity against oppressive men and institutions.

  8. says

    asquith – oh yes…sigh, two dud links to the old site. They go to Jeremy’s new site with an error message – that’s because he won’t let me have the old domain name, so all the pre-2010 links are duds.


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