I’m not a feminist. This is normally met with either contempt or genuine surprise. “How do you mean you don’t believe in gender equality?”, is the most common reaction from people who are usually well-meaning but naive in looking at feminism as if it was just the dictionary definition.
Of course I believe in gender equality, I’m a Christian, we’re the ones with the radical idea that all humans have equal value in the eyes of God since the 1st century AD (whatever medieval theories of the order of creation would have you believe). Alas, feminism isn’t just the dictionary definition, and unlike my dear friend Helen I’m not inclined to fight my corner in a movement that is becoming so identified with the Left that they accused the woman who as Home Secretary pushed the Modern Slavery Bill, which combats human trafficking, an issue that hugely affects women, to be “not a sister”.
There are many proto-feminists in the time when women couldn’t have a formal education, or publish books. One of my role models is, famously, Jane Austen. When looking at the history of feminism one doesn’t look at the individual acts of women who clearly believed in gender equality. If you ever read the actual letters of Eloisa to Abelard rather than just the magnificent poem by Alexander Pope, you can see a woman that is clearly not what you likely think of when you think of medieval women. There were many others throughout the centuries, most famous maybe Christine de Pizan and Mary Wollstonecraft. When we look at the history of feminism we look at a movement. And that’s where the problems start.
First Wave feminism
Think big hats and high shirt collars held together by a cameo pin, this is the late Victorian and Edwardian era. Women were chaining themselves in front of the palaces of the powers to be calling for the right to vote, and more militant acts if they were so inclined (including the one resulting in the tragic death of Emily Davison), but votes for women were not the only aspect that women have campaigned about. It was a truly universal movement which included conservative Christian organisations both in the UK and the US. Emmeline Pankhurst herself, who had married a socialist when 20 and had been involved in radical circles, joined the Conservative party in 1926, and even stood as a candidate 2 years later. Thanks to a more direct involvement with the party that held a majority in the post-war years, the complete extension of the suffrage became a reality not long after her death that same year.
This might sound like a rosy view of the times, after all there were clear circles in which individual women moved, some very radical and some very traditional, but as a movement the only line that was actually drawn was on whether you justified militant action (such as destroying private property in demonstrations) or not. Disagreement was there but it was very different from the purity of thought mentality that we have today.
Second Wave Feminism
This is the movement in the 60s and 70s which gives the name to the earlier period in retrospect. This is when the problems with what philosophical assumptions you have start to appear. Simone de Beauvoir moved from an existentialist philosophy and saw women as an oppressed second class. Betty Friedan, while left-wing, did not have such strong ties with a metaphysical view of the world, but had a similar view of society as patriarchal and essentially made the argument that women are forced to find fulfilment in the home when it’s not the case for everyone. I’m totally in favour of that, thank goodness they fought unjust laws that prevented women from doing what they wanted after women had demonstrated their value outside the kitchen during the war. Interestingly, Friedan, who was herself pro-choice and even founded a campaign organisation for legalising abortion, has later in her life criticised the following wave of feminism for being too centred on abortion. She had also a very difficult relationship with the role of issues of homosexuality in the movement (with some extremist elements suggesting that you could only be a feminist if a lesbian), or even just the idea that women’s liberation was all about sex.
Third Wave Feminism
This is the situation we’re in now, and it’s a battle ground ideologically. While there are many women who identify themselves with a view that academics would describe as liberal or libertarian feminism, and that’s what people think of when they stick to the dictionary definition, feminism as a movement is radical feminism (still having a fight with ethnic minorities trying to be heard, which is one of the main criticisms of the Second Wave to this day). And the philosophical and political assumptions that sustain radical feminism are the reason why I don’t claim any association with the movement.
While not strictly marxist like socialist feminism, it still moves from the assumption that we live in a capitalistic patriarchal society, or more precisely that capitalism is inherently tilted in favour of the power of men, rather than historically tilted in favour of the power of men but overall neutral in a system where freedom allows women to have the same economic power than men.
It doesn’t account for individual differences, as even the schools that see differences between men and women see them as a) pertaining a category of people and b) cultural in nature. I think this has a lot of impact on issues surrounding motherhood and the rights of working women. Something related to this is feminism making pro-abortion the default position of the movement, cutting out the whole range of pro-life views, which are not all concerned with de-legalisation like they claim. This not only doesn’t encourage societies to support women in being mothers (since there is a way out and if you don’t take it it’s your choice and you brought the hardship on yourself, with many people calling raising the next generation of citizen “a lifestyle choice” rather than a service to society at large), but has also silenced the many women who have suffered as a result of their abortions, especially those who were coerced into one by their partners or their parents. This is a situation that a truly pro-choice movement should address, as otherwise it falls on the side of an industry that is making money out of tragic circumstances under the pretence of being a charitable endeavour rather than the side of women, as it should be.
This is linked to another problematic aspect of modern-day feminism. We’ve moved from giving women a choice between whether they wanted to embrace the traditional gender roles or go to the moon. We created a culture that looks down on women who choose the former, putting a lot of pressure to go enslave ourselves to a desk trying to make it to the top so we can prove that women are equal to men. It has been particularly damaging to me growing up, as I’ve always felt I had to prove myself and failure was kind of a big deal on my sense of my own identity, to the point I’ve developed a panic disorder. I now have my own business and I aspire to get a PhD but my true desire so far unfulfilled is to be a mother. I’d give it all up if a genie came out of a bottle and gave me the option to be a mother. Many women don’t want children. That’s great. We should celebrate our diversity and our awesomeness. Instead we bang on about the need to put women everywhere and we create quotas to meet to pat ourselves on our backs for having so many women in power. If I were given a position to meet a quota I would be second-guessing my abilities, but maybe that’s just me. I’ve never had a positive relationship with being judged as a woman, not as a person, which is the reality of the kind of feminism my aunt bought into as much as the mythical patriarchy.
While the Labour party has a women’s conference and a pink bus to reach female voters, the Conservatives have two women Prime Ministers in recent history, and the Conservative Women Organisation (which Theresa May has supported in their efforts to bring more women into Parliament since becoming an MP herself) has a lot of practical help to aspiring politicians, and yet they have the guts to pontificate about who is and isn’t a real feminist, virtue-signalling in their “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt made with underpaid workshop labour (when really, a great way to be a feminist is to buy from ethical businesses that promote women’s empowerment in developing countries). I want a feminism, and to extension a society, that supports and empower women to be who they really want to be, no matter the circumstances in which they start their lives and no matter how unglamorous the choice sounds. As long as the movement is obsessed with power for the sake of it rather than the catalyst of change, and dominated by this “You’re not my friend” playground mentality, I’d rather join those who campaign on actual issues in the background. I don’t think I’m cut out for this internal fight, and I don’t want to give them any legitimacy by calling myself a feminist.