For a good while, it seems, I didn’t know what “women against feminism” was. I may have heard the phrase and dismissed it; I may just not have been paying attention. Then I read a bit about it on the excellent blog Fit and Feminist; Caitlin’s response was so thorough and so head-nodding that I did not immediately become angry or frustrated about WAF – I sympathised with the post and moved on. Not long after, my friend and colleague Keren Zaointz pointed me to a WAF segment on CBC Radio’s The Current; while the majority of the guests were intelligent women with nuanced (indeed, largely academic) views of contemporary feminism, it was ultimately unsatisfying listening. It made me aware that even the liberal-intellectual media on which I spend my time are taking the movement quite seriously, and not pushing back against it effectively. And so I started to get worried.
Then, this past weekend, every liberal Canadian’s favourite columnist, the entirely predictable and insufferably smug Margaret Wente at the Globe and Mail, decided to weigh in. And so I knew: Women Against Feminism has reached the kind of critical mass needed before the columnists who tend to get by without much independent research take notice. And so, despite my increasing discomfort and fatigue, I decided I needed to write about Women Against Feminism.
I’m not, however, going to jump on this bandwagon simply in order to deride WAF; as other commentators have now shown in droves (no link here; please just spend a moment with Google), it’s a pretty easy target for a moment’s worth of nuanced rebuttal. WAF has a fairly pale, middle class hue – generally, the women who feel they have arrived/think feminism is pointless are lucky enough to be White in a racist world, and have enough spending money left over each month not to have noticed how hard neoliberal capitalism hits poor single women, especially mothers. I’ve been mad as hell about WAF since listening to The Current last week, but as I’ve fumed and dreamed up perfect retorts should I encounter a WAF representative at the supermarket, I’ve also realised that my anger is unproductive and exhausting. So, instead of derision or even nuanced rebuttal, I want to offer something else here.
I want to take seriously the fact that a decent number of women appear to find something compelling in Women Against Feminism, enough to get on board (or at least to think, “perhaps they have a point”). And I want to take seriously the likelihood that these women are actually quite smart: let’s assume that many of them have made a reasoned choice, within their own unique social and educational contexts, to resist a form of feminism they see represented in the media and with which they do not want to be associated. Finally, I want to take seriously my potential culpability in the choices these women have made – as a teacher who identifies as a feminist to my students but is probably not clear enough with them about what that means for me, day to day, as a human being in the world.
And so: if you are reading this, and are (or know) a man or woman who:
- believes “feminism” is not relevant to your or your friends’ and families’ daily lives;
- thinks “feminists” hate men and/or only support the advancement of women, and then only in very narrow ways;
- thinks “feminism” cannot accommodate individual men’s or women’s choices, especially when those choices (such as becoming a stay-at-home parent, for example) run contrary to the assumed direction of the movement;
- believes all “feminists” think the same things, and thus can be easily captured by the pronoun “they” (as one speaker on The Current appeared to do);
- believes all “feminists” are angry, and are overly focused on manufacturing “new” sources of anger now that “everything is OK” for women in Western culture;
- believes everything is OK now, oppression-wise, for (all) women in Western culture;
- can’t think of a single “feminist” you’ve actually met in person, or talked to about his or her system of values;
…then I want you to know that I do not believe that you are stupid, wrong, or have poor intentions. Rather, I believe you have been badly taught by the educators in your lives about the term feminism and its many lived iterations.
Poorly taught by your parents, maybe. By friends or other relatives, perhaps. Quite possibly by teachers, whose job it is to offer two sides of every argument in as much complexity as possible in the time allotted. Very, very likely by those in the media (mainstream and social) who have made it their business to oversimplify complex arguments and pit sides against one another in trumped-up, click-bait “debate” form.
If this is you, then I have a favour to ask of you. Consider for a moment the people you spend your time with. Is there anyone in your circle who might sympathise with feminist views? If so, go and talk to that person. Ask them how they define feminism, and what they think about the objections you have to the word. Listen hard. Then, bring up issues that still seem unclear to you. Ask them to talk with you about those issues – to have a proper debate, perhaps, but also to listen to one another’s views carefully.
If you don’t have someone in your circle who might be able to help you better understand feminism as a daily, lived practice, then seek out a teacher. Perhaps someone from your high school or college, or a teacher friend, sister, or brother of a friend. Make sure this is someone who, despite what may be their firm political views one way or another, is able to understand both sides of an argument, and to represent that argument from all sides with some nuance and sympathy. Even better, find a teacher who identifies as a feminist, and ask them to talk to you about their experience of the word, as it is lived by them. You can, of course, aim for balance and seek out someone who actively chooses not to identify as feminist as well; just make sure in each case that you’re talking to someone with carefully considered views – someone who has spent the time to learn what feminism has meant historically, and what it means or might mean to a variety of men and women today.
To those of us who teach, and especially those of us who do so from a declared feminist perspective (as I do): if we believe in the potential of all of the young men and women in our classrooms to become thoughtful and aware citizens, then we have an urgent responsibility to talk candidly, but also with critical self-awareness, about our own practice of feminism inside and outside our classrooms. We need to offer our students a real chance to get a better handle on feminism’s history, ideas, claims, trouble spots, and many forms of contemporary activism. I know many of us speak responsibly about feminism in our classrooms all the time – or think we do. But I suspect we could all do more, and with more care. Maybe we need to raise the spectre of Women Against Feminism this coming term in order to work through its campaign of misinformation. Maybe we need to encourage our students to check out the Everyday Sexism project – an astounding rebuttal in itself to the WAF’s main claims. Or perhaps we simply need to commit to identifying and clarifying our many different experiences of feminism, large and small, for our students whenever appropriate – in other words, to practicing as well as talking about our feminist values in an “everyday” way – and then invite interested students to speak with us about feminist theory and practice, warts and all, at any time.
My dear friend Clarissa Hurley found herself angry enough at Margaret Wente’s column on Saturday to write a letter to the editor about WAF. The letter was published verbatim; it reads:
Feminism is a social movement and philosophy that advocates the social, economic and political equality of men and women. I have yet to meet a young woman who is uncomfortable with this goal, nor many who seriously believe we have reached it. I do meet young women who are uncomfortable with the term “feminist.” Since the goals and values associated with feminism are clearly not the problem, I can only assume this discomfort is the result of reductive images and misinformation spread in social and mainstream media, including, sadly, our national newspaper.
Perhaps, as Clarissa so elegantly notes, the problem is not that “they” are idiots, or even that they don’t “get” feminism, with which of course they actually sympathise. Perhaps the problem is that we just haven’t taught them very well.
Time to step up, then,