March 22, 2006

Dead Feminists

I remain a little confused about something. Maybe someone would be kind enough to clarify it for me:

Am I missing something, or is feminism one of the few ideologies that suffers a mortal blow every time it experiences internal disagreements?

See, I keep hearing all this stuff about it being dead. And I keep hearing that what killed it was some feminists not agreeing with other feminists. Does it have a depressed immune system or something? Has it not been buying organic? Is it not getting enough exercise? It must be awfully frail if internal disagreements are all it takes to kill it.

If intra-group dissention were enough to kill an idea or a movement, you'd think they'd all be dead. The first guy to have an argument with Epictetus would have killed Stoicism just like that, instead of it dying off naturally because no one really wanted to be a Stoic.

So I'm not getting why, when one feminist criticizes another, she so often concludes that this means feminism is dead.

Do you suppose maybe there is money in that sort of thing . . . ? I would be happy to pronounce feminism dead for, oh, a modest advance. I think it's deserved, you know, because my book is going to sell, I can guarantee you that. People LOVE reading about the overall stankiness and amazing deathability of feminism, over and over, especially if along the way you can implicate it in the murder of something else.

But back to Phyllis Chesler for a minute: I like much of what she has to say, and I have to grant some authority to any woman who's actually lived subjugation in the Middle East. I have no argument against this:

Feminists, as well as women, have some terrifying external enemies. For example, Islamists oppose the ideals of dignity and equality for women by their practice of gender apartheid. This is a system which includes some, if not all, of the following human-rights violations: female genital mutilation, veiling and hijab, purdah, normalized daughter- and wife-beating, arranged (child) marriage, often to first cousins, polygamy, honor murder, the imprisonment, torture, beheading, stoning to death, and hanging of rape victims, suspected prostitutes, and feminist dissidents especially in Iran today.

And I actually would pick up The Death of Feminism, if only to read more about this:

On December 21, 1961, when I returned from Afghanistan, I kissed the ground at New York City's Idlewild Airport. I weighed 90 pounds and had hepatitis. Although I would soon become active in the American civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, and feminist movements, what I had learned in Kabul rendered me immune to the Third World romanticism that infected so many American radicals. As a young bride in Afghanistan, I was an eyewitness to just how badly women are treated in the Muslim world. I was mistreated, too, but I survived. My "Western" feminism was forged in that most beautiful and treacherous of countries.

What I do not understand, however, is why the author of a book about women's cruelty to other women is seemingly bent on solving the problems she perceives within feminism by declaring it dead. That is, if you object that women--oh, let's quote:

compete mainly with other women, not with men and to do so through slander and ostracism

Then why practice exactly that? Or is it not "slander and ostracism" to decree feminism "dead" on the basis of your failure to convince other feminists that you are right and they are wrong? What did one of the Cotillion members say once?

If we mean to be treated equally, we cannot run and hide under the skirts of authority every time we are challenged or treated unfairly.

If peddling your feminism-is-dead, dumb-lefty-bitches-up-and-killed-it bestseller to an audience that has seldom found a good word to say of any modern feminist, rather than offering your justifiable complaints against other schools of thought within feminism as proof that in fact the movement is doing quite well (because whatever else it is doing, it is not stagnating)--if storming off instead to National Review to announce the long-awaited death of feminism whenever you have a problem with other feminists is not "running and hiding under the skirts of authority," then frankly I don't know what is.

I don't know why feminism's so death-prone. I just know that when I read about "the mainstream feminist refusal to acknowledge that, like men, women are human beings, as close to the apes as to the angels," what comes to mind for me are the feminists who have been declaring women human beings for years. I just know that when Chesler says she is not a cultural relavist, I think of another feminist I have read who has issues with it as well:

I think that at some point, feminism and cultural relativism are incompatible. I think that at some point, universal human rights and cultural relativism are incompatible.

Finally, I just know that I am currently receiving traffic from Feministe, Pandagon, and Alas, A Blog, (and thank you, all of you, for that), and so far not one feminist from any of those blogs has come to haul me off to a reeducation camp or a gulag--and that is so unfair, because according to Chesler, THAT WAS TOTALLY SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN TO ME.

Posted by Ilyka at March 22, 2006 02:31 PM in blog against the strawfeminist

Interesting. I think that the way feminism is treated as a discourse is kind of similar to the way many women experience attempting to gain some measure of success in a typically male-dominated area: Twice the work for half the reward.

Just as women who work as lawyers or CEO's or whatever are expected to work twice as hard for the same reward, and do all this while looking appropriately feminine and balancing this against the risk of being percieved as a "bitch", so to, feminism is expected to be 100% consistant and cohesive at all times, while not making too many waves in academic circles, and not getting too "scary" and "radical".

Needless to say, this is crap, and I look forward to the day that feminism is accorded the same leeway as other discourses, to diverge and contradict, to be intimidating or approachable as it wills, and to grow and change as all discourses do.

Specifically, I think that the issue of cultural relativity highlights this aspect of how feminism is percieved. Can we not imagine a way that both cultural relativism and feminism can adapt to each other? Indeed, this work is already being done. Cultural relativism, which posits that we should judge actions only in the context of the moral values of the culture in which the occur, does pose some problems for a model of feminism that posits a universal experience of women, or an essential "woman's nature". But both our conception of culture, and feminism, have moved past this. The opression of women in some middle eastern countries needs to be understood in the context of the culture in those countries, but this does not have to mean accepting the dominant patriarchal interpretation of those cultural values. Cultures are complex, shifting and negotiated. Cultural relativity means understanding those womens experiences in the context of their own understanding of them. Feminism cannot be the same to all people, everywhere, or else we risk imposing a system on these people as opressive as patriarchy. Middle Eastern women, in fact all women, all people, have cultural values that as both the same as and different from the dominiant culture in which they exist. We can reject patriarchal cultural values, without rejecting cultural relativity. Feminism has adapted to encompass the experiences of black women, of lesbians, and many other groups. This is cultural relatavism, understanding that liberation means different things to different people. Middle Eastern women have their own feminisms, and I think that dialogue between these discourse, with the understanding that feminisms can differ without invalidating each other means a stronger feminism.

Great blog, you've inspired my first ever comment on any blog, ever.

Posted by: Simon at March 22, 2006 03:38 PM


I would like to throw something out here. The argument is that conservatives argue against strawfeminists and don't listen to real feminists, who differ on various issues. Okay, I got it.

But what about feminists who argue against strawconservatives and strawprolifers? I see this whenever I go to a feminist blog.

Just a quick example from Pandagon: "...I definitely admire her persistence in trying to persuade her friends on the right that equality between men and women is a good thing."

Erm...excuse me, but this conservative does believe in women's equality.

Then the post continues on to go ten rounds with a stawconservative/strawChristian/strawprolifer -- ostensibly to poke holes in the false ideas that people have about feminists.

Perhaps feminists need to listen to real conservatives, real Christians and real pro-lifers as well.

Just a thought...

Posted by: Susan B. at March 22, 2006 08:13 PM

Susan - I think you've hit the nail right on the thumb there. ;)

Yes, there's too much straw all round.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at March 22, 2006 08:35 PM

I get to field this one, since I was here first.

You are correct, Susan, and yet, that is not the issue that Ilyka is discussing. The issue here, on this blog, is the conservative attitudes towards feminism.

Every time Ilyka tries to get you all to stick on topic, you seem to come back with, "But what about liberals who say THIS? And they're saying THAT!"

The issue here is conservative opinion about feminism, the use of strawman arguments against feminism, and the countless ways that conservatives debase, discount, and belittle feminism (and feminists, generally).

We can tackle the other subjects at a later date. I vote we stick to the topics for now.

Posted by: Meryl Yourish at March 22, 2006 08:46 PM

Pixy, thanks. :-)


Duly noted. My apologies for taking things off topic.

Posted by: Susan B. at March 22, 2006 09:55 PM

I've been reading the posts and comments here for the last several days with great interest. Today, I thought I'd poke my head in here for a minute. As Ilyka probably knows already, I'm also a left-of-center (although certainly not lefty enough for most lefties) feminist who has issues with cultural relativism. And, thankfully, no one's hauled me off to the gulag yet.

I think this issue, as with other feminist issues, is used by people on the fringe of both sides to divide us. Because without the fight, as Ilyka intimates, their livelihoods (books, speaking engagements, etc.) are jeopardized.

Of course, this strategy isn't particular to feminism. We see politicians and pundits employ the same tactics day in and day out.

Posted by: Roxanne at March 22, 2006 10:18 PM

First visit here, came from Bitch PhD, the Strawfeminist is hilarious ... but feminism is not the only ideology to suffer this fate: as an environmentalist, I'm constantly reading obituaries for environmentalism.

Posted by: Grace at March 23, 2006 09:02 AM