How big is feminism’s tent?

Feminists often quote the dictionary definition of feminism in order to prove how noncontroversial their goals really are: “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” And yet, there’s far more to feminism than can be captured in such a succinct definition. There are two aspects of feminism which I find particularly objectionable–aspects which might not be immediately obvious from the basic definition, and and which prevent me from counting myself among its adherents.

1. There is no significant complementarian movement within feminism.

For the most part, contemporary feminism falls into two camps. The first denies that there are any essential differences between men and women. Even feminists who at first appear to acknowledge difference usually deny that these differences are associated with biological sex. Carol Gilligan, for instance, is famed for her research demonstrating that women tend to reason through moral issues using an “ethic of care” as opposed to a masculine “ethic of justice.” But Gilligan argues that these differences are inscribed on the sexes by patriarchy, and that the very concept of gender differences is oppressive: “in dividing human qualities into masculine and feminine, sexism separates everyone from parts of themselves, creating rifts or splits in the psyche . . . both men and women are pressured to render themselves half-human” (Carol Gilligan on Gender and Human Nature). Moreoever, she certainly doesn’t accord respect to women’s traditional housewife role, for she describes the “Angel in the House” role, “the woman who acts and speaks only for others,” as “a kind of immorality: an abdication of voice” (In A Different Voice, x).

The second feminist camp acknowledges difference, but valorizes femininity as superior. French feminists (except Simone de Beauvoir) also tend to fall into this view. Witness Helene Cixous: “What does he want in return, this traditional man? . . . [M]ore masculinity: plus-value of virility, authority, power, money, or pleasure, all of which reinforce his phallocentric narcissim at the same time . . . An unenviable fate they’ve made for themselves. A man is always proving something; he has to ‘show off,’ show up the others” (The Logic of the Gift, 159).

There’s no major feminist school of thought that holds men and women to be different, yet equal in dignity. Hence feminism tends towards the weakening of the traditional family (and, some would say, towards society itself), since the traditional family requires a complementarian framework to justify its existence. That last point would require its own post in order to be fully elaborated, but suffice to say that feminism offers little accomodation for a complementarian.

2. Feminism is pro-choice.

There are isolated examples of people who describe themselves as feminists while maintaining pro-life views. But other feminists ostracize them. For instance , Katha Pollitt wrote of pro-life feminists that “they aren’t really feminists–a feminist could not force another woman to bear a child” (“Feminists for (Fetal) Life,” The Nation, August 29 2005). Gloria Steinem said in an interview that “yes, you can be a feminist who doesn’t agree with abortion, who would never have an abortion. But you can’t be a feminist who says that other women can’t and criminalizes abortion.” So if you believe that human life begins at conception–at the moment the organism acquires a unique human DNA code–then you’re automatically anti-feminist. (And let’s drop this pretense that it’s possible to be personally opposed to abortion while tolerating its legalization. Would you ever say, “I’m personally opposed to murder but I think it’s fine if others do it”?)

For these two reasons, I refuse to call myself a feminist now. Feminism is a specific ideology that promotes abortion, denies sexual difference, and attacks masculinity, not just a general support for women. I’m not interested in “reclaiming the language” and appropriating the term “feminist” for the Catholics–I think I show feminists more respect if I let them define their own movement.

 

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