Tuesday, February 3, 2015
On Being and Not Being a Feminist
And I am not a feminist.
Both of these statements are true.
I am a feminist, even though I do not typically choose that language to describe myself.
Female human beings are absolutely and equally human beings. Their value lies in their inherent personhood. Oppression of women, be it in the workplace or in education or in relationships? Unacceptable. Violence against women is violence, and assaultive/predatory behavior towards women is both monstrous and wrong.
I reject, completely, the idea that women are in any way subordinate to men. Women have been and will be my teachers, and my mentors, and my spiritual guides.
Women should be compensated equally for equal work, and a just society should be structured in such a way that this is possible. Women with the gifts for leadership, and there are as many as there are men, should be in leadership. Women who choose to nurture and raise children as part of a traditional family structure should be honored for that choice. Women should be lawyers and doctors and artists, counselors and engineers and programmers, legislators and pastors and owners of small businesses. What matters is that they are pursuing their best vocation.
I reject the idea, in point fact, that any work is inherently "women's work." Women, being, you know, human and all, are called to do many things. And work is work. In the quest for a balanced and sane existence, I have been willing to seek my calling in part-time work, allowing my driven, smart, and highly-capable wife to pursue her career. So I do laundry, make dinner, do dishes. I changed diapers, I vacuum, and care for and help nurture our kids. A task is a task.
I see how women and girls are treated in our culture, objectified and commodified, and I recoil. I see their basic personhood diminished or delimited, and I will not stand for it, or allow that way of thinking to take root in the boys my wife and I are raising.
In that sense, meaning the practical, material, actual commitment to the rights and personhood of women, I am a feminist.
But I am also not a feminist.
I am not a feminist because I have stood in close encounter with feminism--not as an interpersonal and cultural practice, but as a system of thought arising out of academe--over nearly two decades of engagement with higher education. Having studied and engaged with academic feminism, I do not share its semiotics or its worldview.
Though I can speak it, the language of academic feminism is not my language. I do not find it either compelling or transformative. I do not talk about patriarchy as a way of framing all oppression, or view the entire world through the lens of gendered discourse. I do not conceptualize the good in gendered terms, with the feminine as proxy language for the good, and the masculine understood as inherently oppressive. It seems...counterproductive.
And joyless. And drab. And devoid of rhythm, power, and poetry. Having studied faith, such a radicalized and binary view is alien not just to my faith, but also to those indigenous faith traditions that embrace the divine feminine and its lifegiving relation with the divine masculine.
The worldview of academic feminism is also not my worldview. Academic feminism as I have encountered it manifests as an ethic of radical particularity, of fragmentation, a house endlessly divided. Part of this is, frankly, a function of academic discourse, in which seeking and creating "new" categories is the only way to get published. But when that reality is applied to a philosophical and ethical system, that has impacts. Academic feminism is a fundamentally particularizing ethos, meaning it understands "truth" as residing in the particularity of socially mediated identity. Men cannot understand women, because they are not women. Women privileged by education and the absence of oppression cannot understand those who are not, because they do not share their social position. White women cannot understand women of color, because they are not women of color. Cisgendered womyn-born-womyn cannot understand gender-variant women. And so on, and so forth, in an endless fractal splitting.
Then there's the "liberality" of it. For all the fulminations of the reactionary right wing, feminism isn't liberal. It may be leftist, but it is also fundamentally and explicitly illiberal, viewing individuals through the lenses of the categories they inhabit and not as who they are as sentient, self-aware, and free beings. Take, for instance, the manner in which this perspective may be dismissed on the basis of a sequence of labels. I am a privileged white male, speaking from a hegemonic patriarchal perspective. I am a contextual node. What I am not is a person.
And yes, I know, this was done to women for millennia. It's my turn to sit down, shut up, and listen. But that assumes I have not been listening, and that I, as a human being, am just representative of a category. It returns evil for evil, as my faith tradition puts it, which is sort of a no no.
Contemporary academic feminism speaks the language of othering, explicitly and intentionally devoid of the universals that provide the conceptual bridges for the heart's compassion. It is a mass of triggers and umbrage, harder to negotiate than a minefield. I do not find it gracious, welcoming, or useful. How could I, when the concepts of "utility" and "purpose" are fundamentally antithetical to academic feminist discourse?
So I am, and I am not, a feminist. In the abstract, academic, philosophical sense? No. I am not.
But yes, yes I am, practically and materially and interpersonally, socially and culturally.
Given that doing and being is more important than abstractions and semantics, I think I'm comfortable with that.