Reinventing Feminism…Again

(((((((((((((if you want to skip a lot of introductory rambling and get to the part about feminism, go find the next weird parenthetical thingie!!!))))))))))))

 

 

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

– André Gide, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1947

I saw this quote inside a book called Reinventing Anarchy, Again. It’s an anthology that was published in 1996 that compiled writings from various anarchist thinkers. The title of the book, its contents, Gide’s quote, AND recent articles in our school newspaper all tie together very nicely – the last of these for reasons that will be explained in far more detail.

To start with: although anarchist philosophy/thought has been around for a loooong time, (see the Haymarket Riot and Taoism of Ancient China), the 60s and 70s saw its revival in the U.S., and current anarchist ideas underpin many organizations* (even in Philadelphia) today. The authors of Reinventing Anarchy, Again knew that their message wasn’t any kind of epiphany. They were aware that ideas and movements are fluid and changing, ever-vacillating between extremes to find the middle ground. Philosophies shift left to shift right, become radical to become moderate, disappear in order to reappear. Changes in thought come with time and circumstance, and those changes will inevitably repeat in the same patterns over and over again.

By reading through this anthology, I have come to realize a truth that I used to think was merely a worn-out excuse: “there are no new ideas.”

I now understand that the fact that “there are no new ideas” doesn’t mean no one should ever talk, or write books, or make paintings, or work in chemistry labs. We have to repeat things over and over again in order to understand them. Birth, death, war, peace: all interruptions in what we tend to view as a constant stream of human knowledge. It takes trial and error, forgetting and remembrance, to bring to the mainstream the dying light of yesterday’s future. Just because there are no new ideas, does not mean that there are no new ways of expression, or no need to keep repeating ourselves. Because human minds work in such different ways, sometimes the right words need to be put in the right order to reach the right person in the right way.

My belief is that, if something is important to you, you should approach the same subject in as many manners as possible, until you hit it right on the nose – and then do it all again for a different person’s “nose.”

So, what does this have to do with The Hawk?**  Well, I think that I’m not alone when I say that I’ve felt and heard a lot of controversy surrounding our school newspaper lately, from myself and others. We get so incensed over the opinions of our fellow students, and I think that it’s important to put those feelings of offense into perspective. These writers are not the first ones with these ideas, and they will not be the last.

It’s more important to come to this realization than you may think. Instead of getting so angry – “That shouldn’t have been published;” “That person is the worst for thinking that;” etc. – we should respect the fact that we are able to connect with each other, that we are able to keep refining and repeating ideas: rejecting the terrible ones and working to perfect the malleable ones. Reacting with so much anger, and without trying to understand and react to each other, only discourages other people from writing and expressing their opinions. And then, where do we end up?

I think that, instead of reacting harshly and quickly, we should work together to make the most of our amazing ability to communicate. Finally, that brings me to the point of this blog.

 

 

(((((((((((okay, people who skipped the long introduction – you can come back now!!))))))))))))

I’ve had many conversations over the past month about an idea presented via The Hawk by Liz Wardach, SJU ’16. In her article from February 22nd, Liz states that men cannot be feminists.

Here’s the original article.

Like I’ve been trying to say, I think it is vital to realize that Liz is not presenting new ideas, and neither am I. The history of the women’s movement is fraught with a tension between inclusion and exclusion, of men in particular. If you don’t keep this in mind, it’s a lot easier to overreact to the completely valid argument that Liz is making.

I’m pretty sure that Liz would readily acknowledge that her ideas are not unique to her, and that this discussion is and has been ongoing, for ALL social movements that rely on identity. I applaud her for trying to use such a brief format like a newspaper clipping to convey really complex ideas. I think that we could all use a little reflection and analysis, and try to move through her argument in a logical and rational way.

So let’s dive in. As you’re reading, think about all the things I’m glossing over! This is a HUGE topic.

 

 

Let’s start off with the *thesis,* if you will:

“I do not believe that men can be feminists in today’s definition of the term.”

Many, MANY feminists have held the view that men cannot be feminists. What I’m curious about, though, is what “today’s definition of the term” is. Liz doesn’t define it for us, and I’m sure we each have our own interpretations about what she means. Interpretations have implications, so I really wish Liz had clarified her definition for her readers.

One thing she does clarify, though, is that feminism is “more than just a belief.” To Liz, feminism must include active advocacy. Since her definition of feminism incorporates advocacy, she concludes:

“Men can be pro-feminist, or anti-sexist, but they cannot remove themselves from their privilege and power over women in order to be effective advocates for the feminist cause.”

Lots of good stuff in this statement. ((Quick synopsis of male privilege: basically, being born with a penis gives a person a lot of other stuff, not that he necessarily asked for, but that he just… gets. Even if he becomes a conscious, aware, enlightened male, he can’t remove the privilege. In our society, he will always be assumed to be superior to a female, in almost any context. It’s not his fault. It just exists.))

But, wait a minute. What is an “effective advocate”? Again, not sure what Liz is defining “advocate” as. Google told me that an advocate is “a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy.” I would go further and say that an advocate has to be DOING something: they must be taking some sort of action, other than making mere lip-service to a cause. It’s all well and good to publicly say that you “support LGBTQ rights,” or “support the effort to improve inclusion and diversity at St. Joseph’s,” but those statements alone do not make you an advocate.

I think that Liz is defining “advocate” in a similar way as I am. For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll stick with that assumption.

With that out of the way, this is the question:

Can men DO SOMETHING (aka, advocate) for the feminist cause without reinforcing male privilege and power?

Liz says no. Firmly, flatly – no.

Guess what? She’s right.

We see it easily and clearly in everyday situations – while a woman who says she is a feminist is immediately labeled “crazy” or “whiney,” a man who says he’s a feminist instantly grants magical male legitimacy to the cause. Even if he’s not trying to do so…. In every single instance where a man does something for feminism, even if it is as simple as signing a petition, his existence in the cause gives the cause more influence than it would have if it were made up of an all-female-membership. Simply because of his maleness. This situation perpetuates the man being the privileged member of society.

And that’s what Liz is fundamentally concerned with. Use of power only increases power – feminist ends are poorly reached by the implementation of patriarchal means.

But I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t think there was something more to be said about the topic. Personally, I believe there are more nuances than are present in these simple blanket statements.

Different actions reinforce male privilege in different ways, to different degrees. I think that some of these levels are acceptable, whereas others are not. Liz disagrees with this concept at one point in her opinion, saying that:

“A man who uses his male privilege to speak on behalf of women is no better than someone who actively oppresses women.”

So…

  • A man who speaks against the rape of women is no better than the man raping or supporting rape culture?
  • A man who publicly says that women are equal to  men is no better than a man who treats women as inferior?
  • A man who speaks up when his friend tells a sexist joke is no better than the wanna-be-comedian?

In fact, Liz also implies the existence of these degrees, but doesn’t explicitly recognize it. She says that a man in power should “give” a woman a seat at the table and let her have a space to speak about women’s rights. That “allowance” is still a reinforcement of privilege, just to a different intensity than if that man in power spoke for the woman about her rights.

100%, men cannot and do not know what it means to live life as a woman. That is an undeniable fact, and it’s really important to say! And I stand by Liz in saying that a man should not speak for a woman if it is at all possible for a woman to speak for herself.

However, I think that male privilege can be utilized as an effective tool. It should be used carefully, of course, and it should be recognized and called out when it goes overboard. Even when it is being used sparingly, and preferably just to give women a space to be heard, the man in question should be naming his own privilege. For example: “I am using my privilege to give this woman (or women) a voice. I don’t like that the decision falls in my hands, and I don’t want things to be that way, but this is the way it is.” He should use his privilege to disown his privilege. This draws the line between use and abuse of male power.

Men aren’t the only ones that utilize privilege. In fact, everything we do reinforces some kind of un-earned privilege. By using my voice, I reinforce my white privilege, and so does Liz. Straight women who fight for feminism reinforce their privileges, too. We all can be accused of claiming authority over the entire feminist voice. But we don’t and we CAN’T represent all women effectively. Where do queer or non-binary women fit into this? What about gender-non-conforming individuals? In Liz’s scenario, does a gender-non-conforming person who happens to pass as male lose their ability to speak on the issue of feminism? Whereas a trans man who passes as female is completely able to advocate for feminism because of his lower level of privilege?

The best we can do is use our privilege to make sure that women who are different from us get their message heard by those in power. And that’s the best men can do, too, and I wouldn’t wish away their help so quickly.

Obviously, women can do this alone. To say otherwise would be sexist. But it is also sexist to say that it’s better for men to just not to help out.

Liz agrees, even if she may at times sound contradictory. I think it is best, when caught in two conflicting viewpoints, to strive to find points of agreement. And our area of agreement is extremely central; Liz says the following:

“Men must play some role in the liberation of women.” 

A-plus.

 

 

————–

Please, reader, if you made it this far – reply to this blog.

Let me know if I hit it on the nose (any nose!), or if I totally missed the point.

I don’t want to be the only one sharing my reflection and analysis. Having one or two opinions floating around isn’t much better than having none at all. So, tell me – what can be refined (or re-stated, re-iterated, re-shaped, etc.) in this messy conglomeration of ideas?

Only together, through respectful reaction and response, can we build layers on layers of progress, and truly work to the expansion of human knowledge.

fem
This is the bisexual pride symbol, but I also feel that it is a fitting representation of what should be the inter-                                    connectedness of our lives, despite our constructed, socialized gender roles.

FOOTNOTES

* If you don’t understand how “anarchy” could be “organized,” come talk to me 😉

** (Besides the fact that it’s not new to lump entire ethnic identities together with consumption of a specific illegal substance…)

Posted in: Community Service & Social Justice, Multicultural Diversity, Student Life, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Reinventing Feminism…Again

  1. Johnny Clark says:

    Yeah, I totally agree! Its a really good example. Thanks Nicole.

  2. Glenn VanAller says:

    I want to know more. Please keep sharing your view of life.

  3. Cary says:

    Many of us certainly don’t give enough credit to how intelligent and wise our predecessors/ancestors are, and many of us have such ego to think we’re the smartest that humanity has ever been. It’s a deception to believe that we are not standing on the stilts of history and that we are not a continuation of thousands and thousands of years of wisdom.

    And as for feminism, your point about privilege is very powerful. If I were to believe that every human being is equal, truly equal, it makes perfect sense for me to recognize that I was only able to get to where I am by using other people as stepladder, whether directly in my lifetime or indirectly through my ancestral/societal lineage. And if I can recognize that stepladder below me, it’s also very natural to acknowledge my vantage and use my privileges to give others the same opportunity because, after all, I quite literally owe it to them.

    Through feminism or anarchism or Black Lives Matter, all we’re expressing is that we all equally belong to humanity. In a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett recorded her teenage son saying, “Human is kind of a plural. To be human doesn’t mean that you are a human; it means you are a part of humanity, and being a part of something means that you have to do your part.” That, for me, sums up my thoughts and feelings.

    1. Nicole VanAller says:

      Wow, thanks for your thoughts, Cary. I love that quote. If only the idea of equality was our current reality.

  4. Johnny Clark says:

    After reading this your article, I feel like I should not respond. Nevertheless, there exist an idea in feminist discourse that states that white middle or upper class woman have controlled the process of feminism since Simone de Beauvoir and before, you touch on this a bit. You also say that we all have different privilege, which is true. I think this has a lot to say in the topic in general. Idk we all have a role to play. Great article though, defiantly laid out the ideas well and provoke some interesting thought. Like the transgender idea.

    1. Johnny Clark says:

      What role should men play?

    2. Nicole VanAller says:

      Thanks for commenting, don’t feel like you shouldn’t respond! My whole drive for writing this was to open up a dialogue 🙂

      This topic is definitely super complicated, and I don’t think I have all the answers – how to appropriately deal with white/upper-class privilege, or male privilege. Personally, I want to advance as many voices that are different from my own, as much as I can….and I think that’s the role for men, too. For example, I think that it’s cool for men to write about feminist topics, but it would be even better for them to hand out pamphlets that WOMEN have written about feminism. Or share blogs that women have written 😉 Does that example make sense?

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