What is the point of feminism?

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

I used to consider myself a feminist. Then I read Andrea Dworkin, and realised that a concern for credibility made it prudent to not identify with any of the summary terms she did, at least insofar as this was possible (terms like ‘human’ being a somewhat insurmountable problem). And now that we’re in the seventh (I think) wave of feminism, it’s perhaps time to consider this the terminal wave, and to consign this particular version of identity politics to the dustbin of history.

The reason for this is quite simple: The movement has run its course, and now contributes far more to confusion than to any redress of social injustice or inequality. This is because it uses the intellectual and other resources of political activism inefficiently, upholding rather than eliminating distinctions.

Oppression and injustice take too many forms to count, and when any form of discrimination is based on arbitrary characteristics, we should all oppose it, no matter our age, race, gender, class or sex. But whenever we do so in the service of some banner of identity or cause, the bulk of our accomplishment is to prop up some rent-seeking secular version of religion or ideology, which mostly serves to take us away from the basic realisation that those committed to equality and freedom need to oppose it in all its forms, wherever and whenever it occurs.

It is of course facetious to claim that we are in a seventh wave of feminism. By most accounts, we are either in a third wave, or in the midst of a phase called post-feminism (which, as with most things involving the prefix ‘post’, can mean pretty much whatever you want it to). The first wave was mostly concerned with suffrage, and the second with discrimination more broadly.

In the third wave, deficiencies in second wave perspectives became the target, and feminist activists became concerned with undermining the essentialist definitions of femininity that arose from second wave debates, making the point that so long as you weren’t being discriminated against on grounds of gender, you (as a woman) have no obligation to fit into any particular stereotyped version of femininity.

While that gloss on approximately 120 years of intellectual history leaves out many details, one aspect of the movement’s history has always received far too little attention for my liking: The question of whether it was ever necessary in the first place.

By the mid 19th-century, Karl Marx had already provided an intellectual framework for addressing inequality that was quite compatible with feminist concerns, in that power and subjugation look pretty much the same whether they are based on economic imbalances or gendered allocation of power (foundations which are in any case virtually inseparable).

But the state of what is called ‘feminism’ today is my main concern. Try this experiment: Pick a social or moral issue and do a Google search for that and feminism. It’s almost certain that you’ll get screens full of hits for many of these combinations, just like I did when I tried this for ‘organic food’, ‘cloning’, ‘wikileaks’, ‘secrecy bill’ and ‘fracking’.

Yes, fracking is apparently a feminist issue – though if you read the article in question, you’ll be none the wiser as to why and how this is the case. Similarly for the secrecy bill, and for the few columns and articles I skimmed on the other topics listed above. Sure, some of them mention ‘women’, but in all the cases I encountered, whatever gender-specific word or concept encountered could be replaced by its opposite, or by a category like ‘Albanian’ with no consequences for the coherence of the article in question.

So here we have columns and articles expressing a concern and campaigning for issues of social justice – yet they do so in a way which introduces redundant categories, taking us away from the basic point that somewhere, somehow, people are being arbitrarily discriminated against. In doing so, they license an attention on that form of discrimination to the exclusion of others.

What’s more, they make it possible for us to set up lobby groups and tax-exempt NPO’s to combat that particular form of injustice, where we might allocate our resources more efficiently through a concern for addressing injustice as one problem with virtually identical characteristics in all its manifestations, and only trivial differences in the form of gender, race or sexual preference.

I realise that on the receiving end of discrimination these different forms feel distinct, and that someone who is a victim of one particular form might find comfort in finding a movement dedicated to defeating it. So my claim is not that all these movements should shut down, or re-align with a generalised movement in defence of equality more generally.

But perhaps most of them should. Or, more crucially, perhaps most of the people who speak about rights and justice from the perspective of a particular identity – whether it be feminism, LGBT or any other – should ask themselves whether their battle is still as specific, and as necessary, as it once was, or whether they are simply reinforcing a distinction without a difference.

According to Zoe Williams’ review of Caitlin Moran’s book ‘How to be a Woman’, the definition of feminism is simple: “Feminism is just equality. Would a man be allowed to do it? Then so should you. Would a man feel bad about it? No? Then nor should you.”

This is absolutely right, and effectively summarises a basic principle of fair treatment, which is that you need good reason to treat one person differently to another, and that characteristics such as gender, race and sexual preference are never good reasons for doing so. Any dilution of this principle is a potentially dangerous move, and almost always an unnecessary one.

So yes, fracking and the secrecy bill might be feminist issues – but that’s not the point. Where something merits being an ‘issue’ at all, it should be an issue for all of us, and we should guard against speaking about these issues in a way which takes us further from the fact that we’re in this battle together.

A response to this post has been posted here and here (same post, but in different places, therefore with different comments).

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.