If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, does it really matter if it answers to the name of Jemima?
In the New Statesman this week, Laurie Penny furrows her brow into a familiar pattern.
In recent months, as I’ve travelled around the world giving talks about anti-capitalism and women’s rights, I’ve had the same conversation countless times: men telling me, “I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist.” Or young women, explaining that despite believing in the right to equal pay for equal work, despite opposing sexual violence, despite believing in a woman’s right to every freedom men have enjoyed for centuries, they are not feminists. They are something else, something that’s very much like a feminist but doesn’t involve having to say the actual word.
It’s a point that recurs with metronomic regularity. Last year a Netmums survey found that only 14% of women respondents identified as feminists, sparking some gleeful celebrations on the reactionary right and no little soul-searching within the feminist movement. Every time a female pop star, celebrity or businesswoman tells an interviewer “I’m not a feminist but…” the debate begins again – does feminism have an image problem? Should it be rebranded? Should women who enjoy voting rights, reproductive freedoms and protection from discrimination and harassment be obliged to honour the feminist flag under which those freedoms were won? I really don’t understand why it matters.
The most crucial information in Laurie’s article, it seems to me, is that the young women she talked to believe in equal pay, opposing sexual violence and equal access to every freedom enjoyed by men. In describing themselves as “equalists”, we can presume that her male interlocutors shared those beliefs. That’s good, isn’t it? There are many women (and indeed men) who work tirelessly for social justice and human rights while eschewing the F-word, or at the very least consider such issues within their personal package of democratic and political engagement.
Feminism is an easy cloak to discard, and equally easy to adopt. Sarah Palin is a prominent member of Feminists For Life, an anti-abortion lobby group. Several Tory MPs declare themselves feminist while championing social and economic policies that are devastating domestic and sexual violence services. For over a decade the US, UK and allied governments have been using the language of feminism to justify wars of aggression, military strikes and drone attacks, with countless thousands of women among their innocent victims. On the High Street, a feminist marketing gloss has been sprayed over every variety of self-empowering hedonism and non-biodegradable consumer tat imaginable. When evaluating the health of feminism, is it really a simple matter of the more the merrier?
Perhaps the most profound section of Laurie’s essay explains why she rejects labels like “equalist.”
I have no interest in equality with men within a system of class and power that slowly squeezes the spirit out of most people unfortunate enough not to be born into wealth. I have no interest in settling for a few more places for women on the boards of big banks. I believe the world would be better served if we had no women in those boardrooms – and no men, either; not if they intend to continue to foist the debts run up by their recklessness on to the backs of poor women across the world.
Laurie is here positioning feminism firmly behind the barricades of radical politics. She is a feminist, not an equalist, precisely because she is socialist and anti-capitalist. Where does that leave those who advocate equal gender rights while supporting neoliberal free-market capitalism? Are they not really feminists, even if they opt to wear the badge? That would appear to be the implication. Personally I don’t identify as feminist, but don’t disagree with a word of the paragraph above. Where does that leave me?
As something of an aside, I am also suspicious myself of terms like “equalist” and “egalitarian” as alternatives to feminism. These terms have no agreed ideological basis, but to the best of my understanding they usually stem from a Panglossian faith in meritocracy, equal opportunities and a childishly liberal conception of free choice. There is no appreciation of the massive impacts of hegemony, social circumstances and cultural conditioning upon access to those opportunities and upon influencing those choices. Equalism is a call for everyone to play by the same rules, without acknowledging that there is no level playing field to begin with.
It seems to me that feminism cannot have it both ways. Either it is a radical movement for change that demands a fundamental overhaul of our political, social and economic structures or else it represents a vague, platitudinous commitment to equal opportunities for women. By the latter definition, we would expect a high proportion of the population to adopt the label. If it is the former, we must accept that the majority of people – by definition – are not political radicals, so will be unlikely to describe themselves thus. If only one in seven women describes herself as a feminist, is that troubling, or exactly as things should be if feminism is doing its job in challenging the foundations of society?
This is certainly not a call for women or men to reject the flag of feminism, or for that matter to adopt it. I will continue to applaud and support those who fight for social justice and civil rights across the board, while doing my best to condemn and resist those who foster discrimination, inequality, hatred, exploitation or violence of all sorts. What descriptive labels they do or do not wear seem to me entirely irrelevant.
That said, there are obviously feminists to whom it does matter. I’ll sign off by asking any feminist readers – in a spirit of genuine inquiry because I would love to know – does it matter to you that most women do not adopt the label of feminism, and if so, why?
UPDATE (18/03/13, 11pm) Katherine Sacks-Jones has just sent me a link to a recent article of hers on Labourlist which addresses just this question. It gives maybe the strongest answer:
We need to be able to name these injustices and inequalities and the movement that unites us against them.
It rather echoes a good comment made below by jellypopblogger.
I can understand the point they both make. I can understand why movements against women’s oppression need a name, and I can understand why feminists want as many women as possible to be involved in that campaign.
But I think it is a slightly different point to the one that I was getting at. I wasn’t challenging the need for activism or the need for a movement called feminism, or for the need to get more people involved in it. I was more thinking about the great majority of the population who are not politically active, beyond voting occasionally and chatting to their friends online or off. I think it is important that those people believe in equal rights, believe in equality, believe in challenging violent cultures etc. I still think that it is rather less important that they describe themselves as feminists in doing so. So for example, I wouldn’t see any cause to celebrate if right wing Republican or Tory politicians and their millions of supporters start to call themselves feminists if their underlying beliefs don’t alter.