What is Feminism?

DA Clarke

When Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her Vindication of the Rights of Women, or when Elizabeth Cady Stanton campaigned for the liberation of women from centuries of bondage, what future were they envisioning as the fruit of their labours? When these women spent their lives in an arduous struggle for women's freedom, what were they hoping to win? Our "ardent feminist" editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian can easily answer that question, apparently: a world in which necrophile porno is lifestyle news in liberal newspapers -- and liberating for women besides. What an achievement after all those decades of unremitting effort, eh?

If feminism is the quest for freedom for all women, how does an "ardent feminist" see that goal advanced by promoting the centuries-old ideal of the wholly passive, helpless female sexual object? Or by encouraging the offering of women's nakedness for the entertainment and consumption of male viewers? How can we reconcile and balance the freedom of one woman to indulge in exhibitionism, with the potential harm done to other women by the perpetuation of hoary (or whory) patriarchal stereotypes?

For twenty years the feminist movement has been struggling over sexual self-expression. It's evident to even the most dull-witted observer that much of the oppression of women, historically and today, is sexually expressed. Rape, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation, incarceration, persecution of lesbians, molestation of girl children... radical feminists ripped the camouflage off "respectable" history, of respectable marriages, of respectable institutions, and found them soaked in female blood and pain, and connected intimately to a persistent, sleazy underworld of exploitation and suffering. Accordingly radical feminists critiqued, loudly and long, all the institutions enforcing men's sexual privilege and women's sexual servitude: pornography, prostitution, marriage law, the secrecy of the family, etc. Some went so far as to suggest the abolition of heterosexuality altogether; given the imbalance of power between men and women, they said, no "straight" relationship could hope to be egalitarian and therefore healthy.

These early radical feminists strove to reject all the trappings of patriarchy, but after a decade or so came into conflict with female practitioners of sadomasochistic ritual -- who claimed that despite the patriarchal style of their sexual conduct, it was "empowering" for them personally, and therefore good and right. These early "rebels," mostly lesbians identifying with gay male culture and social norms, criticized feminism and openly called themselves opponents of feminism and proponents of "sexual liberation" and "queer liberation". The gay rights movement, gaining ground and momentum over the same historical period as the 2nd American feminist movement, showed a tendency to conflate all sexual deviation into one: if gays and lesbians could "come out" and demand an end to social stigma and persecution, why not sadists, masochists, fetishists, even pedophiles, bestialists... anything goes!

By lumping all stigmatized sexual activity into one bucket of 'oppressed people' the gay/S&M; activists sidestepped any analysis of particular sexual behaviours. Consensuality became the only and sufficient definition of Good. To feminists for whom patriarchy was the primary and sufficient definition of Bad, this was unacceptable; because women consent to bind their daughters' feet, they said, does not make foot-binding a positive thing.

The terms of debate have not changed much since then; the radical feminists still believe in some form of moral absolutism, i.e. that not all forms of sexual expression are Good, even if they have been partially suppressed by patriarchal societies; the "sex liberation" advocates believe in complete moral relativism, i.e. that any and all forms of sexual expression are Good, cannot be judged, and should even be supported and encouraged -- particularly if they have been suppressed by organized society. The only wrong recognized in this ethical framework is repression.

This debate will be familiar to any student of philosophy; the argument has been raging for two centuries and more of democratic social theory: are people innately good, and made bad only by repressing their natural instincts? or do people have some innately negative instincts and urges which we would really be better off repressing?

Though the terms of the feminist debate have not really changed, the second phase of the argument has been even more confusing (and more delightful to the mainstream media): a new generation of pro-patriarchal spokeswomen has emerged: mostly heterosexual, middle-class, and acceptable to the media establishment. There's nothing new in this (remember Marabel Morgan?) -- but the icing on the cake is that these women now also call themselves "feminists."

Notable among them are Katie Roiphe, Camille Paglia, and Annie Sprinkle, but I'm sure we could all name our personal favourites. Their position, boiled down to its essentials, is that feminism is obsolete, that women are not victims of anything, that it's insulting to think of women as victims at all, and that everything women do (particularly if it is sexual) is empowering. Since women are such strong, liberated, free agents in today's world, they argue, if bad things happen to women it must be their own fault. Date rape? She should have known better than to go out with that jerk. Stranger rape? She should have been smarter than to travel without a gun. Where a radical feminist would see exploitation and oppression in a topless bar, the "new feminists" see modern goddesses flaunting their sexual power over men.

In other words, pornography is empowering, being a prostitute is empowering, and (apparently) pretending to be dead during sex is empowering. Thus the "new feminism," a use of the word which would have surprised and greatly shocked Elizabeth or Mary.

The appearance on the scene of these professional apologists for the status quo changes the media take on the issue. Instead of a dirty little internecine war inside the feminist and gay movements -- the hairy-legged puritan feminist freaks vs the depraved leather-boy (and -girl) freaks -- the definition of respectable liberalism has been moved far enough to the pornographers' side that it's "ordinary liberal nice people vs the shrill hairy-legged feminist freaks and the Christian rightist freaks." A nice move for the patriarchy. We could dismiss these female spin doctors as just that: lackeys of the corporate media, like those who build 'greenwash' campaigns for corporate polluters and despoilers. But perhaps their prominence, and the bizarre extremes to which they try to stretch the umbrella of feminism (to cover necrophilia? what next?), should stimulate us to engage in a little definition, a little discussion, a little counter- argument:

What is feminism in the early 21st century? what is a feminist? Does feminism mean what it meant to Elizabeth and Mary? Has the meaning of the word changed? Has it changed since the early 70's? Since the 80's? What is the proper study of feminists? Is it possible to extend the word to cover "women who like to publish pictures of themselves pretending to be murder victims so as to attract the attention of necrophilic men"? What would an appropriate feminist response be to NecroBabes, other than approval?

In what way does sexual self-expression interact with feminist politics? Is sexual personality, or peculiarity, a side issue unrelated to our political goals? Is individual sexual satisfaction an essential human right, as important a goal to feminists as, say, adequate health care or adequate food? Which is a higher priority, ensuring that all women have access to every kind of sex, or ensuring that women have protection from unwanted sexual invasion or violence? Can we prioritize? Is it politically or ethically acceptable to do so? How do feminists reconcile a fundamental liberal or libertarian belief in free speech with a fundamental feminist belief in women's dignity, in any human being's right not to be marketed as a commodity or used as a plaything?

Feminista! concurs with De that the start of the 21st century is a good time for us to take stock and consider what it means to be a feminist today. We invite essays on "The Ardent Feminist," or "The F-Word: what does it mean today?" for inclusion in the June issue. Please send your submissions by May 15, 2000 to editor@feminista.com.

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