Monday, 14 July 2008

Feminism: A Rant

But, you say, how can you encompass all of feminism in a single rant/blogpost?

Thank-you, I say. That is my point exactly.

Which is getting way ahead of myself.

So here's the deal: I feel like ranting about problems I had with a lecturer, once upon a time.

I was in a Canadian Lit class and we were reading Edible Women by Atwood. There's a character in that book, whose name I don't remember, who the lecturer referred to as a proto-feminist. "What," I hope you ask, "is a proto-feminist?" Well, according to the lecturer, a proto-feminist is someone who came before the Women's Rights Movement of whatever decade that happened (ie. First Wave), and who isn't really a feminist all the way. In the case of this book--ooh, I think the character's name is Ainsley, but I could be wrong--the character is not a feminist because she wanted to get pregnant.

See, according to this lecturer, feminists are non-essentialist. They believe that all differences between men's and women's roles are societally imposed and not 'natural.' They seek to destroy these artificial distinctions, or break everything down into grey areas. Any true feminist, therefore, will refuse to be shuffled into these prescribed relationships; any women who does adopt a societally-imposed role willingly cannot be a true feminist.

One of these roles is "mother."

Ainsley wants a child, and seeks a man to provide the raw material. She does not, at first, seek a husband, though later she does. Despite all of her applied feminist ideologies, the sole fact that Ainsley wants to be a mother, which she believes essential to truly being a women, is sufficient to make her only a proto-feminist, and not a full-fledged feminist. According, at least, to this lecturer and the brand of feminism that she espouses.

As far as I'm concerned, this is idiotic.

Why? Because there are many, many other versions of feminism than this. Read Cixous if you don't believe me. Read Haraway. Read Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Read vitually every feminist poet you can find. Watch The Vagina Monologues. There are many feminists who want not to destroy the male/female dichotomy, but to place just as much value in the female half as is traditionally placed on the male half (and, for some of them, decrease the value on the male). These feminists think pregnancy is a wonderful thing. And why not? Surely bringing a child into the world is a wonderful (if painful) experience.

I'm not saying there is no value to the destructuralist or non-essentialist approach to feminism, but what really irks me is that it was taught by this lecturer as the only legitimate form of feminism. That seemed ridiculous to me. There are other perfectly legitimate women's movements in the world, and all were dismissed by this single and possibly destructive form. I mentioned Cixious, who suggested "writing the female body." You can also look at Islamic feminist movements who have adopted the veil as a political symbol. That I seem to know more about feminism than my lecturer was one thing; that not one person in an entire class composed largely of female students did not object was even more disturbing. Why were these students not bouncing in their seats, arguing ferociously for a fairer version of feminism? Are they not proud of their womanhood? Perhaps they were bored by the class and didn't care to bother. This apathy seemed endemic to that particular class. Still, there were a few vocal women in the class, and these all supported this dogmatic and stifling limitation on feminist thought, at the very least by not interjecting.

"But why," you may ask, "did you not say anything, if you know so much?"

Most guys, unless they are of a very argumentative nature, do not venture to speak about questions of feminism in an audience of women. It has been most men's experience that any male voice that dares speak about women will be torn from the throat that emitted it. Look, too, at what I would have to say about it: I would be protecting these social roles, safeguarding them against the liberation movement. I would be therefore be supporting chauvinistic, phallological institutions for my own piggy benefit. So I chose not to speak.

Really, I shouldn't have cared. I should have shouted the lecturer down. That sort of intellectual hegemony should not have been tolerated. I don't want to define feminism for anyone, but it's not fair to throw around the label "proto-feminist" as though anyone has the right to decide who is a feminist and who isn't. I had a Romantics professor once who quoted Mary Wollstonecraft as saying that anyone who thinks men and women ought to be treated equally is a feminist. I suppose there is a school of thought that thinks equality means "exactly the same," but we'll just ignore them for the time being, understanding that equal really means "of the same value." In that respect, almost everyone is a feminist.

Take home message, then: don't let anyone tell you that feminism does not support being a mother. In fact, do the courageous thing and argue about it. Even if you're a guy like me.

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