Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ducking a lot

Yes, that's largely, sadly, what feminism - or at least the debate in the mainstream media relating to feminism - means to me. But there's more to an idea than it's quasi-coverage in the press, so here goes.

I am a feminist. By that I mean essentially three things:

1) I see continuing prejudice against women, based on their gender, in a variety of different ways, and on a variety of different issues

2) I consider men and women to be equal and deserving of equal standing and opportunity (and that biological differences are largely irrelevant in considering issues of standing and opportunity)

3) Adding 1 and 2 together means that I will support moves to address those prejudices, so we are all better off, including women.

Because this is now about all of us, I think. Society as a whole will be a better place if prejudice (of whatever stripe) is minimised. Thus, I do not think that women are better than men, but equal in standing - what I would like is parity, and as this is not, in my opinion, yet achieved, there is still a need to focus on feminist issues and for those seeking gender parity to describe themselves as feminists.

And I think it is more appropriate to focus on specific issues rather than generalising feminism into a blanket whinge about how bad things are. I live in a democracy which functions (most of the time) on the rule of law, and that law does not have inherent anti-women basis. I'm very lucky. The issue of women's rights is global, but the specific issues may not be. There are women in some countries still fighting for things that others of us take for granted. This does not mean that concerns for 'western' feminism have to take a back-seat to them. We are capable of dealing with more than one issue at once.

And many issues sometimes held out as 'women's issues' are in fact capable of being seen in a broader social (or class-based) way. Complaints about how difficult it is to be a working mother can exclude how difficult it is to be a working father - better, perhaps to look at the system as it affects working parents, and everyone benefits. Or even, better to look at how the system affects everyone. How the 9-5 (yeah right) working culture limits true flexibility to the very lucky, when surely it cannot be beyond the wit of us to arrange life differently.

Back in the good ol' days of the first stirrings of feminism(*), things were more polarised by necessity. This can, if you are so inclined, be read in line with the Hegelian dialectic - thesis (damn patriarchy) meets antithesis (fem separatism), makes new synthesis (the current situation). However, I am always a little concerned at 'separatism'. If engagement is key to progress, how can cutting yourself off be a constructive step?

There is a difference, for example, between a 'safe place' for people belonging to a particular group, and an 'exclusion zone'. For example, my favourite gay bar in London (the Retro Bar - v hard pop quiz) is very much a 'safe place' - everyone welcome, just don't be surprised if people are snogging. Whereas other gay bars can be very exclusionary, even to some other gay people (men only,, women only, etc etc).

This kind of 'exclusion zone' thinking seems to persist in the debate. There are some - heavy heavy stress on some - feminist commentators who seem to me to go too far. Who seem to meet the old stereotype of 'man hating'. Who deny that men can be feminists. Who cover valid points in hyperbole, such that it becomes easier for critics to say 'this is why feminism is shit'. Who facilitate tarring us all with one big brush, when there are so many differing viewpoints within feminism, and rejecting valid concerns and issues.

It's not necessarily that I disagree with the theses of these commentators - and even if I do, I still think that differing viewpoints are very important in a debate. While I don't agree with much of what I have read by Andrea Dworkin, I am glad she was there, then, to fight, and now, to remind us of how far we have come. Sometimes it's more the style than the substance of the argument that leads to continuing (even, further) polarisation of views.

Thus, the debate is divided into two viciously pitted camps, throwing rocks at each other, reinforcing each others' prejudices, while the rest of us, including many feminists, are stuck sadly in the middle, ducking a lot.

*I'm no academic, so I don't really get this 'first wave', 'second wave' thing, but when wiki-ing 'wave theory' I did come across this:

A wave is a disturbance that propagates through space and time, usually with transference of energy.

I like that. Feminist wave theory - I am a disturbance, I propagate, I have energy...