Nothing Would Be Different
By Lisa Jervis
The biggest problem with American feminism today is its obsession with women.
Yes, you heard me: It’s time for those of us who care deeply about eliminating sexism within the context of social justice struggles to stop caring so damn much about what women, as a group, are doing. Because a useful, idealistic, transformative progressive feminism is not about women. It’s about gender, and all the legal and cultural rules that govern it, and power—who has it and what they do with it.
transformative progressive feminism envisions a world that is different
from the one we currently inhabit in two major and related ways. Most
obviously, this world would be one in which gender doesn’t determine
social roles or expected behavior. More broadly, it would also be one in
which people are not sacrificed on the altar of profit—which would mean
universal health care, living wages, drastically reduced consumption,
and an end to the voracious marketing machine that fuels it. The link
between these two elements is clear: Both gender and race, as they
currently exist, are socially enforced categories that shore up a
consumer capitalist system by providing opportunities for both marketing
But much of the contemporary American feminist movement is preoccupied with the mistaken belief—call it femmenism—that female leadership is inherently different from male; that having more women in positions of power, authority, or visibility will automatically lead to, or can be equated with, feminist social change; that women are uniquely equipped as a force for action on a given issue; and that isolating feminist work as solely pertaining to women is necessary or even useful.
The influence of femmenist thinking is broadly in evidence today, from casual conversations in which arrogant know-it-alls are described in shorthand terms like “typically male” and “how very boy” to nonprofit groups that exist to promote the leadership of women—any women—in business and politics. It manifests itself in the topics that are considered most central to feminism. The problems feminism should be trying to solve are not caused primarily by a dearth of women with power. The overwhelming maleness of the American population of congressional representatives and physics professors, CEOs and major-newspaper op-ed columnists, is a symptom, sure, of a confluence of economic, political, and cultural forces that devalue women’s work, denigrate our ideas as less important than men’s, and discourage us from aiming high. Would more women in high places signify a change in that? Yeah. And that would be nice.
But any changes would likely be superficial: More women in high-paying corporate jobs might mean that women would finally be making more, on average, than 76 cents to the male dollar, but it would do nothing about the 35.8 million people under the poverty line—and it’s definitely not going to transform the values of profit maximization that keep them there. It wouldn’t even necessarily mean that large numbers of women were being paid wages closer to their male counterparts’. Like the wage gap itself, it would be a symptom of power at work, a signal that women are being allowed more access to the benefits of a destructive value system. If we’re fighting just for that access on behalf of women, without mounting a challenge to it, then feminism is, to borrow a phrase from Barbara Smith, nothing more than female self-aggrandizement.
Furthermore, the most pressing issues facing women worldwide—slave wages, inadequate health care systems, environmental degradation, the endless war and surveillance society of Bush-era neo-conservatism, and rampant corporate profiteering involved in all of the above—are a) no less important to feminists just because they also happen to be the most pressing issues facing men and b) directly related to the particularly ruthless brand of global capitalism we’re currently living under.
This vulture capitalism would not magically disappear if women were in charge of more stuff. Racism would not go away. Hell, sexism itself would probably be alive and kicking. God knows the gender binary would be stronger than ever. In short: The actual workings of power will not change with more chromosomal diversity among the powerful.
Even if, to stick with our example, the wage gap were eliminated through genuine equal pay for equal work, without a radical challenge to the economic system that structures all of our lives, it would most likely mean that men are now being paid as badly as women. (In fact, the narrowing of the wage gap since 1979 can be largely attributed to decreases in men’s wages.) And while that certainly seems fair on its face—if we all have to live under a shitty system, the burdens of shit should at least be shared as equally as possible—as a political goal it’s an admission of defeat.
Let’s take a quick look at some history. Femmenism is an outgrowth of the deeply flawed and largely debunked philosophy of gender essentialism: the belief that biology is destiny and that men and women’s bodily differences translate into universal and unchanging/unchangeable gender roles and traits. Essentialist thought dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, who saw men (of a certain class) as smart, strong, noble citizens and women as unfit to take part in intellectual exchange. Eighteenth-century philosophers laid down the natural law, which dictated that women’s childbearing bodies rendered them natural caretakers and little else. To this effort, scientists at the time contributed their data on things like skull size to confirm women’s lack of intellectual capacity. Similar modes of data interpretation were also useful in “proving” that black people were fit only for the hard physical labor of slavery and that poor immigrant folks’ criminal tendencies were evident in the shapes of their heads. Today’s version of this argument—with the same flaws in evidence and interpretation—comes from the evolutionary psychologists and brain researchers who assert all kinds of neurobiological explanations for supposed gender differences in everything from verbal skills to the propensity to cheat on a partner.
The first feminist activists, the suffragists and temperance women of the 19th and early 20th centuries, sought to use essentialist thinking to their benefit: Women, as the raisers of children and caretakers of home and hearth, had a natural morality that could be brought to bear in politics and against the social ills caused by excessive drinking. Feminist essentialism grew up along with the movement as a whole, as thinkers and activists in the ’60s and ’70s sought much-needed recognition for undervalued “feminine” attributes like cooperation and caretaking and as part of the struggle for gender equality. Feminist essentialism reached full flower in the backlash-laden ’80s, as rigorous intellectual work exploring the behavioral effects of gendered socialization—most famously, Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice—was broadly popularized, misinterpreted, and oversimplified as nothing more than a call to reverse the cultural values placed on essential male and female natures. Thus certain political and intellectual circles came to valorize women as inherently nurturing, peaceful, connected to nature, and noncompetitive, and to demonize men as bellicose, unfeeling, and destructive.
It’s important for me to pause for a
minute and make a few things crystal clear. First of all: Yes, gender
difference exists. Of course men and women often behave differently, see
the world differently, and have different political views—when you’ve
been raised with sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice expectations and
the knowledge that (if you choose to sleep with men) you’re just a
broken condom away from a lifelong responsibility, it tends to make you
both more empathetic and more likely to favor safe, legal, accessible
abortion. Duh. But such differences are neither automatic (as the
evolutionary biologists would have us believe) nor universal (as the
cultural essentialists assert).
Second of all, the forces I’m referring to as those that have led to the problem of femmenism have been essential to both concrete feminist political gains and to feminism’s intellectual development. I am not at all suggesting it’s unimportant to call attention to the fact that the Senate is only 13% female, to encourage society to recognize the value of women’s unpaid childcare labor, or even to rescue politically neutral traditionally female pursuits like knitting from the pink ghetto.
Acknowledgement and discussion of culturally produced gender differences is essential to dismantling sexism—but the line between acknowledging cultural differences that demand examination and allowing them to persist unchallenged is a fine one indeed. Femmenism crosses it constantly.
And some of those alleged gender differences are easily disproved. If women’s maternal instincts and natural compassion will bring about a kinder, more peaceful world, what’s up with Condoleezza Rice? (It’s also worth noting that Madeleine Albright didn’t exactly transform the Clinton administration’s foreign policy into a bastion of benevolence, either.) If women were truly sympathetic to and cooperative with each other, Ann Coulter’s journalistic achievements would have made the media less misogynist, not more. A woman was in charge of Abu Ghraib when Iraqi prisoners were tortured by American soldiers; three of the seven charged with perpetrating the abuse are female. Inherently nurturing? Sisterly? Yeah. Sure.
More important, however, is that femmenist thinking threatens to drain feminism of progressive politics—and, in many cases, of any politics at all. Take, for example, a 2004 book called If Women Ruled the World. The changes this slim volume predicts would result from such ruling are both serious (“we would all have health care”) and silly (“business would be more fun!”). A few might even be accurate (“equal parenting would be the norm, not the exception”). But they are all assumptions based on a fallacy: that (as the book’s foreword asserts) “empathy, inclusion across lines of authority, relational skills, [and] community focus” are “values that women uniquely bring to the table.” This line of reasoning urges us to forget about forging the argument that our current healthcare system is inhumane, profit-driven, and inefficient. It gives us a pass on making the case for universal healthcare as the best solution to skyrocketing costs and 44 million of us without insurance. We won’t need to do that if we can just get more women in on that ruling-the-world game.
This tactic is taken up by quite a few feminist groups seeking to influence the political landscape. One of these is the White House Project, “a national, non-partisan organization dedicated to advancing women’s leadership across sectors and fostering the entry of women into all positions of leadership, including the U.S. presidency.” A female president is a tempting goal to pursue, an important symbol of gender equality, and, yes, someone whose inauguration will surely make me kvell even if I find her policies repugnant. But having a woman in the White House won’t necessarily do a damn thing for progressive feminism. Though the dearth of women in electoral politics is so dire as to make supporting a woman—any woman—an attractive proposition, even if it’s just so she can serve as a role model for others who’ll do the job better eventually, it’s ultimately a trap. Women who do nothing to enact feminist policies will be elected and backlash will flourish. I can hear the refrain now: “They’ve finally gotten a woman in the White House, so why are feminists still whining about equal pay?”
Other groups carry the “if only women ruled the world” belief to a wistful, apolitical extreme. Take the organization (and I use that term loosely) Gather the Women. GTW is “a gathering place for women and women’s organizations who share a belief that the time is now to activate the incredible power of women’s wisdom on a planetary scale.” One of its purported goals is to “celebrate women as global peacemakers.” However, they “seek not to change minds but to connect hearts.” Just how anyone is supposed to be a global peacemaker without trying to change anyone’s mind is never articulated. Then again, neither is anything these folks do, except have an annual conference with panels such as “Divine Goddess and Leadership.”
If the problem were confined to fringe, mushy-thinking non-organizations, it wouldn’t even be worth writing about. But even groups doing effective, important, progressive feminist work often fall prey to essentialist thinking. Code Pink’s Call to Action contradictorily declares that women organize for peace “not because we are better or purer or more innately nurturing than men but because the men have busied themselves making war. Because…we understand the love of a mother in Iraq for her children and the driving desire of that child for life.” Translation: It’s not that women are naturally more nurturing and peaceful than men—it’s that women are naturally more nurturing and peaceful than men.
This covert embrace of essentialist thinking (and the intellectual dishonesty that it requires) manifests in many of Code Pink’s central tactics. One of the group’s major activities has been sending delegations of parents and others close to either 9/11 victims or enlisted folks to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. The delegations have brought humanitarian aid and drawn attention to horrific conditions caused by American military activities. But their very premise—that being a mother of a soldier is the best platform from which to speak out against the war—ensures that the resulting arguments are a plea not to cause unhappiness by sending a kid off to die rather than a principled stance against unjust and corrupt use of force. The former isn’t even a compelling moral argument, much less any kind of a political analysis. And when real political analysis is slipped into a femmenist framework, it’s easily neutered: In a keynote speech at the 2005 Center for New Words Women and Media Conference, Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin detailed the ways in which their peace delegates’ comments to the media were edited to remove commentary critical of the war and of the Bush administration so that only worry over their children remained.
Women’s eNews, a news service that, in the words of its mission statement, “cover[s] issues of particular concern to women and provide[s] women’s perspectives on public policy,” is yet another promising project that would be far more effective if it weren’t thoroughly mired in femmenism. While it is indeed imperative for the news media to recognize women as sources, experts, and commentators more than they currently do, an approach like Women’s eNews’ is patently unhelpful. Its May 9, 2005, cover story is indicative. Headlined “Mothering From Afar Extracts Heavy Price,” and accompanied by introductory text noting that “as a growing number of Latin American women migrate to the US, many of these women will spend the [Mother’s Day] holiday far from their children—some of whom have forgotten them,” the piece does little more than tug at readers’ heartstrings. When Women’s eNews defines “women’s concerns” as Ana and her plans to migrate north to better support her and 8- and 10-year-old sons, but not the underlying political economy that determines her decision to seek work in the US, it actually works to shore up the “feminine” realm of home, hearth, and kids.
Likewise, stories like “Female Dems Say Social Security Is Their Fight,” “Women Pioneer Biofuel to Save Mother Earth,” and “Record Number of Female Soldiers Fall” tightly circumscribe what women are supposed to care about. If Social Security were gender neutral, it would hardly be any less of a women’s issue. It’s not because “we’ve got kids and we are thinking generations ahead of ourselves,” as one of the sources in the biofuels article asserts, that feminists bring an important perspective to the environmental movement. And it’s damn sure not primarily because female soldiers are dying that we should be paying attention to the war.
But the problem with femmenism goes even deeper than these strategic missteps. Because it’s founded on gender difference, it retains a strong investment in gender divisions. Not only will we never dismantle gender discrimination as long as gender divisions are philosophically important to feminism, but we’ll end up reproducing the gendered oppression we’re supposedly fighting against.
Femmenism seeks a circumscribed set of qualities for womanhood the same way that conservative, gender-traditional patriarchy does. Gender conservatives see motherhood as women’s natural role; femmenists see motherhood (or the capacity for it) as the ultimate political motivator. Gender conservatives prefer to see women in the role of helpmate ; femmenists see women as uniquely equipped with superior relational skills. Gender conservatives justify male aggressive behavior by virtue of its being an inherently male character trait; femmenists criticize male aggressive behavior for the same reason. But what about those women (and there are many) who have no interest in parenting, who have crappy communication skills, who would rather compete than cooperate? Are they not women? More to the point, are they bad feminists?
This sort of gender essentialism can be particularly divisive when it comes to women’s and feminist activism, because it polices the boundaries of womanhood; implicitly or overtly, femmenist organizations, groups, and events require a certain degree of “femininity” for participation. Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the tension between certain corners of the feminist world and trans and genderqueer movements. Femmenist thinking practically demands distrust of and even hostility toward gender-variant people. There’s simply no room in a movement overinvested in cherished notions of who women are and how they behave for the myriad gender identities that exist in our world: transsexual women who know they were born as women even if their genitals said otherwise; biologicially butch dykes who prefer male pronouns; intersex folks who choose not to pick a side; and many, many others.
But it’s the obliteration of rigid gender categories themselves, not any kind of elevation of the feminine, that is our best hope for an end to gender discrimination. And the fragmentation of gender that trans and genderqueer folks embody is our best hope for that obliteration. It’s exactly this challenge—the way that transgender and genderqueer movements are forcing us to ask deeper questions about what woman- and manhood are, how femininity and masculinity are defined and determined—that stands to enrich feminist thought and action immeasurably.
In spite of my generalizations, femmenism as I’ve been discussing it here is far from monolithic, and, like feminism as a whole, encompasses people and ideas with disagreement and contradictions aplenty. It includes folks as wide-ranging as liberal feminist organizations such as the White House Project and separatist crowds like those who attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. There are valuable aspects of each of these branches of feminism, and critiquing their femmenist tendencies does not have to mean rejecting everything about them. But it’s equally important to recognize that those femmenist tendencies are deeply antithetical to where feminism needs to go in order to stay effective and vibrant, to eliminate gender discrimination at its core, and to fight for a world where human rights are more important than profit.
If we continue to believe, hope, or even suspect that women, simply because they are women, will bring pro-feminist policies with them into the corridors of power, we will be rewarded with more powerful women in the mold of our aforementioned warmongering secretary of state; anti-choice, anti–civil rights, anti–minimum wage DC Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Janice Rogers Brown; and business-as-usual corporate execs like the women occupying top slots at Avon, Xerox, Citigroup, ChevronTexaco, Pfizer, MTV, Procter & Gamble, Genentech, the New York Times Company, and more. If we allow the fact of our femaleness to motivate our objection to, say, the war on Iraq, we are forced into asserting that a feminist position is one of simple concern for the deaths of civilian women and children. We will have to abandon opposition to the war on more substantively feminist grounds: because it involves killing people in order to support an unsustainable way of life for overentitled Americans and secure profits for the corporations that depend on our energy-guzzling, buy-crazy ways for their revenues.
If we cling to any gender categories at all, we lose out on tremendous liberatory potential. In other words, the half-witted, sentimental obsession with women that is femmenism causes sloppy thinking, intellectual dishonesty, and massive strategic errors. Thanks to the tremendous feminist work of the last century, we have the opportunity to leave that obsession behind. If vital feminist work is going to continue, we need to seize it.