Blogging about the blogosphere is a little like having a wank in the garden. It feels gritty and inappropriate, there's always the vague apprehension that somebody's watching and judging, and you're likely to come away with unpleasant things stuck to you. Be that as it may, I can't not comment on - well, the comments on the recent post, 'Palin, abortion and the gender agenda', where I dared to suggest that a feminist stance is contingent upon a pro-choice outlook.
The post, as many of you will be aware, weaselled its way onto Liberal Conspiracy and went nova, exploding into far and away the site's most commented piece within 24 hours. It turned into a quasi-socratic mud-flinging match between various mostly-male commentators who wanted to take the discussion away from feminism and into clunky semantics, worrying the mostly-female-and-Sunny commentators who were actually trying to make points about female physical sovereignty in best British bulldog style. Reducing arguments about real women and real issues to a 'thought experiment', completely oblivious to the fact that only men have the luxury of doing so. Some commentators took wilful refusal to listen to the point of actual aggression, the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and singing ‘laa-laa-laa, I can’t hear you!’
Now, I was shite at debating in school, which wasn't all that long ago. Oh, I could come up with shiny speeches on the fly, but I was always being told that I wasn't dispassionate enough, that I got too emotionally involved with my arguments, I took things too personally. And funnily enough, that's the accusation that's flung in the direction of feminist writers and commentators online when they try to engage in debate with men and with misogynist trolls.
Feminism isn't something you can approach dispassionately, nor should you try. We are emotionally involved, all of us, because we're women or we're close to women. The idea that empathy has no place in contempotary politics or in contemporary political debate is nonsensical, dangerous and typically masculine in a way that most great male thinkers I know find tiresome. Cold, dispassionate debate can be sometimes massively unhelpful when you're talking about something that's so emotional, so personal, something that's about, for example, your own uterus and your own future and whether you have any right to control it if the technology is there. To take a completely random example, insisting again and again and again that everyone’s feminism is valid, even if they are willing to shout 'women are filthy whores who should suffer the consequences of having naughty sex - but I'm a feminist, too! I say so! Look!' – isn’t constructive debate.
Some of the commentators (again, all male) doggedly insisted and re-insisted that, although they themselves were of course pro-choice, feminism should open its doctrinal heart to so-called ‘feminists for life’. Because feminism is a matter of theosophical consensus, and not a practical, pro-woman political position at all. And because us girls should all just learn to get along.
I spent this morning on a crumbling sofa in a tiny bookshop in SoHo, reading books I couldn’t afford. One of these was Kate Fillion’s excellent ‘Lip Service’. Sub-titling her argument ‘the myth of female virtue in love, sex and friendship,’ Fillion makes the long-overdue case that in-fighting within the movement is slowing us down, that ‘sisterhood’ was and remains an over-prescriptive, quasi-eroticised fantasy of ephemeral cross-gender solidarity, and that us gals don’t, actually, have to all get along for feminism to work.
No. I won’t accept that every man and woman who says he or she is a feminist is one. It’s not, as some Liberal Conspiracy hacks would have us believe, a case of absolutely everyone’s feminism being equally valid. That’s a cop out, a dangerous and much-misused loophole that has allowed misogynists, peddlers of regressive porn and Sarah Palin to wave tokenistic feminist flags over the most anti-woman policies imaginable.
It doesn’t work like that. Actually, there are several ground assumptions of feminism. The idea that women aren’t inherently evil, or weak, or crazy, or saintly demons, or degenerate, is one of them. The notion of every woman’s right to bodily and reproductive autonomy is another.
Nor is a position automatically feminist because a woman holds it. I’m heart-sick of people quipping, in response to anti-patriarchal ranting (me? never!) – but XX says it! So it must be okay! Actually, some women – women whose life experiences and morals are equally valid – do not participate in the sisterhood, or in feminist thought and action, whatsoever. I know, crazy, isn’t it. With the way the world looks today, with the wimminz taking men’s jobs and filling men’s universities, you’d think us bra-burning harpy feminazis were everywhere. But we’re not. That’s why those of us who are out there have to shout so loud.
I’ve known plenty of women who thing that women are naturally, biologically and intellectually inferior to men. I’ve known women who believe that a woman’s role is to have babies and please her man. And I’ve known women who firmly believe that any given clutch of jellied pre-human cells is far more valuable than the life, life choices and personal sovereignty of any woman, anywhere, and who would legislate on that basis given the chance. That doesn’t make it a feminist viewpoint, that doesn’t mean that the speaker believes in women’s equal biological rights, and it doesn’t make it okay.
It’s not okay to call yourself a feminist if you believe that women aren’t fit to make their own decisions, including over whether or not their child is carried to term. It’s not okay to call yourself a feminist if you would deny women the right to make those choices, deny them basic personal sovereignty and physical autonomy.
It’s terribly convenient for commentators like Lee Griffin to ignore or dismiss the very salient fact of internalised sexism. It’s terribly convenient to think that one can still say that one is feminist whilst prioritising one’s religious dogma, cultural prejudices and personal sexism, racism and classism over anti-misogyny and genuine gender equality. But it does not work like that.
As Fillion points out, sometimes feminism means facing down misogyny wherever it comes from. Feminism doesn’t mean insisting that all women are right, always. I’m willing to allow other women the privilege of being wrong. In fact, in the course of this debate I’ve told women who I greatly respect that I find their pro-choice, pro-criminalisation-of-abortion position deeply anti-feminst at root level. I like and respect these women, but I still believe that a pro-choice stance is essential to contemporary feminism, and I’ll take on anyone, male, female, enemy or friend, who says so.
The temptation is so strong and the cultural script so deeply written to subvert one’s own political position for the sake of solidarity, partly because there are still so few of us. It’s a lonely business being a feminist writer and activist. As a young feminist, I feel keenly the lack of a coherent older generation to set the standard and show us the way. Instead, most of what we’ve got is Julie Bindel, a rampant bigot who hates all men and most women, giving the rest of us a bad name in the process. The young activist contingent is gradually increasing its numbers and its energy, but its favourite pastime is still in-fighting (more on this later), and we’re feeling our way in the dark. We’re casting our anchors into a deep and hostile see and hoping like hell to strike land. But what else can we do?
Whatever male commentators might like to believe, feminism isn’t a happy, fluffy land of hand-holding and tea parties where everyone gets along. It’s a lonely and exhausting place, populated by bitches like me who won’t lie down and shut up. And with that proviso, we keep our integrity.