Friday, 5 September 2008

It's a jungle out there!

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.


  1. The only way I see someone being too emotional about a subject is if they refuse to listen to what anyone else has to say. And that's not being emotional, that's being fanatical if you ask me.
    That being said, if you're not emotional about your political views you probably don't believe in them anyway. Not that you have to get into fights with Conservatives or Liberals in bookshops or anything, but shouting a bit is perfectly fine as long as you don't start hating each other.

    Finally, I'd like to say this: If you don't care about people, you don't belong in politics.

    And Penny: Keep shouting!

  2. You're absolutely right, of course. I loved your post, a lot, and have added this blog to my reading list because of it.

    I have also sworn not to try and hit my head against Lee's Wall of Ignorance any more.

  3. Penny, I'm a young feminist too and I agree with you to a good extent. However, I think that calling Julie Bindel "a rampant bigot who hates all men and most women, giving the rest of us a bad name in the process" is not only unhelpful but it's another example of "infighting". (I'd add that it's slightly unfair, but hey, you are entitled to your own opinion).

    Of course you can disagree with Juline Bindel! But calling her a bigot? Maybe we should start fighting "infighting" in ourselves. And I include myself in that.

  4. I love you, you know that, right?

  5. Hi there. I'd like to say first of all that I find this blog very readable, and it makes me think.

    This phrase makes me uneasy: 'a feminist stance is contingent upon a pro-choice outlook'. Most pro-life liberals wouldn't deny a woman's right to choose - they might, however, consider that another right outweighed it (that of the foetal human being). Now, this might seem to you or me like an untenable position - but it is dependent on an opinion about whether a foetus has any rights, and if so, what they might be. In other words, it is independent of questions about women's rights.

  6. Congratulations on the success of your recent post, hope it leads to good things. Enjoyed the blog a lot lately.

    Look forward to reading your response to Dan's comment, above.

  7. Dan - yes, this was where the discussion started on Liberal Conspiracy. The trouble is that:

    a) we cannot know for sure about the personhood of a foetus from the point of conception. We DO know about the concrete personhood of an accidentally pregnant woman.

    b)religious stances and opinions on the right of the foetus to life are NOT independent of questions of female autonomy, because they impact upon it hugely. It's a question of what your priorities are. If your priority isn't personal sovereignty for women, how are you a feminist?

    c) whatever you personally believe is fine as long as you wouldn't go so far as to apply it to other people. Many feminists wouldn't choose to abort an unwanted pregnancy - but as soon as you move to take away the right of *any other woman* to do so, you lose your feminist card-carrying privileges.

    Does that make it a bit clearer? :)

  8. Of course you can disagree with Juline Bindel! But calling her a bigot?

    She kind of is though, if she came out with the stuff she comes out with sometimes while not wearing the 'feminist' mask we wouldn't be so quick to cheer her on - I've had libertarian trolls at my blog come out with essentially the same stuff she and Julie Burchill come out with, and I'm supposed to treat them with scorn whereas I'm supposed to give Bindel and Burchill careful consideration?. I mean, all she does is call for a lot of no-nonsense fist-slamming and putting more people in prison. She's the last person I ever want to align myself with politically, and to be honest, one of the main reasons I'm tempted to reject the word 'feminist'.

  9. Thanks for your answer! And apologies for the retread. Don't bother if you're sick of going over this, but I do have a few problems with this view.

    'Personal sovereignty' can't be a priority that automatically trumps everything else. It seems to me that you can be absolutely sure about personhood - once you've defined 'personhood', which is the contentious part. If you believe that abortion is equivalent to murder (which I don't, but it is a consistent and internally logical position), then you can't very well say that the right to choose is more important.

    As for the difference between private opinion and legislation: there is more than one belief here. You might find the idea of abortion distasteful (as many people do); but then it would be a thing like wearing a replica football shirt, or going to live in Ashdown Forest: I wouldn't do it myself, but I can't think of a reason to stop others.

    On the other hand, a moral objection to abortion would mean you equated it with burglary or arson: something with a direct victim. What are the crimes with a direct victim which should not be illegal?

  10. More heat than light, here.

    The difficulty is that a foetus very clearly is an instance of life. You can say that it is non-sentient, non-viable external from the womb, an unwanted invader in certain instances and a total dependent and you would be entirely correct.

    But it remains non-sentient, non-viable, unwanted, totally dependent life. It may be on the same level as a plant or amoeba, but life it does remain. And if it is not human life then what sort of life is it, exactly? This phrase "pre-human" of yours sounds displeasingly vague.

    Therefore if somebody considers human life to be especially worthy (just another form of bigotry, really, but its utterly common) then it is totally understandable that they would oppose abortion.

    I think that the feminist movement tends to assume bad faith rather too often over this issue. Its not a matter of enslaving women, but protecting life to most of the anti-abortionists. I still think that they're wrong, but I don't think that you're going about the right way to appreciating their position proprely.

    And if you think that misunderstanding and misrepresenting their position will forward your agenda then fine. Just don't expect a decisive rhetorical victory when you're talking in entirely the wrong direction.

  11. Camille Paglia at Salon:

    "The gigantic, instantaneous coast-to-coast rage directed at Sarah Palin when she was identified as pro-life was, I submit, a psychological response by loyal liberals who on some level do not want to open themselves to deep questioning about abortion and its human consequences...

    It is nonsensical and counterproductive for Democrats to imagine that pro-life values can be defeated by maliciously destroying their proponents. And it is equally foolish to expect that feminism must for all time be inextricably wed to the pro-choice agenda. There is plenty of room in modern thought for a pro-life feminism -- one in fact that would have far more appeal to third-world cultures where motherhood is still honored and where the Western model of the hard-driving, self-absorbed career woman is less admired."

    Sounds good to a lot of people..?


  12. I really liked this post, all except I have to agree with beyondfeminism, that what you said about Julie Bindel does not match my experience of her. Some of her views may not match yours, maybe you do not see things in quite the same way or would choose her methods, but I don't think she can simply be described as a bigot, and nothing else but. She is a long time campaigner for women's liberation from male violence, including that done by the state.

    Zenobia - "I mean, all she does is call for a lot of no-nonsense fist-slamming and putting more people in prison."

    If you mean putting more rapists in prison, or putting more men who have murdered or pimped women in prison, then yes I suppose the latter is true *to some extent*. She campaigns for womens human rights to be free from male violence. Her priority is to get abusive men the hell away from the women they are hurting.

    However, Bindel has campaigned pretty tirelessly for women who have been sent to prison, whether for defending themselves against a partner-attacker, for prostitution, or for other non violent crimes. She is a co-founder of the group Justice for Women. She campaigns for their release, and advocates for better treatment both in prison and for those women leaving it. Her advocacy for women in prison is probably one of the most dedicated in this country, and I'm surprised actually to see that kind of buried in the suggestion she just wants more people slung in there.

    I cant agree that all she does is 'call for fist slamming', Bindel from my knowledge has been a major player in many varied types of anti-male violence work, in anti-trafficking, anti-dv, anti-rape, in supporting programs that enable women to exit prostitution. She has been there at every level, not as an elitist academic like some, but as an organiser and a lobbyist for change, as well as in advocacy and support.

    This sort of mischaracterization of a feminist campaigner and the body of her work is an example of the effects of a huge effort, expended for as long as there has been a women's movement, to bury or dismiss or slander or otherwise destroy the work that women have done for the feminist movement.

  13. James Grieves captured what I was trying to get over in the LC thread better than I managed.

  14. I agree with most of that. Its like those who try and paint Sarah Lalin as a feminist - come on, now.....

    Oh, and intere4sted to read your thoughts on Ms. Bindel. I think she is essentially an authoritarian whose views on some issues are pretty much indistinguishable from conservatives. For different reasons, but the views do end up coinciding.

  15. "Sigh" Personal emotion has no place in debate. If you want to find the truth about a issue emotion serves no function at all. If you get angry or sad about some thing in a debate what does that do other then cloud your judgement? Nothing much at all... Emotion has a tendency to make people ignore there potential for higher levels of systematic reasoning and cause them to resort to base levels of argument riddled with logical fallacies like ad hominem attacks cyclic reasoning and appealing to consequences. People often seem to think things are to personal a issue to take emotion out of it… The arguments intellectual development seems to stop there and that’s exactly my point. The more personal the issue the more your thoughts will be swayed by personal emotions undermining your potential for rational objective thought this draws you to conclusions that in a level headed state you would never reach. Emotion often destroys intelligent progress in a debate turning it into a primitive head butting contest or a bit of pandering bullshit where every one is to scared that some one is wrong.

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