HeatherN tackles another set of questions from GMP readers about feminism and the feminist movement.
This week I’ll tackle two issues. One’s a question about the structure of feminism itself, and another is sort of a follow up to one of my answers last week. Let’s dig in:
Alastair, Wellokaythen and Tom all wanted to know whether feminism is more akin to a religion (a system of beliefs) or a movement based on evidence and facts. The answer, I suppose, depends on which version of feminism you’re talking about. Academic feminism is classed under “the humanities,” which means though it’s academically rigorous it doesn’t follow the same rules as the hard sciences or the social sciences. It is evidence based, but it’s not something which uses the scientific method or experimentation to prove its theories. The two big “humanities” subjects people might be familiar with are philosophy and English literature, and I think those are two helpful subjects for comparison. Philosophy is all about thinking “outside the box” (such a clichéd phrase for being unique) to try to better understand humanity, and English literature is all about analysing the stories we tell. Cultural narratives are basically stories and a lot of gender theory is about trying to understand humanity, sometimes through really weird ways of thinking about things.
Activist feminism often relies on academic studies which come out of the social sciences. All the statistics that gender theorists cite come from one study or another, whether it’s about domestic violence, the wage gap, or any other issue. What’s interesting is how the social sciences have begun incorporating gender theory into their research. Agustin Fuentes (whose book I mentioned back in the first set of answers) is a biological anthropologist and part of that book is a scientific examination of the separation between gender and biological sex. I recently went to a lecture by an evolutionary anthropologist who mentioned Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as being influential in his work. So though gender studies itself is part of the humanities, it’s being used by people in the social sciences too.
In an e-mail, Matthew asked me to explain some of the more practical ways in which feminism is including men. Last week, I mentioned that feminism (on the whole) does actually include men and among other responses, was a request for some information about what exactly feminist groups are doing. It’s all well and good to say, “Patriarchy hurts men too,” but what are feminists doing about it? On the one hand, this is a bit of an odd question. We wouldn’t ask LGBT rights organisations what they’re doing for straight people, even though heteronormativity hurts straight people too, for example. The difference, though, is that although heteronormativity hurts straight people to some extent, the patriarchy hurts men a hell of a lot. So more and more, feminist groups are including men as people who have also been harmed by gender norms.
The Everyday Sexism project is a website that’s dedicated to “cataloguing instances of sexism experienced by women.” I happen to follow it on Twitter (because of course I do), and just yesterday this tweet popped up: “Just had a women alert everyone of an abandoned baby. Yes the baby 1ft to my left is without it’s mother, she’s my daughter.” Everyday Sexism focuses on women, but the example from a man was included and retweeted. As I’m writing this, it’s actually got 106 retweets and 44 favourites. A couple of people replied that they were surprised this happened, but no one told the man he should leave or that his example of sexism wasn’t “really” sexism. As much as internet activism and Twitter is a “practical example” of feminists including men, this fits.
The big, real world example of feminists working to undo stereotypes of masculinity comes in the form of the fight against conscription back in 1981. The National Organisation for Women was one of the groups which supported the law suit which aimed to get rid of Selective Service, or if not at least make it gender neutral. The Supreme Court struck it down, and that was that for a long time. Recently, the military just made all combat positions gender neutral, so it’s possible this issue will come up again. It depends on whether there’s enough of a case to make our current Supreme Court hear it.
Of course, for every example of feminist groups and people who are working on men’s issues, I could provide an example of a group which is not working on men’s issues. The thing is no one group can work on everything at once.
Update May 14: Originally this article said that Supreme Court’s decision about Selective Service happened in 1991. That’s been corrected to the actual year they heard the case, which was 1981.
Do you have a question for GMP’s resident feminist? Ask it in the comments, or email Heather at [email protected]