In a recent New York Times column, “The Problem With ‘Feminist’ Men,” Jill Filipovic examines the distressing case of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, arguing that women have to be wary of men who seem almost too eager to proclaim their feminist bona fides. She suggest that men like Schneiderman and Harvey Weinstein use their entree into feminist worlds in order to get into strong women’s pants, often in order to abuse and debase them.
It’s a chilling idea. It’s also a shame that she has these two (and others) to justify her theory. Late in her essay, she writes, “Of course we want men to champion women’s rights, and we shouldn’t look skeptically on the men who stand up for all of us,” but at that point, the acknowledgement seems tepid. She has already given us plenty of reason to fear there may be a dire wolf lurking within any man dressed in self-righteous feminism.
The column inspired over five hundred eighty comments, many debating what constitutes a true feminist in the first place, and some actually suggesting that Schneiderman might be considered one, despite the behavior he’s charged with, given his good work in support of women’s issues. Another commenter, Kevin A. of Los Angeles, asks whether “feminism [is] becoming so much about identity…that it has become more of a naive philosophical bender about epistemological access rather than a basic civil rights issue that can be universally understood, fought for and enacted?”
I think I understand this, if I’m right in my reading of “epistemological access.” Because epistemology is the study or attempt to understand what it means to “know” something, I think the phrase has to do with who has sufficient knowledge of feminism to claim the status of feminist. In other words, can anyone who has never experienced life as a woman, possibly claim membership in the feminist movement? It seems that Kevin A. wants to move beyond (or back from) quibbling over that abstract question to say that any man who fully advocates and fights for women’s civil rights has earned the title “feminist.”
But I’m not sure the question is a mere quibble. When my daughter came home from college wearing a shirt that announced, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” I was very proud. But I didn’t ask her to get me one. Similarly, I, an aging white man, own a Black Lives Matter tee shirt, but I’ve never worn it (though I might if I were marching in a civil rights demonstration). I may claim to be a white, male ally to those fighting against their own oppression, but I am not eager to suggest that I truly share in their knowledge of that oppression.
Filipovic clearly distrusts some men who assert their “feminism” too adamantly, but perhaps she agrees with Kevin A that the label raises questions of merely abstract semantics. I’m sure she places the word feminist in quotation marks in her column’s title because she’s being sarcastic about particular men who claim the label for themselves, but perhaps she quotes the word because it has no shared definition.
In any case, I think the quotation marks do suggest both the sarcasm and the lack of clear meaning. The Weinstein and Schneiderman cases make the word empty, even phony, if not downright threatening, as Filipovic suggests. And for decades now, feminism has meant radically different things to different people, even as the first wave has given way to the second wave of feminism and beyond. So does feminism mean simply a belief in the legal and social equality of women with men? Or does it suggest bra burners ablaze with misandry? For at least twenty years, large numbers of girls in my high school classes—all of whom believe in women’s equality and empowerment—have been wary of calling themselves feminists because they think it suggests a contempt for all men and all brands of masculinity.
I think about the traps that such confusion creates for those students and for many other women. Must a feminist woman pursue an independent career, or is OK to stay home with kids? (Though I love and married a professional woman, I’m fine with women, and men, who choose the homemaking role.) Is a love of so-called girly things, of perhaps dressing in skin-tight sheaths and spiked heels, a way of contributing to the objectification of women, or does it merely constitute one way a woman is entitled to be, the male gaze be damned? (Though I’m an aging quasi-hippy who prefers the natural look, I’m in the latter camp on that one.) Is it all right to dress and adorn oneself in hopes of turning men’s heads, or is such a choice a betrayal of sisterhood? (And as for men, is it all right to turn one’s head?)
I don’t think the confusion will end very soon. I think the Weinsteins and Schneidermans of the world make the problem much worse. But if terminology must remain problematic, I still think a few feminist standards are pretty clear, and very necessary.
- Women and men should earn equal pay for equal work.
- Every profession should be equally open to all genders (and yes, although it’s a recent discovery for me, I think there are more than two).
- Every school and every work place should be free of sexual harassment and of any suggestion that flirting with the boss is a requirement for advancement.
- While no man should be condemned for such harassment without solid evidence of guilt, those who accuse men must be taken seriously.
- There is of course a place for flirtation, but none of us has the right to ogle, wolf-whistle, or otherwise announce how turned on we are by others passing by, sharing an office, or sharing a drink.
- Victims of harassment or rape should never be accused of having “asked for it,” no matter how they dressed or how flirtatiously they behaved.
- Any sexual acts or relations must be consensual—and adults should have the freedom to consent.
As for integrating all clubs, classes, activities, and sports teams, I’m not ready to write a rule. I think it’s fine for men to seek each others’ company without the other sex elbowing in, and I think the same goes for women, even though I personally never want women left out of anything I do.
So, am I a feminist? I guess I don’t really need to know.