So I, a member of the ‘other side,’ attended my first feminist discussion group yesterday. All in all it was a fascinating experience, with an excellent array of speakers from all walks of feminism, from domestic violence charities to research into the philosophy of gender in sport. Yet the meeting really heated up when we began to ask ourselves what it was all about. ‘Gender equality’ was the boring, uninformative, obvious answer, but how to achieve it?
There were a number of different angles members of the group took. The first was the idea that ‘we should stop all this navel gazing, we haven’t said a word yet about rape, about violence, about oppression or discrimination.’ I’m sorry, but this attitude is both snobby and lazy in equal measure. Without a little navel-gazing, we’re flying blind. It’s like asking a medic to operate without knowing the goal of the operation.
Yes, we want equality, but it seems to me that there are at least two interpretations of what we mean by ‘equality.’ The first meekly acknowledges that there are two genders, ‘male’ and ‘female’ (and maybe we’ll allow an extra category for transgendered or hermaphrodite people) and all that needs to happen is to somehow give the two all the same opportunities, treat them equally in practice and so on. In my view, this is fundamentally the wrong attitude to take, because it implicitly reinforces the idea of people boxed primarily by their gender. The second, and better alternative, is to aim at dissolving the distinction altogether, so that the difference between ‘men’ and ‘women’ either doesn’t exist in our minds, or at the very least is so unimportant as to be regarded as the difference between having brown or blonde hair.
I can see the objections to this way of looking at things. Firstly, that there are obvious biological differences between men and women. Not so. There are biological differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ human organisms, but ‘people’ are a social construction out of much more than just their biological configuration. Think about it. Imagine a ‘spectrum of personhood,’ where somehow all the things that make you ‘you’ were taken into consideration. Why does one’s biological sex have to define you? Surely on the scale of personhood, Kelly Holmes is closer to Usain Bolt than she is to Baby Spice. There are so many other factors that define a person, including sexuality, physical build, tastes, preferences…the list is endless. By seeing the personhood question primarily in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women,’ you reinforce the idea of a meaningful difference between the two.
Another objection to my view is that for many people their manhood or womanhood is central to how they define themselves as a person. I can see this, of course I can, but I doubt very much that the things that these people celebrate about themselves need to be seen as inexorably linked to gender. Why can’t we celebrate things like the ability to have children, menstruation, having a certain physical figure, liking guys, girls or both, the way we hold ourselves in public, the way we conduct ourselves with regard to others…why can’t we celebrate these things in themselves, without needing to make the connection and claim that they are valuable only in so far as they define us as men or women?
OK, enough of the navel gazing – what’s the point of it? Well, my navel-gazing had a direct application to what was said in the discussion group by several attendees who were all of them adamant that women-only discussion groups were vital to the success of the feminist movement. I think they are painfully mistaken.
Let’s be clear here, nobody is suggesting that there aren’t currently, given the (unfortunate) way the world is set up, many appropriate situations where women-only groups are needed. I’d say that groups for the victims of domestic violence and women-only shortlists for parliamentary candidacies are prime examples of regrettably necessary women-only groups which the feminist movement can play a role in advocating. However, the feminist movement itself, in insisting on being all-women in other situations where there aren’t mitigating circumstances, is really shooting itself in the foot.
Surely, the feminist movement ought to be downplaying the significance of one’s gender as a meaningful distinguishing feature by which it’s OK to discriminate? Then why on earth is it reinforcing the difference with women’s-only groups? Quite apart from the fact that if men are the oppressors, they are the ones who need to get the message, in excluding them from the feminist movement in many important ways, feminism isn’t downplaying the gender difference, but revelling in it.