Being a feminist

Recently I had a fascinating discussion about feminism with a reader of this blog.

He expressed the view that belief in feminism meant believing (doubtless among other things) that women should have the same opportunities as men. What are these opportunities, he wondered? Following the Lionesses’ victory in the European Cup, should the appropriate media and government response be just to give women’s football as much attention as men’s… or, perhaps in addition, to give more attention to traditionally female sports such as netball, hockey and lacrosse? Women shouldn’t have to play football in order for their sporting prowess to be recognised.

I am less of a sports viewer, so this hadn’t occurred to me, but my friend is surely right.

Googling the definition of feminism brought this up (described as “Cambridge dictionary”): the belief that women should be allowed the same rightspower, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state: (my emphasis.)

This one I would partially reject, for its implication that what women need is to be levelled up to the currently desirable privileged position of men, and to be encouraged to behave like men. We’re back to the idea that woman’s football should be promoted because football is the greatest game (men say so; it must be true!) Or that we should encourage women to be more assertive at business meetings by talking over other people, rather than suggesting that everyone should listen to each other.

My own private, not so private now, definition of feminism, is about value.

I am a feminist. To me this means that I believe

  • that both genders are of intrinsically equal value;
  • that although many men respect women and treat them well, during the centuries women have generally been subject to oppression, due to their physiological differences, and to gender stereotypes that ironically damage men too;
  • that although progress has been made in combatting this oppression and these stereotypes, there is still work to be done, by women and men, and I have part of the responsibility for doing it;
  • that although equal men and women for various reasons have some different needs and vulnerabilities, which need to be catered for and respected.

You will see that this definition has not yet been adapted to take into account the non-binary.

It allows me to believe that the fundamental differences between the sexes are physiological or society-induced, while allowing me if necessary to admit innate psychological differences, when and if I become convinced that they exist.

It also allows me to sidestep the “women’s bodies are their own, therefore any attack on abortion on demand is an attack on all women” argument. While sharing the widespread dismay at the US Supreme Court’s overruling of Roe v Wade, I do not accept this argument, which I suspect makes my feminism suspect in the eyes of some.

Problematically perhaps, my definition might also allow me to be a “complementarian,” ie someone who interprets the New Testament as saying that women are equally valuable to men, but also inherently different in ways that mean they shouldn’t be permitted to exercise leadership, especially leadership over men. One would think it would be quite difficult to believe that women can’t lead but are nonetheless equal, but some people do manage to argue this.

I do not, but this perhaps brings us back to the “opportunities and rights” aspect. Women should have the opportunity to become Prime Minister, or Archbishop of Canterbury.

I don’t want “equality” to be all about “opportunity” because not everyone has the capacity to make good use of their opportunities, but yes, my “equal value” does include the implication that women shouldn’t be deprived of chances because of their sex.

I wonder what I’ve missed out?

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Stephen Hall

    5th September 2022 at 10:46 am Reply

    Thank you Penny for another excellent post.

    I like your definition and focus on value (and am pleased it doesn’t include equality of outcome which is my particular bugbear), but let’s see if I can pick any holes in it.

    First bullet – rock solid.

    Second bullet – it’s hard to argue that women haven’t drawn the short straw in gender relations over the years, though there are periods and societies where this has not been the case, some very close to home. I am thinking, for instance of coal mining communities, and of nations in wartime, where men have surely been subjected to a harder time than women (at least in terms of likelihood of trauma and threat to life and limb). Even today, there is particular outrage when a Russian missile strike kills ‘women and children’, as if killing men is fair game (journalists should talk about ‘non-combatants’ in these circumstances). Perhaps this is what you’re getting at where you say that gender stereotypes can damage men too? Or are you more thinking of sensitive types who struggle to keep their heads up in macho societies? In developed countries equipped with decent care for women giving birth, men now have significantly lower life expectancies than women – why is this?

    Third bullet – You are doubtless correct that we have further to go in this area. But how are we to measure progress, or know when we have arrived? I tend to believe it’s likely that differences will exist between the sexes for ever because inherent differences cause men and women to want different things out of life. But I know this is a matter of debate. Women tend to be more interested in fashion, and men more interested in sport, but is this down to nature or nurture? Here, I fall into the ‘a bit of both’ camp, but I am not a scientist.

    From my observation of people over the years it seems to me that men tend to be more competitive, aggressive, obsessive (or more charitably capable of a greater singleness of purpose), more spatially aware (this one has been proven I think), and perhaps have a greater affinity with pattern and structure. Whereas women tend to be more collaborative, and better at multi-tasking. You may find this characterisation to be the grossest of stereotyping, or you may agree that they are true (as a general tendency) but argue they are brought about by the way we raise our children. But aren’t there inherent evolutionary reasons why such differences may have emerged and still exist deep in our genetic make-up? We can also look to other mammalian species and observe very different behaviours between males and females.

    So we needn’t be surprised, or think there is a problem to be fixed, if we found that, even in a perfect World, a clear majority of chess grand masters were men. Or that more doctors were women. Of course these are just tendencies; on-averages. If we picked the best 100 chess players out of 200 random people we might find 60 men and 40 women. This is how I feel it is equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome that is the best measure.

    4th bullet – I wonder if ‘needs and vulnerabilities’; is a bit negative. What about ‘strengths to be celebrated’!?

  • Penelope Wallace

    5th October 2022 at 5:44 pm Reply

    I’m sorry to have taken so long to reply, Stephen!
    Yes, I was thinking of war when I said stereotypes affect men too. I’m not willing to change “needs and vulnerabilities” to “strengths”, because you (and the world at large) haven’t convinced me of the inherent differences – but then I am particularly incapable when it comes to drawing general conclusions from repeated observation, or indeed observation of any kind. I’m not willing to say either “hooray for women; they are more collaborative” or “hooray for men, they are more spatially aware.” The needs and vulnerabilities I have in mind are often in terms of sexual attack, and the physical problems connected to menstruation, childbirth and menopause and breast cancer; but men have their own cancer, and other puberty issues.

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