As someone who has fought vehemently for equal rights for women for thirty years, but now frequently finds myself having to defend the position that I even class as a feminist at all according to modern definitions, I felt that the topic of feminism deserved a page in its own right. Let me make clear – I am what would nowadays be called a liberal or equity feminist. I am not, by academic discipline, a scholar of either philosophy or feminism. I have had to assess my own knowledge, and what has happened to feminism as I know it, according to the wisdom of minds more educated in these areas than mine. To them goes the credit of any ability to express myself clearly, in what has become an academic battleground – and one, moreover, where I am well aware that opinions like mine are not welcome. But my passion is identity; and I would betray my own beliefs if I failed to champion the right of each human being to be true to their own experienced identity, of which the social aspect is only a part.
On Intra-Gender Aggression
I read, with some irony, frequent references from modern feminists, saying that the world should be run by women. Women, we are told, are less aggressive, less prone to conflict. There would be no wars, certainly in the terms of armed conflict. We would talk about things, and reach amicable conclusions (presumably over cappuccino and cake). Not only do I find these assumptions faintly patronising and reminiscent of Victorian idioms of the “fairer sex”, they are inaccurate. Women, it is true, are less likely to be directly aggressive that men, in both verbal and non-verbal language. This does not mean that women are not perfectly capable of being aggressive – or that aggression cannot be equally harmful, or more so, for being indirect.
Girls are more likely to form small social groups (I do not deny that there are gender differences, although I maintain that individual differences by far outweigh them) and to welcome those who conform to group norms and social requirements. Those who do not fit in with the group are shunned, ostracised, gossiped about, and frequently put down. This “social death” can be extremely harmful to the teenage girl who does not fit in; and this behaviour is often continued into the working environment, particularly all-female or predominantly-female working groups. Female cliques are strongly hierarchical, and certainly behaviours are expected, most specifically flattery towards, and appeasement of, dominant hierarchical figures. If a group member offends, ostracism from the group can be expected, the likely result being deprivation, not only of the friend with whom the conflict has taken place, but the entire social support network.
It is also ingenuous to believe that women are not just as dominant, competitive or ruthless as men, merely because they do not show it openly. Operant conditioning teaches us to continue behaviours for which we are rewarded (positive reinforcement), and historically, women have typically been rewarded for being sunny, compliant and obliging. Competition and rivalry with another woman, or expressions of dislike and a desire to remove from the social circle, are more likely to be covert; but they are no less effective for that. This has led to accusations that women are “sneaky”. This, to my mind, is unfair. It is more “how things have been done.” Of course, that did not make things easier for those of us who refused to accept that this was how things SHOULD be done, or to do them.
So I challenge the claim that women are less aggressive – or indeed, that indirect aggression is less harmful than direct aggression, at least in the capacity of the everyday world. On many levels, it is easier to deal with aggression that is open and can be countered and defended against. Countless teenage girls who have been subjected to this silent abuse may agree. And frankly, to continue to portray women as sweet, harmless and absolutely inoffensive is not doing equality any favours.
On Inequality at Work
The two subjects that I hear about constantly, in the continuing claims that patriarchal oppression is still alive and thriving in the corporate world, are the lack of women in boardrooms, and the gender pay gap.
It has been suggested that we should have a quota of women in boardrooms to ensure equality. Let me say from the outset that I am utterly opposed to this, in spite of having fought for thirty years for equality in the workplace (and incidentally, having got it – and never having hit a glass ceiling). The best person to be in the boardroom is the person best suited to do the job. Their gender, race, sexuality and any other criteria you care to name should not matter – either for, or against. That is the nature of equality.
So, why less women in board rooms? Well, for a start, it’s an artefact. Historically, there have been more men in full time careers, and that worked its way up to more men in management. That will no longer be the case, as the boomers retire. It’s reducing all the time. How much of our energy do we want to waste on something that natural attrition is already dealing with?
But yes, beyond that, there’s an issue – and that issue is gender trait stereotyping. I’ve touched on this above. There are ways that men are “meant” to behave. There are ways that women are “meant” to behave. If you’re a women who has a good sprinkling of “masculine” traits – they’ll get you ostracised by your female peer group. They’ll also get you straight into management, if that’s where you want to go. I can personally attest to both things. So can a number of female colleagues that I have spoken to over the years, who have had the exact same experience. These are traits that make “good leaders”. Sadly, they’re also traits that have traditionally been called male. By such traits I mean those such as confidence, forthrightness, assertiveness. These are not “masculine” traits at all – they are just traits that have been encouraged in men. Of course, some of the traits traditionally seen as “feminine” will appear in some of the best male managers. Because the truth is – certain traits make for good leadership. None of these traits belong by right to either gender. And the sooner we stop saying they do, the sooner we will see more equal representation at VP level.
The thing that I find most sad is that time and again, female managers tell me that when they have been sabotaged, it has not been by a male superior or colleague, but by female team-members, usually in the manner described in “intra-gender aggression” above. It seems that, rather than oppression by the patriarchy, it is women who do not like women acting in “unfeminine” ways. If we are truly going to find equality, it seems that we need first to find a little sisterhood – and not just for women who look, think and act like we do.
On the gender pay gap, I have little to say but statistics, damned statistics, and more damned statistics. Having studied both quantitative method and management accounting, I’m well aware that statistics can say pretty much whatever you want them to say. The most common statistics showing the different amounts earned by men and women do not take into account the differences in jobs worked, or even hours worked – where a man worked forty hours a week, and a woman twenty hours, he was shown as earning twice what she did – even though that was because he worked twice the hours. Also, there is again an artefact component – because in the older workforce, there are more men who have more accumulated work experience, and have also accumulated more pay rises over the years, they earn higher pay. This is also reducing with natural attrition. In fact, in a study of twenty year olds, women were actually earning more than men.
The area in which I do believe there is still an issue is childcare. In general, women are working less hours because there is still an assumption that women should be the primary caregiver. This assumption is still supported by gender role stereotyping, and if we wish to address it, we not only need to look at childcare solutions (which I agree is welcome), we also need to encourage the treatment of both parents as potential providers of care.
It appears that statistics are being used to portray an inequality that does not exist. Let us by all means continue to fight to ensure that women are given every opportunity open to men – but let us not fight phantom oppressions.
On Intersectional Feminism
I argue with intersectional feminists on an almost daily basis. In theory, I applaud them. After all, on all levels, from politics to psychology, I have been known for my criticisms of white, middle class intellectuals claiming some inherent right to pontificate on behalf of people whose experience they have never lived. So the challenge to feminism to “examine your privilege” is a valid one. Less valid is the way that this has now been claimed as a stick with which to beat other people, and an implicit claim to some sort of moral high ground. This has made what should have been a positive step into something that has become ugly, confrontational, and a serious effort to silence any voices that disagree with the hive mind. Discussion is no longer welcome. Poststructuralism has hijacked the field of feminism and turned it into a political playground. The valid desire for equality – the just desire for equality that is the right of every human being – has been lost in the resulting ideological debate.
Unless you accept Foucault’s assertion – which is strongly influenced by Marx – that democracy is more controlling than authoritarian government, you may find yourself confused as to where this oppression is meant to be coming from, when we have made such great moves towards equality. Foucault claims that the oppression is within us – we have internalised it. This neatly removes the need for intersectional feminists to have to defend their point – after all, if someone disagrees with you, you can just claim they’ve internalised patriarchal oppression. I’m unlikely to accept this, at it removes all possibility of individual freedom of thought and expression – and indeed, intersectional devotees fail to mention that Foucault himself acknowledged the flaws in his own theory, and even unbent towards the system he had so strongly opposed in his later years.
Personally, I find intersectional feminism insidious – angry, bitter, sexist, and marginalising those who disagree. It recognises the multiple facets of social identity that make up a human being, but only as so many separate facets for a different oppression, not in the light of any potential positives in any of those subject positions. It welcomes no dialogues, and it shuts down with its challenge of privilege. It also fails to recognise the fundamental flaw in its own argument; privilege is an individual experience, not a social one. A characteristic such as gender, race or sexuality that may have been experienced as an oppression for one person may have been experienced as a great strength for another. And it cannot break the individuality of the human being down to a level where every single experience can be labelled – including individual experiences of trauma and oppression that are not linked to any convenient social category – and that is what would need to be done, to assess privilege, unless it is willing to steal away personal identity. Sadly, it seems, that is exactly what it is willing to do, in order to fit humanity in to the prerequisite moulds, and create its perfect subject models.
And finally – no male voices need be heard, I am told. So, we replace patriarchy with matriarchy? Misogyny with misandry? In doing so, are we not becoming what we claim to despise?
On the #Metoo Campaign
I feel that I should comment on the #metoo campaign, which I have said I cannot wholeheartedly support. I would like to make it clear that I do support the spirit of the campaign, most especially the initial metoo campaign, which was started in support of giving a voice to survivors of sexual assault in underprivileged communities. For many years, a conspiracy of silence was imposed upon women; it was taboo to speak about anything relating to rape and sexual assault. This is more than unjust, it’s abhorrent; and I am a vocal advocate for transparency, and for ensuring that people cannot hide behind positions of wealth and power to cover up their crimes, nor that those involved in a cover-up should be allowed to get away with that. Empowering women, especially woman already denied a strong voice in society, to speak out about these issues, was more than just needed; it was ethically and morally right in any fair society that these women should not have to suffer in silence. I also have no issue with the wider #metoo campaign, encouraging all sexual assault survivors to come forward, and to be able to speak out about their experiences, knowing that they would be supported by others who would understand their experience. But there are elements of where the campaign has gone that I do not support, which I have spoken out against; and about which I will share my concerns.
Firstly, the bandwagon element. No woman should ever be silenced when she has genuinely been assaulted. I have been challenged on my right to define what it a “genuine” assault is, but I will stand my ground here. Being whistled at is not an assault. Getting a clumsy and unwanted compliment is not an assault. Being patted on the shoulder is not an assault. This trivialises the experiences of women who have undergone life-changing trauma. It also challenges the credibility of women who say that we are the equals of men and can hold our own in the workplace. Sexism as it existed in my younger days is almost gone – and what is left, we are protected from – and rightly so – by the law. We do ourselves no favours by acting like the heroines of a bad Victorian novel. It should be said here that I also now see casual sexism from women towards men. None of them tend to faint either.
Secondly, the imposed label element. I have seen, again and again, women being told under the banner of #metoo that all women are victims of the patriarchy. ALL women. Nobody has the right to impose a label of victim on someone who does not choose to wear it. If a woman feels that she is NOT a victim, she has a right to say so. I have seem women being attacked and shamed for refusing to join in with #metoo and I am totally opposed to this. I do not feel that I am a victim, and for me to claim that I am purely by virtue of being a woman would be an insult to those who are genuinely victims.
Thirdly, the witch hunt element. On one thread on social media, a man had commented “I was raped when I was 14. Can I #metoo?” A number of women replied “#metoo is for women, men have had enough attention.” Nobody who has undergone assault should be dismissed in this manner; no campaign can justify that, on any grounds. Also, on countless threads, I have seen “men”, as a class, described as “agents of the patriarchy”, bullies, predators, aggressors and rapists. Men are individuals, as women are, and not culpable at a group level for the crimes of the few. No campaign which claims to be about justice should be speaking like this.
Fourthly, the trading favours element. I, and doubtless the majority of other women, cheered when Harvey Weinstein met his just desserts. However, with Germaine Greer, I make a distinction between women who were assaulted by Mr Weinstein, and essentially blackmailed by Mr Weinstein, and those who chose, of their own free will, to trade.
This should not be a gender war. Gender wars benefit nobody. As always, it is best to remember what we have in common, rather than what divides us.