The women’s movement is resurgent, yet every day brings more examples of what Phyllis Chesler recognized as “women’s inhumanity to women” — of trashing, smearing and the vicious vanity of small differences. The latest has cleaved along that man-made fault of left and right; a conservative man, Matt Walsh made a film about the threat of transgenderism called ‘What is a Woman?’.
Some have welcomed his film as reaching an audience outside the cliques of radical feminists, arguing that it will raise awareness about an immediate threat to the safety of women and children. Others refuse to separate the film from the misogynist values of its creator, regarding the promotion of the documentary as a betrayal, as working with a man who would gleefully sacrifice women’s bodily autonomy to his patriarchal god. Cut through the crossfire and it is clear the issue hinges on whether the ends justify the means when it comes to feminists allying with those with whom we disagree on wider matters.
Leaving aside the specifics, it is worth noting that the one thing which unites feminists of any stripe is that as a rule we do not judge the ‘choices’ women find themselves making. Whether a woman finds herself in prostitution, living with an abusive man, or undergoing surgery because she hates her body, it is the job of feminism to shift the focus away from how a woman plays the game, to who makes the rules. Yet, too often, we fail to apply this basic analysis when it comes to our own movement.
Today, politically engaged women have two depressing options. We can align with parties on the left which refuse to recognize the existence of women let alone our humanity. Or we can work alongside the right, which in the US means with those who force women to become mothers and then leave them financially unsupported. Any self-respecting woman can’t fail but to feel unsatisfied and sullied by this grubby, and notably binary decision. As Andrea Dworkin so pithily observed in Right Wing Women:
“The difference between left-wing and right-wing when it comes to women is only about where exactly on our necks their boots should be placed. To right-wing men, we are private property. To left-wing men, we are public property.”
Unlike the structures within other political groups, there is no central commission of feminists dictating policy and setting boundaries. “Feminism” is a term anyone can use, a philosophy with multiple definitions and interpretations. And so, it falls to those who make-up the movement to demarcate the boundaries of acceptable behavior, to shun those who step out of line and love-bomb new recruits. It is easy to lose oneself in this moral quagmire of competing values and varying understanding. Given this uncertainty, there is a temptation to try to establish oneself as an arbiter of feminist values; to police the parameters and bully heretics, to brand them ‘unfeminist’. Just as within patriarchy, a code of honour operates – women whose opinions are deemed suspect will live with a stain on their character.
Compared to feminism, malestream politics is simple. For Marxists, people are bracketed according to their relationship with the means of production – this is naturally based on the male as default. The productivity of women as mothers has largely been seen as an inconvenience by the traditional left and an endpoint by the religious right. Arguably, in this way feminists have always sat outside of the patriarchal powerplay that is party politics.
But now many feel a sense of urgency, a need to stop an impending disaster by any means necessary. Fifty years on from the championing of PIE & NAMBLA, today’s mainstream left is still driven by male fetishes and the redistribution of resources has slipped down the agenda. Instead, those who believe themselves progressive advocate for our daughters to be sold into prostitution, for the sterilization of youth, and for the destruction of the category of ‘woman’. Whether this is a greater or lesser threat than the rolling-back of abortion rights is arguably a matter of personal morality and priorities.
It is understandable that some women feel anger that feminists have aligned with the right. We should not have had to make a pragmatic alliance with those who in other circumstances would relegate us to home and hearth. But to others what is happening to the rights of women and the bodies of children is an emergency that demands drastic measures. Given this, the rage of feminists embedded on the left towards those whose tactics differ seems misplaced. After-all, when men overcome ideological differences in pursuit of a common goal it is recognized as politics.
Ultimately, it would be more productive if we were to offer each other a little leeway. Whether one opts to work with the nihilistic perverts on the left to protect bodily autonomy, or the anti-abortionists to protect society from pornography or transgenderism, is irrelevant in the end. We didn’t make the rules within which we’re forced to play, nor did we choose the game.
Feminism, of the type which threatens male power, will never be popular and no matter how hard we work, realistically, we won’t overturn patriarchy. But what each woman can do is what she believes to be right, and we need to give our sisters the space to do that without tearing one another down. To borrow a sensible line from those who are both our allies and opponents, “let she who is without sin cast the first stone.”
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