On egalitarianism and feminism

Egalitarian and equality logo

I’ve pondered long and hard about whether to write on this subject. In fact, the first draft of this post was started in November 2011, but it got shelved, along with several others that I may dust off and heavily edit sometime. I do not write this to antagonise or offend, but rather to clarify my thinking, communicate that to you coherently and hopefully prompt you to think. I doubt all will agree with me and indeed, you are welcome to disagree with me in constructive debate in the comments if you so wish. In trying to be clear, I have not tried to keep this short, so I apologise that it is quite a long read. I hope you’ll find it worthwhile.

The problems in writing on the subject

Though I write this blog pseudonymously, it is no great secret that I am a man. So, the first problem then is ‘can and should a man write anything about feminism?’ I would give the answer, ‘yes’. If the answer were otherwise, then I would view that as sexist. No person should be discriminated on the grounds of their gender (indeed, I struggle to think of grounds whereby discrimination ought to be acceptable, though I am focusing here on one particular set of prejudices).

Even if we can agree that the answer is ‘yes’, can any aspect of feminism be critiqued without being dubbed “anti-feminist”, “sexist” or “misogynistic”? Again, I would say that the answer to this is ‘yes’ and indeed I shall be critiquing some aspects of feminism. I hope in so doing that I will not be considered to be any of those things just described, though I cannot but help think that given if this post gains a wide enough audience, that some might well think that of me. It was for fear of being verbally attacked that I postponed this, as it is a highly emotive topic to many.

I am also conscious of the need for precise wording. In the past, if entering into conversations, I have used slightly the wrong word which then becomes the sole focus of a verbal attack, losing all sight of the main topic of conversation. I have tried to be careful in my use of words and have proofread this a couple of times, though I cannot rule out the possibility of a misplaced word or two. If you think I have used an incorrect word in places, whereby its correction would not drastically alter the direction of my argument, then please let me know. If such a change would have a significant influence on the argument, then it is probably fair to assume that I have said what I mean. Probably, not certainly!

My position and semantics

I am not a feminist.

I support equal opportunities and equal representation of genders. I oppose discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender. I do not support sexism or anything that could reasonably be described as the denigration of one gender by another.

But this does not make me a feminist. I am egalitarian.

When it comes to determining matters of prejudice and privilege, I apply a “mirror test”. I.e. if you think something is not sexist, or not racist or not religiously discriminatory, then swap the genders, swap the races or swap the religions and then see if you still think it is not prejudiced. It is for this reason that I do not think that simply by being a male, that any opinions one might have on feminism are, a priori, worthless.

Though we have a few physiological differences which need to be mutually understood and respected, we have far more in common by virtue of our shared humanity which can and should be celebrated.

In stating my position of equality, I am sometimes told that I am a feminist because some dictionary definitions state that it is about equality. I have a Collins dictionary at home and it defines feminism as “doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women.”

The same dictionary also gives the following definition of an egalitarian: “a person who believes that all people should be equal.”

These two positions may not appear to be all that different. Indeed, I would say they are not. So even though I do not align myself with feminism, I am not wholly opposed to it.

In referring to dictionary definitions, one must also be careful to avoid taking them as complete and accurate. Those who tell me I am a feminist are often keen to point to the dictionary and state that I fit the bill. However, dictionaries are not the be all and end all of semantics. I assume most readers of this blog are either christians or take an interest in religion, so let’s go there for an example. The same dictionary from which I plucked the above has this to say about ‘faith’: “strong belief in something, especially without proof.” I don’t know of anyone of any religion who would say that that is a fair or true statement. It coincides very well (maybe even being derived from?) Richard Dawkins’ erroneous view, as espoused in The Selfish Gene. The fact is, it’s a lot more complicated than that. So it is with feminism and egalitarianism. To strip them down to one sentence summaries does both a great disservice and over-simplifies things.

Some qualms about feminism

In explaining why I am not a feminist, I must point out some issues I have with the movement. Here I will look at three, which seem to me to be common. Please continue to bear in mind, this is not a wholesale attack on feminism, I wouldn’t do that. These are just issues that I see present which sit uncomfortably with me.

Praise of the suffragettes

When looking at modern feminism, one can hardly escape the impression made on it by the suffragette movement. In some ways, this might be considered the heyday of feminism, when it was at its most radical. Yet the unreserved praise that is heaped on it makes me uncomfortable. Though I admire the guts and determination of the women of this movement, as an advocate of nonviolence, I cannot condone all of the actions that were carried out in the movement’s name. It was, at the time, considered a terrorist organisation, just as the IRA was in the 80s and 90s and as Al-Qaida are today. To label the movement as such is not an attempt at discreditation, but rather an accurate descriptor given the acts of arson carried out and other acts of violence.

Though we now have equal votings for men and women, I am not one to say that the means justified the end. So when I hear unfettered praise of the suffragettes, I cannot help but be unnerved by the advocacy of violence that is latent within. To my mind, it went a step beyond civil disobedience, which I personally view as a totally acceptable form of protest.

In any good movement, there are often unsavoury elements. But these need to be dealt with head-on rather than swept under the carpet. One of the issues that has stirred up much debate over recent months has been the replacement of Elizabeth Fry on the £5 bank note with Winston Churchill and the subsequent campaign to ensure female representation on at least one denomination of banknote (though, for the record, having been forced to read Pride and Prejudice at school, I am no fan of Jane Austen and thought that Beatrix Potter would have been a better choice). Often coming near the top of ‘Great Britons’ polls and the like, Churchill was not exactly a paragon of virtue. Anyone who has looked into his role in the suppression of the Mao Mao uprising can testify to this. For anyone interested in a critical look at Churchill, I would recommend Richard Toye’s book, Churchill’s Empire.

A word

If there is one word that riles feminists more than any other perhaps, it is the one about which this paragraph is concerned. It is a word that is sometimes too easily used in the accusative, when it ought not to be. With any feminists with whom I have had discussions which cover the territory with which this blog post is concerned, every one of them has reacted with fury at the mention of the word, adamant that all feminism is free from it. Yet the evidence of what I read and hear tells me that is not wholly untrue. By using it, I would expect this paragraph to be the source of the most disagreement and the focus of any attack on me, if it is forthcoming. Though many, indeed most, feminists that I know of could not fairly be described as having this trait, I could not claim for it to be absent from all without telling a lie. What is this word? If you guessed it was misandry, then that would seem to be an acknowledgement that what I have said is true. As stated earlier, I would ask anyone who contests this to apply the ‘mirror’ test to statements made by, and in favour of, feminists. Though the majority will not be sexist, I’d be surprised if an unbiased application of the test came up 100% sexism-free.

Representation of all women?

The third part is the question of “who is feminism for?” The easy answer is to say that feminism is for women. After all, isn’t that the dictionary definition given above? Again, though, this demonstrates the deficiency of the dictionary definition. Feminism often fails to come across as an empowerment of women; it comes across as an empowerment of feminists. Yet one has to recognise that not all women are feminists and that some actively are against it. Yet when I read, hear or see debates between feminists and non-feminists I am appalled by the level of patronisation (and yes, I am aware of the irony of the etymology of that word) shown to the non-feminists, which are often in the same “you silly woman” tone that is used by misogynists when denigrating women.

One must then face up to the legacy and ideas on one figure of modern history: the late Margaret Thatcher. Though she did not align herself with the feminist movement, she was in many ways the epitome of it. She showed that a woman could achieve the highest position of authority in the land not bestowed on them by birthright (though it’s worth noting that the monarch has been a woman for roughly 125 out of the last 176 years). Yet I am uncomfortable with otherwise reasonable, liberal feminists who speak out in praise of her. To me, as an egalitarian, no one should have their ideas and legacy attacked because of their gender, it should be an irrelevant factor. Yet I would maintain that anyone can and should have their ideas and legacy attacked if they are worthy of being so. And I would have little hesitation (though Cameron is starting to be a serious competitor) in saying that she was the worst prime minister in my lifetime; I was born after she came to power. I say that not as an attack on her because she was a woman but because of what she did. It is the defence of her, because she was a woman, that I find I cannot agree with. Again, applying a mirror test, it would be to defend Cameron’s legislative programme attacking the most vulnerable in society because he is a man. In my view, it is simply wrong. Admiring the strength of someone’s conviction regardless of where that conviction is pointed is not an admiration I could ever echo.

Consequently, we must be careful to discern, when someone is being verbally attacked, between whether they are being attacked because of their gender or because of what they have said and done. The former is sexism and is not, in my opinion, in any way acceptable. The latter, however, if done constructively and with due grace, may be justified. If anyone attempts to use anything like the phrase, “[because you are woman/man]” then their credibility may well be damaged. If their argument rests on such a clause, I would consider them to have lost that argument.

What about christianity?

If I am uncomfortable to wear the label ‘feminist’, given its negative connotations, one might fairly ask of me, “why, then, are you comfortable to be called a christian?” Indeed, there are a great many evils that have been committed in the name of the christian faith. I hope to look at this topic on the blog soon, as it’s another post I shelved a while ago. If you wish to read about these, just pick up any book on the Crusades, the Borgias or on abuse that was at first committed and then covered up. The crimes committed in the name of the church are far worse than those perpetrated in the name of feminism.

So why do I call myself a christian? It’s because there is no commonly used alternative which is well-understood. If I call myself a follower of The Way, then someone who has either been a christian for a little while or someone who is otherwise biblically literate will likely understand what I mean by that, but I doubt the rest of the population might. When I say I am a christian, I often have to spend some time giving a nuanced and suitably detailed answer to the question, “What kind: catholic or protestant?” It would take even longer if I omitted the word christian altogether. Even though many have a flawed understanding of what a christian is, the image conjured up is not wholly removed from reality.

Another factor is that of etymology. Even though most people aren’t quite as passionate as I am about word origins, the root words in our nouns and adjectives are noticed by most people. In calling myself a christian, I make it clear that my identity is found in Christ. If I call myself a feminist, then my identity is clearly something to do with femininity. If, however, I call myself an egalitarian, my identity is clearly something to do with equality.

So here comes the nub of my argument: feminism is but a means to an end; that end being egalitarianism. The promotion of women’s rights is not complete, but it has made great progress in the last hundred years. Though, as mentioned above, I do not approve of some of the means used to achieve this. No reasonable person could deny that western society has been male dominated for far too long. In reacting against this, some aspects of feminism attempt to swing the pendulum too far the other way. But over time, I think we will obtain a fair, egalitarian balance, although it would be too optimistic to expect the elimination of all forms of sexism in my lifetime.

Conclusion

I don’t think any reasonable person can deny the evidence that feminism has elements of sexism within it. These are by no means present in everyone who labels themselves as a feminist and I would not label anyone a sexist unless that exhibited some evidence of a prejudice against a gender. If one is passionate about promoting equal rights and representation, then you are welcome to call yourself a feminist, though you may wish to clarify your position, as I hope I have clarified my position here, even if you don’t agree with it.

But my lingering question has to be, given the negative connotations that feminism has, why not call yourself an egalitarian? To me, it lacks the connotations that detract people from supporting feminism. One could spend time and effort trying to ‘correct’ public perceptions of feminism so that it is distanced from its sexist elements and the violence in its history, or one could drop the term, as the ‘black power’ movement became the ‘civil rights’ movement.

I will oppose the denigration or prejudice of anyone on the grounds of their gender, whether they be male or female. I recognise that the majority of such sexism is directed against women and so that is where the bulk of our attention must be. The so-called “trolling” of prominent women speaking out is abhorrent and must be opposed. Not because the perpetrators are men, but because what they say is abominable. I recognise that in many areas, not least in business, there are glass ceilings, holding women back. I fully support identifying how these glass ceilings operate and how to overcome them so that the best person, irrespective of their gender, gets the right job.

That’s my position.

I am an egalitarian.

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7 responses to “On egalitarianism and feminism

  1. I am a feminist and an egalitarian. I am an egalitarian because I think men and women are equal. I am a feminist because as yet society doesn’t see us as equal. When that happens, I’ll retire from my feminism and become an egalitarian solely. 🙂

    • julie tyler

      Pretty much what I aimed to say, far more efficiently said. I think you’re rather better at ‘concise’ than me!

    • Thanks for the comment. I think it shows the difficulty with the little word “are” (and by extension, “is”). I would say that to say that “men and women are equal” is a statement of observation about the way things lie at the moment. This is different from a platonic ideal which I would characterise more as “men and women should be equal”. But your subsequent comment clarifies this.

      I often wonder how many arguments are down to misunderstandings of semantics. Though I am looking that in another essay (hopefully ready for publishing next week) on the awkward word, ‘god’. Because that’s not a minefield at all…

  2. julie tyler

    It’s a worthy position, well reasoned and well held, thanks for sharing.

    Oddly, I position myself as a feminist for somewhat symmetrical reasons. It is (as you note), overwhelmingly, females who suffer sexism, and as a result I would regard it as a higher priority to address the problems caused to women by sexism. I suppose you could argue that favouring women in this way is in itself sexist; for me it’s about balance. I would certainly oppose sexism against men, but whilst these problems are so small relative to those experienced by women, it would not make sense to apply an equal focus to them. That is enough for me to style myself as ‘feminist’ in preference to ‘egalitarian’ (though I trust that both are true).

    The fact that feminism has so many negative associations is, for me, a further reason to ally myself to the cause. The popular view of feminism often descends into some kind of parody of militant ‘man-haters’. The more that reasonable ‘all-people-loving’ individuals are prepared to identify with the term ‘feminist’, the sooner that parody can be put to bed.

    For me, feminism isn’t about being opposed to men, or about trying to compete with men; it is about each woman having the freedom to be the kind of woman she wants to be, without attracting female-specific slurs. Amongst teenaged girls for example, there should not be a perpetual balancing act between being tagged ‘slut’ (too sexual) or ‘dog’ (not sexual enough). There are other balancing acts – between career and family for example – which women and men alike have to fight, but where the harshest judgements are reserved for women who are perceived to have the balance wrong.

    I class myself as feminist in response to the endless stream of tiny imbalances that rile me. I understand that one of the tabloids recently praised David Beckham, for being prepared to stay in and ‘babysit’ his own kids. They’re HIS kids for goodness sake! Can you imagine the term ‘babysit’ ever being used of a mother who chose not to go out one evening, or that she should be praised for such a decision? Just some stupid tabloid rag, guilty no doubt of many more serious transgressions. But it’s just one more of those occasions when I roll my eyes, sigh deeply, and think ‘THIS is why we need feminism…’.

    (Apologies for the lengthy essay, I seem to have warmed to my subject!)

  3. So, here’s the comment…
    I, too, struggle with the idea of calling myself a feminist. Some of my reasons overlap with yours. For me, I feel that Christianity should encapsulate the ‘good’ points of feminism. Therefore, I suppose perhaps I’d want to define myself as a Christian and then define (‘unpack’?!) what that means in areas about which I’m questioned. Maybe I’d rather people saw a Christian as someone who supports equality and see that not as ‘feminism’, but as ‘Christianity’. For that reasons, perhaps I’d rather not call myself an egalitarian, either…
    I suppose I’m uncomfortable with unfair inequality in all its forms. (not all inequality is unfair…)
    I said I’d also talk about power. I sometimes feel feminism is a quest for power. While I have no problem with women having equality, I think sometimes the result of seeking a sort of ‘power in a man’s world’ thing is a devaluing of ‘traditional’ roles for women. (I’m not saying here that women should stay at home – read on!) There is *no-one* who has more power over the lives of my two boys than me. (I’m a stay-at-home-dad)
    When it comes to their lives, my power is unsurpassed. I choose how they spend their days (less so with Big Boy, now he’s at school, but the same idea still stands). I choose what they read, what they watch, who they spend time with. I am unrivalled, though my power is already on the wane with Big Boy (sorry, ‘on the wane’ sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings) Sometimes I feel feminism is in danger of forgetting this power for the sake of power in the ‘real world’. But for my boys, the ‘real world’ has already begun. This is the world they inhabit. I don’t think this kind of power is viewed with high enough regard.
    As a last comment, my boys also exercise power over me. At the moment, the power in question is waking me up any time they feel like during the night. This, combined with a new puppy, makes me very tired. If I’ve written gobbledegook or anything that sounds mean, it’s not deliberate – I’d be most happy for people to question me, but please assume I’m not horrible (at least to start with!) Apologies if I’m incoherent 🙂

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