Who’s a feminist? It’s complicated …

Posted on in Equality Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion
Mar. 22, 2016.   Margaret Wente

I was relieved when Justin Trudeau called himself a feminist last week. The world is unfolding as it should! In case you had any doubts about where our leader stands on gender equality, doubt no more.

In fact, that statement might have been controversial 40 years ago. Today, it’s one big meh. The general principles of feminism are now embraced by all. Nobody is against gender equality. (The disagreement is whether gender equality should equal quotas, and whether we should have them for kindergarten teachers as well as cabinet ministers). Nobody is proposing unequal pay for equal work. Nobody thinks violence against women is a good thing. I’m gratified to learn that the Prime Minister will raise his sons to respect women. But I honestly don’t think it’s some kind of breakthrough.

Yet to some feminists, Mr. Trudeau’s declaration really is controversial. “That word carries a heavy load,” said Jenn Jefferys, a young feminist who was on the radio with me to discuss his comments. “I welcome men who want to enter the fold of feminism. But it’s not something [they] can appropriate. That’s not what feminism is about.”

Ms. Jefferys is a communications consultant and columnist in Ottawa, and I enjoyed our exchange of views. Her brand of feminism is something that old crocks like me scarcely recognize. These days, it’s not enough simply to believe in equal rights for women. To call yourself a feminist, you must acknowledge the intricate hierarchy of oppression, in which gender is only one factor that shapes women’s lives. There’s also race, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, ableism and so on.

In the hierarchy of oppression, a cisgendered white male with a background of privilege – Mr. Trudeau, for example – is at the very top, consciously or unconsciously oppressing everybody down below. He needs to check his privilege. (For the unenlightened reader, “cisgendered” means what “heterosexual” used to mean. Cisgendered people are privileged because they live in a heteronormative world. Got it?)

Ms. Jefferys describes herself as a “fourth-wave” feminist, another term that’s relatively new to me. I’m stuck way back in the second wave, which was the age of equal pay for equal work. Third-wave feminism took a post-structuralist approach. (It said that our identities are constructed by the dominant patriarchal culture, which strives to preserve the status quo.) Fourth-wave feminism is defined by something called intersectionality, which is the view that all individuals have multiple identities and that all oppressive institutions are interconnected.

Here’s a typical fourth-wave feminist remark (from a transgender chef) that appeared recently in this newspaper: “As a trans woman, I still struggle most days just to be seen as a woman. Too often I feel erased by feminists who don’t share this struggle. As women, we must be mindful of defining ourselves under a cisnormative patriarchal gaze.”

Many younger feminists have given up on Hillary Clinton because she isn’t intersectional enough.

The fourth-wave world view has big implications for other things that feminists once believed in. Second-wave feminists thought that empowering girls and women in backward parts of the world – by helping them go to school, or giving them microloans – was a good thing to do. Fourth-wave feminists do not; they argue that such do-gooderism is just colonialist imperialism in feminist disguise. But they’ll praise Rwanda for its gender progress because more than half of Rwanda’s legislators are women. It doesn’t seem to have registered that Rwanda is ruled by a (male) strongman – or that women were voted into office because many of the men were dead.

You might wonder why I’m running on about all this. Surely these folks don’t have much influence outside the hallowed halls of our finest universities.

Oh, but they do. Our government bureaucracies are full of them. Our advocacy groups are led by them. The entire Ontario public service is taking anti-racism training because they thought it was a good idea. The rampant weeds of identity politics are threatening to engulf us all.

When I grew up, kids were urged to be blind to differences. Now they’re urged to see nothing but. Perhaps one day we’ll stop trying to identify ourselves by labels and just call ourselves human beings. Some people think that would be terrible. But I think it would be rather nice.

< http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/whos-a-feminist-its-complicated/article29320390/ >

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