Monday, January 02, 2006

Why I call myself a feminist, and don't qualify that statement

There's an interesting discussion on Alas: 'Is The Oppression of Women The Root Of All Oppressions?' Now I've given my response to that argument in the comments (Short Answer: Don't know, don't care. Slightly Longer Answer: Will you shut up with comparing black men to white women already; I'm glad that the rest of us have learned a bit from the 19th Century), but I thought I'd take this opportunity to write a little about why I just call myself a feminist, and don't put anything before or after it.

If you read any introduction to feminism, or introduction to political science, it will usually contain a description of the different types of feminism. The big three, that are almost always included, are: liberal feminism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism. Then you might also get anarcha-feminism, lesbian feminism, third-wave feminism*, eco-feminism and so on. It might look something like this

Liberal Feminists: Believe that if we all just gained formal legal equality then it'd be hunky dory. Are rather lame. Want all women to go out to work and don't necessarily like mothers very much.

Socialist Feminists: A bunch of communists who look at class as well as gender. Don't like blaming men for things. Will often ignore things men are responsible for. Want to work with men, because they want men to like them.

Radical Feminists: Believe women are the first and most important group to ever be oppressed. Hate men, and sex. Like hippy women-only events that will never change anything.
Ok they may not look exactly like that, but they can be about that simplistic; they give the idea that feminists all fit into 3 (or 8 or whatever) groups and they organise along these lines.

I actually think this is fundamentally inaccurate. I know a bit about the New Zealand feminist movement, and while at sometimes some women organised themselves into groups on this basis, the majority of time they didn't, particularly in the early 1970s. Now I know that it was slightly different in America where NOW was formed completely seperately from the women's liberation movement and the two existed as two seperate strands of feminism. But I still think you can overestimate the usefulness of that sort of scheme as a way of describing feminists and feminist action, as opposed to feminist theory (the writers of which, I believe, are more likely to fit this scheme, than your common or garden feminist).

I think feminists tend to take a little from column A, a little from column B, and use it analyse the situation they're in. For example, in New Zealand in the early 1970s feminists (of all stripes) agitated for a motherhood wage (this was a solution to the reproduction problem that was more important, and developed earlier, in New Zealand than anywhere else). It actually got to the stage where the 3rd Labour Government (slogan: If you think we're bad wait till the next one) proposed a motherhood wage at about $10 a week (more money than it seems - I don't have my wage calculator on me but I think it'd be at least $100), which would be funded by cutting the family benefit from women who were working. Now there are a couple of different accounts of feminists' reactions to this which compare one reaction (usually called the liberal reaction) which said that the amount wasn't enough, and another reaction (usually called the radical reaction) that said that it would force women to continue to carry out child-care roles. But if you go back to the source material you see that feminist groups of all different sorts were making exactly these two criticisms (and a third criticism that it wasn't ok to make women who looked after children in the home richer by making women who worked outside the home poorer).

I think if people self-identify as a certain type of feminist, more power to them, but I don't believe this sort of scheme covers the feminist movements, or feminists particularly well.

That's not the reason I just call myself a feminist, but it's an important piece of background.

I don't call myself a radical feminist because the argument about primacy and firstness of oppression bores me. On a more philosophical level I don't think you need to add the term radical to feminism - the word makes it very clear that it's looking at women, what could go more to the root than that?

As for the other terms they are all coupling feminism with another theory, each with it's own history and each of which was developed by men who often forgot women existed. I don't believe you can take a long standing theory add a feminist analysis and hey presto both are enhanced. There's an article called 'The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism' which says that Marxism and Feminism became one and that one was the husband. I don't think feminism needs to be married to any other theory in that way.

As feminists we do need other forms of analysis than feminism, the world is a complicated place, and gender isn't the only thing affecting women's lives. But I don't think they need to modify our feminism. Our feminism can stand on it's own two feet.

*I've always found the term 'third-wave' feminism unsustainably arrogant. It was bad enough in the 1970s when women called themselves second-wave feminism (ignoring all the feminist work that happened between winning the vote and the 1970s), but they didn't know about women's history because that history had been buried. We now know about the history of post-suffrage feminism. To say that a third-wave has started already implies that what's going on now is more significant than anything that happened between the first and second wave - which is simply not true.


  1. Anonymous11:20 pm

    Hmmm, your list is rather flippant and disparaging, Maia!

    I was there and I can assure you that feminists in the 1970s did organise themselves into different groups, though the labels that are used in academic literature today don’t quite fit. Another way of categorising them is:

    1. Feminists who worked for change within the system (liberal feminists)

    2. Feminists who wanted to change the system (socialist feminists, anarchists)

    3. Feminists who wanted to opt out of the system (countercultural feminists)

    4. Identity feminists (lesbian feminists, who of course could also work in groups 1-3)

    There was some overlap but basically these groups reflected different analyses of the problem (social and economic inequality, sexual and/or class oppression) and the solution (reform, revolution, alternative lifestyle, separatism). Given that, of course there were political differences between the groups, and at time the debates were quite acrimonious. However, there was also considerable unity in the face of a crisis, such as defending access to abortion and the DPB when these came under attack. Other women lobbied for change in universities, unions, churches, or joined single issue campaigns.

    The Communist Party didn’t support the women’s movement initially because they argued that it divided the working class. After several years they came round, but still balked at the term “women’s rights”, preferring “women’s democratic rights” which they felt would be more understandable, and less threatening, to men. Socialist feminists were mainly from the Socialist Action League and the Spartacist League. Socialist feminists discussed the idea of a wage for housework and from memory they rejected it as tokenistic and somewhat regressive. Given the growing number of mothers in the workforce and the shortage of child care, they felt it was better to put resources there. There is probably something on this issue in Christine Dann’s history of the women’s liberation movement, Up From Under.

    Although some women read about the new feminist theories, I don’t think there was much discussion about theory until much later when women’s studies courses began, apart from articles in Broadsheet and Socialist Action. I may be wrong. It's hard to get an overall perspective when you are involved. I remember the 1970s feminist movement as being mostly about activism, and the term “radical feminist” was often used rather loosely to describe an activist who wanted radical change, rather than a feminist who saw gender as the primary oppression. The latter definition may be what anti-feminists now refer to as "gender feminism", which is a new term to me.

    Each wave of feminism produces new knowledge about the previous one. For example, there was little written about the 19th Century suffrage movement until Patricia Grimshaw’s ground-breaking book appeared in 1972, and now (I’ve just discovered) it’s available online!

    As you say, many gaps in our history have now been filled. I treasure my two-volume copy of The Home Front, which contains some interesting stuff on women’s lives in the 2nd World War. And that’s online too!

  2. The list was suppoed to be a underscore the sort of simplistic analysis usually found in those lists.

    I agree with everything else you say - there were divisions in the movement but they didn't match up with the theoretical divisions that are around now. It's projecting the theoretical divisions of today, back onto movements of the past (and onto activist groups today). That I have a problem with.

    And thank you, for whatever part you were of that movement. I have some conception of how much it changed the world I grew up in, and how much work it took.

  3. making a primary and thoroughgoing watershed distinction, which runs completely through your identity colouring every notion, on the basis of sex is only slightly less stupid than doing the same based on the colour of your skin and the shape of your nose; put another way - i would rather be a feminist than a racial bigot, ok,

    but ageism, now there's an -ism with some possibilities eh? not the negative part, failing health and so on, but the opportunity (for example) to let some aesthetic or other take over for desire, or, when your knees just won't jerk anymore then you can gracefully let go of knee-jerk reactions?

    hahahahaha, i love your blog, really. be well

  4. Anonymous1:09 pm

    Re. the list: thanks, I get it now :)

    A recent article on the women's movement that you might not be aware of is Hilary Stace's chapter in book published just before Christmas: For the Record: Lange and the Fourth Labour Government. The chapter is about the 1984 women's forums, the site of a battle between conservative Christians and feminists over NZ ratification of the UN Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women, and the priorities of the new Ministry of Women's Affairs.

  5. Anonymous6:20 pm

    " Socialist feminists were mainly from the Socialist Action League and the Spartacist League."

    I was there too and recall there was a large influential number of socialist feminists from the Workers Communist League. For a while they operated the Working Women's Alliance, which had its own regular tabloid, "Working Women"
    I know Maia is sketching caricatured sterotypes for effect, but I must say I was never aware of any socialist feminist being in the movement on the hunt for male approval.
    There is another category of feminist if they must be thus categorised; I don't offer a name for it, but it goes along the lines of a woman getting a top capitalist job usually reserved for boys and then acting like a boy and thus showing that girls can earn what boys can earn. This was, and maybe still is, much admired by CTU bureaucrats.I was one of the two males at an awful seminar they ran about this in the late '90's. Unfortunately Socialist Worker did not print my report.

  6. Radical Feminists: Believe women are the first and most important group to ever be oppressed. Hate men, and sex. Like hippy women-only events that will never change anything.

    As someone who gets labeled a radical feminist (and sometimes uses the descriptor) I have to disagree with your definition. All the "radical" feminists that I know (and there are plenty...I seem to attract them, YAY!) see the connections between all types of oppression and are interested in getting to the root of the problem, i.e. dominance and hierarchy in society. If you think of those as the roots it's easy to see how they are responsible for all oppressions. I also believe that I shouldn't have to use the qualifier radical because my definition of feminism is one which means that I am fighting against all dominance and hierarchy, I just tend to focus on misogyny more then the others. (I also like to use the word feminist by itself because I refuse to let others sully a good word) Alsoo I get labeled radical b/c I'm not willing to compromise on equality. My views may come across as harsh, but really I don't want baby steps I want an overhaul of the system. (and you can ask anyone who knows me I love sex (hetero or not ;))

  7. I don't agree with that characterisation either. I wasn't trying to mock people who identified as liberal, radical, or socialist feminists, but the way these are divided into neat little philosophical categories, that no-one would actually fit.

    I think my position is pretty similar to yours (although my job means that I spend most of my time on union issues, my analysis usually starts with gender).

  8. One Big Union!! (I'm a Wobbly as well)

  9. Anonymous8:45 pm


    Maia, do you have an email address? I had some questions to ask you about some of your police stories.


  10. - radfem