Doesn't that make me sound virtuous? The truth is, when I read Margaret Wente's column in the Globe and Mail yesterday, I wanted to write a letter to the editor in response. But I was so full of inarticulate rage, that I couldn't come up with anything coherent. So this rant is, in fact, the remnants of an aborted letter. But let's pretend that it's a carefully thought-out post, specifically prepared for the occasion. It makes it more special. ;)
How the feminists betrayed feminism
Warning: It's that time of year again. International Women's Day. Time to admit, despite 40 years of astonishing progress for women, things are really rotten. Time to figure out whose faultthat is. Judy Rebick knows. "The triumph of neo-liberal/neo-conservative politics has dealt a mortal blow to a feminism that seeks economic and social equality," Canada's best-known feminist writes. "The gains we have made are threatened by the increasing impoverishment of women . . . the rise of racism, militarism and the security state; the monopoly of men on power . . . and the continuing scourge of war and violence against women and children."
If you are unaware of just how bad things have got, you can also consult the experts at York University, which is so feminist it even teaches feminist geography. Just in time for IWD, a helpful press release promises fresh insights on how women are being oppressed by globalization, by cutbacks in health care, by the male business establishment, and by non-inclusive pedagogies, whatever those are. If you want an update on "anti-racist, post-colonial and transnational feminisms," York's the place for you.
The trouble with these experts is that almost every claim they make is wrong. What impoverishment? What rise in racism? Women in the West, even minority women, have never been more economically and socially equal than they are today. Oh, sure, we still get stuck with the child-rearing and the dishes. But feminists must concoct increasingly exquisite grievances to make their case. The vast majority of women can only dream of oppression as exquisite as ours.
Yet, when it comes to women who really are oppressed, Western feminists have nothing useful to say. How can we help Afghan girls whose schools are being burned down by the Taliban, or women in South Africa who endure one of the highest rape rates in the world? What about the unwanted female children of rural India whose parents let them starve, or the millions of African women suffering from HIV-AIDS because of the deeply sexist sex habits of the men? And how can we help the millions of Muslim women who live under the worst kind of gender apartheid?
Sorry. If you want answers, don't call York or Ms. Rebick. They'll just blame Western imperialism.
Phyllis Chesler, one of the best-known feminists of the 1970s, has had enough. In a powerful essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, she argues that modern feminism has betrayed the very women it claims to serve. "It gives me no pleasure, but someone must finally tell the truth about how feminists have failed their own ideals and their mandate to think both clearly and morally," she writes. "Because feminist academics and journalists are now so heavily influenced by left ways of thinking, many now believe that speaking out against head scarves, face veils, the chador, arranged marriages, polygamy, forced pregnancies, or female genital mutilation is either 'imperialist' or 'crusade-ist.' "
In other words, the feminist establishment has it exactly backward. Western values and institutions aren't the problem. They're the answer. We should be doing our best to spread them. Capitalism and globalization have done more to empower oppressed women of the world than all the NGOs on Earth. Peasants pulled up from destitution as India gets richer are less inclined to starve (and abort) their female children. Chinese girls who escape the serfdom of rural life to make goods for Wal-Mart are far freer and better off than their mothers ever were. And who are the most oppressed women in the West? They are, in large part, the immigrants who belong to certain subgroups that have rejected liberal Western values.
Ms. Rebick says she deplores the rise of militarism and the continuing scourge of war and violence against women and children. Well, who doesn't? Maybe she's referring to Congo and Darfur and other lands where tribal warlords run amok and millions of people are dead. On the other hand, maybe not. Those places don't count, because America didn't do it.
P.S.: It's not neo-liberal and neo-conservative politics that killed feminism. The feminists did.
On the very day that the Globe tells us, on its front cover, that the state of South Dakota has denied women their right to chose whether or not to continue a pregnancy, Margaret Wente has the gall to claim that "Women in the West . . . have never been more economically and socially equal than they are today". Feminism is no longer necessary in the West, Wente tells us, shrugging off the reality of women's overwhelming responsibility for "the child-rearing and the dishes" as not worth worrying about.
Wente's column is an appalling hash of anti-intellectualism and colonial superiority. She contorts herself into knots in order to sneer at feminist academics, illustrating in the process that she simply doesn't understand what she's talking about (What are "non-inclusive pedagogies", Margaret asks? Well, I'd interpret that to mean ways of teaching (i.e., pedagogy) that doesn't take into account and include the full range of human experience (male and female, black and white, etc.)).
While Wente accuses "Western feminists" of having "nothing useful to say" about "women who really are oppressed", all Wente herself seems able to say is that these oppressed women should be indoctrinated with the bliss of Western capitalism, and that they should embrace with open arms the opportunities the West offers them to trade in their burqas for boob jobs.
Sorry. That was probably unduly snarky of me.
But the truth is, most academic feminists (and it is probably worth mentioning here that the academic feminism Wente so objects to is far from the only kind of feminism active in the world, or in North America today. Not that Wente seems to understand that feminists, much like people in general, are wont to disagree and have varying approaches to things.) are very concerned with these "really oppressed" women. It's a big topic in the academy these days. And these same feminists (or some of them, at least) are, shockingly enough, asking the "really oppressed" women what they want.
This is the key point that Wente misses entirely. She's so sure that "Western values and institutions" are "the answer" that she fails to identify the question. Do women suffer in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Congo and Darfur? Yes, they do. They really, really do. Should we do something about it? Absolutely. But should we maybe try to find out what those women would like us to do about it first? Feminism isn't about doing things to women "for their own good". It's about giving women the power to do themselves good. And if their good is, ultimately, different from ours -- if they reject Western capitalism and the Western beauty myth and all the other parts of Western society that are less-than-friendly to women -- we should recognize that maybe we don't actually know everything.
The question of female genital mutilation is, of course, a serious one. And it's one of those sticky points where it's hard not to rush in and impose the Western valuation that all FGM is wrong, wrong, wrong, and should be outlawed immediately. And I'm certainly not saying it's a good thing. But there are degrees, and there are realities. Not all FGM is full-scale clitoridectomy. In some cases, comparing it to circumcision is not absurd. And in many cases (as I understand from my admittedly limited reading on the subject), legislation doesn't stop the practice -- it just drives it underground. Let me be clear that I don't have an answer to the problem/issue -- this is one area that I'm really just starting to think through. But as bad as the practice seems to us in the West, I can't help but think that our knee-jerk reactions are likely to make things worse, rather than better.
Okay, that was something of a digression. Sorry. Back to Margaret Wente.
Actually, maybe I shouldn't go back to her. I'm liable to be reduced to frothing at the mouth when she claims -- with absolutely no basis that I can see -- that women are better off working in sweatshops for Wal-Mart than living a "rural life". Or that Western culture will somehow fix African men's "deeply sexist sex habits" (because North American sexual mores aren't sexist in the least). Or... no. I'll stop.
Did "the feminists" betray feminism? Of course not. Feminism is as necessary today as it's ever been, and, if anything, Wente's column only serves to demonstrate that we have more educating to do. Too many people -- too many women -- are afraid of being called "feminist". The only ones stealing feminism are the people trying to tell us it's not necessary any more.