What Makes a Woman? Diversity in Feminism

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Black and white image of a feminist protest (Image Credit: Vox)

It would be a mistake to try to describe feminism as a single political ideology, given the various branches of feminism that the term encapsulates, from intersectional to Marxist. Clearly evident from such diversified credos, feminism includes a spectrum of ideals (as all umbrella political ideologies do) that prioritize different aspects of women’s general empowerment; there is no unitary goal of feminism. Not only is there little agreement, but there is often blatant contradiction between feminists themselves, counteracting suggestions of unity within the entire umbrella of feminism.

While feminism seeks to promote women, who these women are, or aren’t, is disputed. In May 2018, radical feminist Germaine Greer spoke in Channel 4’s (disastrously executed) “Genderquake” debate against “man’s delusion that he is female”. Throughout the program, Greer asserted that “lopping off your d**k and wearing a dress doesn’t make you a woman”. This cisgender gatekeeping of femininity is irreconcilable between the two sides – there is minimal middle ground between accepting transgender women as women and Greer’s vividly described permanence of assigned gender at birth. Some, such as Sheila Jeffreys, would go so far as to say that transgender women being active feminists is equivalent to men demonstrating authority over women in dictating what they are. In response to this, many label themselves as “transfeminists”, noting that trans women are so distanced from the patriarchy that it causes them the most suffering. For example, although trans women are often criticized for exaggerating female traits, they may do so to unambiguously express gender as a preventive measure against hate crimes or social alienation. For some, transgender women’s self-expression through clothing or surgery is a right that must be respected. However, this is often dismissed by those exonymically called “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) who argue that trans women, by performing “femininity” so strongly, reify the gender binary by undermining attempts to move away from the idea that men and women dress in certain ways.

Greer’s reputation as a pioneer of second-wave feminism brings with it ideological baggage – this era (circa. 1960s-1980s) is often criticized for neglecting non-white, non-cisgender, non- middle class women, sparking another inter-feminist conflict between those who led this movement and those who felt unnoticed. For example, second-wave American feminists welcomed the approval of the oral contraceptive pill, made available in 1961, enabling them to have careers uninterrupted by unexpected pregnancies. However, many differently marginalized women were not financially stable enough to take unpaid maternity leave, and thus had been working in blue-collar jobs outside the home for decades. Furthermore, although all women suffered from a collective lack of access to abortion, African-American women were further mistreated by compulsory sterilization programs, in the name of eugenics. According to a 1989 study, 31.6% of African-American women without a high school diploma were sterilized, compared to only 14.5% of their white counterparts. This evidence undermines second-wave feminism’s celebration of a “sisterhood”, the interconnection shared between all women. This idea of a universal female experience detracts from the phenomenological arguments within certain women’s experiences.

This “sisterhood” is the basis for another disagreement among feminists – the appropriateness of contemporary society for effecting feminism. On one side, the girl power of the “sisterhood”, once dominated by the Spice Girls, largely depends on the assumption that feminism’s goals could be achieved within the current status quo. At the turn of the 21st century, the Spice Girls were largely credited with the popularization of the term girl power, encouraging ambition and assertion from young women (“you have got to reach on up, never lose control”). In a similar vein, Sheryl Sandberg argues that women should strive for positions of leadership within the current world of work to equal the voices of men already inhabiting (and misusing) such roles.

However, Marxist feminists would argue that this very system allows women to be exploited, and so it must be revolutionized for women to no longer be oppressed by class divisions. Alexandra Kollontai even opposed alliances between bourgeois and working-class women, as the latter’s exploitation by the former only tightened capitalism’s (and thus misogyny’s) grip. Furthermore, she argued that before any unification of women as a collective, the social barriers between them must first be removed entirely, fundamentally reshaping society’s perception of women. This sharply contrasts with those celebrating the “sisterhood”, where the collective oppression of women is a unifying factor in itself.

Additionally, further division is found firstly by more recent (third and fourth-wave) feminists, accusing the “sisterhood” of ignoring non-Western women similarly to the second- wave’s concentration on white, middle-class women. Secondly, it has been recently criticized with the benefit of hindsight as an ideology founded upon the consumerist desires of the naive. The Spice Girls’ girl power is rooted in bands such as Bikini Kill, who pioneered the riot grrrl movement, an underground feminist punk movement, but had notably fewer meet-and-greets. Unlike Bikini Kill, whose songs never charted due to their independent release, the Spice Girls (and their aggressive marketing, spanning Walkers Crisps to Mr. Men) reign as the world’s bestselling girl group, although they promoted the same ideas only three years after Bikini Kill. Despite the “sisterhood’s” popularity from its conception in 90s rock until today, many dispute its message for being unrealistic, exclusive, and ingenuine.

In the face of all these disagreements, mainstream or liberal feminism arises as a potential answer. Martha Nussbaum derives arguments from Kantian ethics; sex and gender are morally irrelevant characteristics, and should be ignored in the context of treating lives equally as an ends instead of a means. Thus, more women would work in STEM, while more men would provide for the family. Furthermore, mainstream feminism argues that equal treatment should be obtained through challenging opposition to legal rights for women, ultimately seeking women’s attention of the same autonomous individuality long possessed by men. However, as has been elaborated throughout this essay, different variants bring different criticisms to mainstream feminism.

A response to this seemingly innocuous “mainstream” feminism is found once again within Marxism, with the revolutionary changes it demands of class hierarchy. Marxist feminists dispute (supposed) liberties within modern society; liberal feminists respect the choice of employment of women who make up 88% of UK sex workers, celebrating their autonomy in entering this industry. They argue that respecting their autonomy necessitates respecting their choice. However, Marxist feminists question whether these women are truly free, or if existing patriarchal capitalist structures shaped their “freedom”. In a country where gender pay gaps in STEM sectors reach as high as 40%, Marxists argue that women are not voluntarily choosing to enter sex work, but are forced to by an oppressive status quo.

Furthermore, some lesbian feminists decry mainstream feminism as homophobic for failing to include sexuality within its points of gender inquiry, leading to societal indifference towards women’s sexuality being defined by male sexual access to women’s bodies. Thus, Adrienne Rich questions the prevalence of the heterosexual model of the family and its inability to effectively challenge gender norms within the private sphere. Radical feminists, including Shulamith Firestone, object on similar grounds, stating that long-existing patriarchal societies assign cultural differences to genitalia and not character, rendering opposition to the status quo impossible. This patriarchy has produced pornography and the prevalence of rape culture – a means for the objectification and severe violation of women, left insufficiently challenged by mainstream feminism.

Additionally, mainstream feminism is accused of “white saviorism”; Postcolonial feminists, including Chandra Mohanty, oppose mainstream feminism for failing to accurately represent non-Western feminism, and thus failing to be emancipatory. Women in developing countries are often viewed with an occidental lens, existing simultaneously within Western women’s patriarchy alongside the realities of their native societies, also patriarchal. Homogenizing language detracts from the distinct, but intertwined battles of global women. Thus, despite mainstream feminism being the branch most represented in Western media and scholarship, multiple disparate ideologies critique such a status for ignoring the position of all women.

These are clear arguments as to why feminism cannot convincingly be labelled a single political ideology. However, it is debatable whether doing so is even beneficial to feminist movements. One could argue that conflicts weaken each strand’s political campaigning power as they compete with other strands, potentially contradictorily. Effort spent asserting one branch as “the best” type of feminism can appear insensitive to other branches (especially in the context of transfeminism); people might achieve more with less effort by just collectively subscribing to “feminism”. Nonetheless, this is a simplified solution to a complex problem – the only overarching goal that people globally would be able to subscribe to is the general empowerment of women. The means by which this is achieved, who this is achieved for, and the extent to which they are achieved differ for all women; thus the assumption that everyone can just be “feminists” is largely Panglossian.

A panoply of inter-feminist conflicts, including who feminism is for, what the ideal context for achieving feminism’s goals is, and multiple issues concerning even the most prevalent form of feminism are prevalent throughout public discourse. Feminism is not a single political ideology. It is this variation that produces groups such as the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian socialist organization, declaring that “we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression”. With such a smorgasbord of characteristics to discriminate against, it is unsurprising that many disagree on which are the most important, or even whether some exist or not. However, despite all these dichotomies, the cherry on top is that some dismiss this debate entirely in favor of preserving feminist campaigning strategy as it only widens fractures among feminists, who, ultimately, all have the same goal.

Written by Lyndon Chen

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