Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Feminine Mistake

In February of this year, it will be 50 years since the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Feminism in the West is said to be past its third wave or incarnation. In 2012, the world witnessed many events that might indicate to the na├»ve observer that the western woman has arrived. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook became the first female member of its board of directors. Marissa Mayer was appointed president and CEO of Yahoo! As a putative reflection of the times, Hanna Rosin published The End of Men. Yet, there were other indications within the US and worldwide that gender equality moves in paradoxical directions. Here is the first installment of my thoughts on the issue.

I have never been comfortable calling myself a feminist. And there are things about the feminist movement that haven’t resonated with me. For starters, I dislike the term feminism and its derivative, feminist. I’d much rather call myself an “equalist,” if I have to use a label. The term feminism has negative connotations. The word itself implies some kind of deviation from the norm. Am I imagining this negativity? Perhaps not.  There are many words ending in –ist that are somewhat neutral in their connotations. The suffix -ist is often used to denote a profession (manicurist, dentist, artist), a hobby (philatelist, numismatist), a religious affiliation (Baptist, evangelist, atheist), or an attribute of a philosophical, literary or political movement (romanticist, Marxist, colonialist, fascist, realist), to give a few examples. In the case of these words, any negative (or positive) associations are a result of the reputation of the root word itself that the –ist attaches to. For example, the words capitalist, socialist, and communist might have differing values on the positivity scale depending on whether you ask someone in China, the US, or elsewhere, where communism, capitalism and socialism are viewed with differing degrees of approval. In the case of feminist, however, the word comes laden with negative connotations even before the feminists have had a chance to damage their reputation.

 My etymological gripe stems from the fact that the words feminism and feminist describe the quality of the “other” and not of the mainstream - much like how the word racist indicates the deviance from the desired norm of not discriminating on the basis of skin color. Similarly, when you believe in the superiority of a group, especially racial, you are a supremacist - another word that implies a deviation from the mainstream. If you are overly self-centered, you are an egoist. One can even deviate from the norm on the positive side of the spectrum: If you are unselfishly concerned about others, even at your own detriment (definitely not a common attribute,) you are an altruist.

I believe that parity between the sexes ought to be the norm. Why then begin with a word that implies a minority viewpoint?

An additional problem with the current terminology of feminism lies in the answer to the question: Can men be feminists? According to Brian Klocke elaborating on this question on the NOMAS website (National Organization for Men Against Sexism,) “Although I believe that men can be pro-feminist and anti-sexist, I do not believe we can be feminists in the strictest sense of the word in today's society. Men, in this patriarchal system, cannot remove themselves from their power and privilege in relation to women. To be a feminist one must be a member of the targeted group (i.e a woman) not only as a matter of classification but as having one's directly-lived experience inform one's theory and praxis.”

One does not have to be a person of color in order to advocate for racial equality or to be called “not racist.” Thus, the requirement of having “directly-lived experience” is nullified if the struggle for parity between the sexes is framed in terms of a neutral idea such as “gender equality.”

The power of a single word must not be under-estimated. It can steer, derail or hijack a movement in subtle ways.