I posted a while ago about the incommensurability of feminism. Ballgame at feministcritics posted something based on this same idea, and his (her?) post exemplifies almost perfectly what I meant when I said that feminism’s incommensurability is “one of the biggest problems facing the movement today.”
Discussing what happens when men bring up male gender issues on feminist blog threads, Ballgame claims, correctly, that feminists often equivocate between feminism as a “humanist” egalitarian movement, and feminism as a “gynocentric” movement. They claim, in other words, that feminism is about equal rights for all, or that feminism is humanism by definition, but then when men try to interject with men’s gender issues, feminists revert to gynocentrism by claiming that men’s issues are irrelevant:
In short, feminists, as a group, equivocate between a gynocentric and an egalitarian interpretation of the word. They accept the universal support that comes from holding out universal ideals as the goal of their movement, but will then disparage or dismiss individuals like myself who take their universal goals at face value.
Ballgame’s complaint is based on a unified, monolithic feminist movement. Pragmatically speaking, though, you can’t talk about feminists as a group. As we know from the academic feminist tradition of typologizing feminisms (here‘s a good introduction), feminism is most certainly not a unified or monolithic movement; in fact, it’s more balkanized than the Balkans themselves. As I stated in my last post, even non-feminists are appropriating the term to refer to political views that are, for all intents and purposes, anti-feminist. How ironic.
The problem is two-fold. First, the balkanization of feminism has left us with tens or hundreds of different ideologies, some of which are vastly incompatible with others, but without any easy or universally agreed-upon strategy for referring to them in conversation so that they aren’t conflated. While all feminist typologizers have given names to each of the feminisms they observe, the names tend to differ from one typology to the next, so “cultural feminism” in one context might mean something totally different in another, or a terms like “separatist lesbianism” and “lesbian feminism” might be coreferential in one context and vastly disparate in another. This problem is exacerbated by the tendency observed by Sandoval for feminists to switch from one type of feminism to another as it suits their political goals (yes, Ballgame, equivocation is a recognized feminist strategy; see “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and The Method of Oppositional Consciousness in The Postmodern World”). Feminism after all is largely a political endeavour (although not always!), and as such it makes strategic choices in order to achieve its goals in the familiar tradition of counter-hegemony (read Antonio Gramsci for details).
Second, despite all the confusion over what the term “feminism” means, the actual term itself is still extremely useful, even if the meaning has to be derived from the context it’s used in. I used the term “anti-feminist” above, for instance, and it should have been clear from the context that I meant “anti-women’s rights.” After all, sometimes it’s nice to use one word where ten would be more accurate. Unfortunately, using the word “feminism” when you mean “Jaggar’s concept of socialist feminism,” or whatever, always introduces another level of interpretation that chronically teeters on the edge of misunderstanding.
Knowing what I know, I could easily argue that people who criticize feminism while demonstrating that they have no knowledge of how feminism is typologized are attacking a straw woman (note that using the term “straw woman” was a strategic decision on my part). But I won’t argue that, because it’s really not their fault–another problem with feminism is that everyone and their dog thinks they’re qualified to talk about it. This fact, I would suggest, is a direct result of this whole referential debacle; if people look in the dictionary and see
The doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.
why wouldn’t they think they know what they’re talking about? And when they go online and they see people talking about feminism as if it were that simple, who can blame them? As long as there’s a popular conception that feminism is unified and monolithic, defending it against charges of equivocation will be next to impossible.