Rebecca Watson recently posted a summary of her life in the skeptical/atheist community on Slate. The comments left in response by readers are, sadly, not surprising. The discussion on Slate is not that different from the discussions that have been taking place in the atheist zone of the blogosphere for the past 16 months.
Broadly, people (whether on Slate or elsewhere) agree or disagree with Rebecca’s position. Those who agree that sexism exists and is a problem make a fairly straightforward argument. However, those that disagree seem to be a more diverse bunch. There are certainly some who are happy to present as sexists or even misogynists; they may or may not be trolls. If they are trolls, according to one argument, they can be ignored. I’m not convinced. If they are not trolls then there is clearly a problem – one that is easily expressed: Some people are sexists.
But what of those who disagree with Rebecca Watson’s analysis of the situation but do not wish to be known as sexists? This must be a more nuanced position. Much of the discussion at Slate is focused not on whether the negative experiences that women frequently endure are definitely a bad thing and shouldn’t happen, but rather on why feminism is problematic. The implicit message seems to be: Sexism against women is, of course, a bad thing, but we mustn’t ignore the equal and opposite force of feminism, which is all about hating men, and it’s important to discuss how bad feminism is. OK, not all feminists are evil misandrists, but some are, and because some (many?) women are I cannot think of myself as a feminist and will not condemn sexism against women .
There is definitely a lot of disagreement about what feminism is, and – to a point – this is reasonable as there many different types of feminism. Having said that, there are many different classes or subtypes of other religious, political, or cultural labels, and none of these cause as much apparent distress when it comes to self-identification. If you ask someone whether they are a Christian, for example, they may find it easy to give a straight answer. Someone who is a liberal Lutheran will in all likelihood say “yes, I am a Christian”. They are less likely to say “No, because although I believe in God, and regularly attend church, and follow the teachings of Jesus, I do not want to be associated with Pat Robertson, the Westboro Baptist Church, or Billy Graham, not to mention all those English Catholic monarchs who set out to murder Protestants, and all those other English Protestant monarchs who set out to murder Catholics. Or Hitler.” This hypothetical Lutheran is aware of all these distinctions that she can make between herself and other people who are also Christians but whose beliefs and actions differ in profound ways, but this does not stop her identifying as Christian.
Similarly, it is possible to disagree with Dawkins on some basic principle and still call yourself an Atheist. If you meet someone who is happy to call himself a Democrat, you may not even need to ask whether he agrees with President Obama on all matters. If we can self-identify as X, even though other Xers differ with respect to various philosophical, political, or religious details, why are people loath to call themselves feminists?
The basic principle of feminism is simple:
Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women. In addition, feminism seeks to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist is “an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women”.
The disconnect between a basic definition of feminism and common misconceptions of feminism is discussed in this short video by Rollie Williams. At the end of the video Rollie asks:
Are you interested in a society where men and women are considered equal? If you answered yes, you’re a feminist.
What he doesn’t say is that if you answered “no”, you’re a sexist. Many people may be uncomfortable (or annoyed) by this. What if you’re not a sexist but do not consider yourself to be a feminist? I argue that this middle position does not exist. If you want to discriminate against women, whether in economic, political, or social terms, you are being a sexist. If you do not want women to be discriminated against then – like it or not – you’re a feminist. If you do think that there is a middle term, that I am proposing a false dichotomy, then please enlighten me. However, bear in mind that the premise on the table is not that of some splitter faction from the People’s Popular Front of Marxist Radical Feminism, but simply “women should have equal rights”.