Feminism for thee but not for me

10 Mar

Image used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user angela7dreams

This article by Jonah Goldberg in the LA Times is what is keeping me up tonight. Titled, “Where feminists get it right,” it is the definition of condescending man explaining.  It is condescending on two counts: First, Mr. Goldberg writes as if he just stumbled upon this previously unknown gem called  feminism, and as arbiter of all things relevant and important, is here to give it his seal of approval. Worse still, he engages in the “feminism for thee but not for me” hypocrisy, which belittles members of the developing world by claiming that their cultures are sooooo horrible that they desperately need (Western) feminism.

The article is about how feminists are right to object to a number of oppressive things which happen to women in developing countries, like the practice of ironing young women’s breasts in Cameroon, for example. The beginning  is harmless enough: he discusses a number of troubling cases which highlight the myriad ways in which women are generally seen as subhuman across the world. There’s even a really nice line in the piece, when he writes, “I don’t know a social conservative — and I know many — who doesn’t agree with radical feminists when it comes to recognizing the barbarity of female circumcision, wife-burning, breast-ironing, etc. ” Thanks for giving us your approval Mr. Goldberg, it’s good to know that we’re on the same team.

But this being an article also written by the dude who wrote a book connecting contemporary liberalism to fascism, we can’t just end there. So he writes:

“Feminism” is a loaded word in the United States because it carries so many controversial connotations. Professional feminists often insist that they have a monopoly on the word and its meaning, which forces lots of people to reject the label. Conservatives are the most obvious example of that, but many young people, including very “liberated” young women, avoid the term because they think it means rejecting any traditional understanding of motherhood, courtship, etc.

But if you can lay aside all of those worthwhile arguments about Western society for a minute, the simple fact is that “the feminists” are absolutely right when it comes to the treatment of women in much of the developing world.”

Uh oh, it just got real Oriental up in here.  Let’s take a look at what he just did there, shall we? In the first paragraph, he basically says that while feminism is desperately needed in the developing world, where all these atrocious things are happening to women, it’s pretty much irrelevant in the Western world. Why, because “professional feminists” keep insisting that feminism have some meaning, and you know, actually be a coherent movement that can’t just be co-opted by whatever group that wants to sell a product, political candidate, etc. And I find it incredible that Goldberg talks about why otherwise “liberated” young women hesitate to call themselves feminists without acknowledging that social conservatives have been going around for years equating feminists to Nazis, babykillers, shrews and every reprehensible thing you can think of in the world. (Sidenote, who or what liberated these young women? Oh wait, we can’t acknowledge that feminism was successful). Nevermind that he completely misses the point of feminism, which is not to proscribe traditional courtship, motherhood, or any of that stuff, but to give women an existence and identity that isn’t solely defined by it. Dude, haven’t we been through this before, like thirty years ago?

But the second paragraph is what really drives me crazy. Goldberg decides that while conservative arguments against feminism are completely “worthwhile” in Western society, objections to feminism in the developing world are not.  Ah yes, the  “feminism for thee but not for me” attitude that is totally pervasive in the Western world.  It’s strange how people who don’t support economic and political equality for women in the US are all about “liberating” women in other countries, and were the first to talk about how oppressive the Taliban was to Afghan women.   Yet, in a culture in which 1 in 6 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime, Americans can hardly pretend that they are light-years away from those “other” countries in terms of their treatment of women.  This is not to equate the issues that women in the West face in comparison to women in the Global South, because that would be misleading. However, it’s equally misleading to pretend that all the myriad indignities that women face in this culture aren’t connected to the same system of female oppression that finds expression in honor killings, femicide, and all those things we now (erroneously) associate with the developing world. Patriarchy is patriarchy, the only thing that changes is how it manifests itself.

The last issue I have with this article is that even in its faint praise of the benefits of Western feminism, it still misses the point, that it’s not about Western feminism! In each of the countries he mentions, like Afghanistan, there are vibrant feminist movements that are challenging the subjugation of women and are claiming their right to be treated as fully human on their own terms. Goldberg seems to be really proud of the fact that he has recognized that feminism can be useful when used to tell those other people how to treat their women, all the while being completely ignorant of the fact that the women in those countries can do it for themselves, thank you very much. Moreover, there are many instances in which Third World feminists don’t agree with Western feminists about fundamental things like what is and isn’t oppressive, and how to go about empowering women.

And that’s okay! Because feminists don’t just care about exporting American values, but actually care about women’s empowerment, which starts with respecting their right to claim their own autonomy. But that isn’t what Goldberg is interested in. What’s clear is that he and other conservatives are only okay with feminism in its most limited form, when it serves the “higher” purpose of advancing American imperialism and more broadly, advancing the myth of American exceptionalism. The gist of his article is: America is so great that we don’t even need feminism, but boy do those other countries! And that’s feminism for thee but not for me, which is a type of feminism that we could all do without.


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