August 28, 2008

Guest Blogger: Centralnode talks about perceptions of feminism

Rantsalamode is currently on vacation, so I, Centralnode, am filling in this week. I am a recent university graduate, armchair economist, feminist, card-carrying Conservative, and (in a surprising twist) a man.

Today I want to talk about feminists and feminism, as perceived by conservative people. By conservative I don't just mean right-wing ideologues, but individuals who are conservative in manner, dress, attitudes, and so forth. In my own experience, I've noticed that when the subject of women's rights in broached, conservative people will typically express two ideas: a strong commitment to the ideal of equal rights and equal treatment for both men and women, and the idea of choice for women (which seems to be a universal ideal in Canadian political culture), and a very noticeable reluctance to describe themselves as feminists.

Now, while I am unfamiliar with academic definitions of feminism, it seems to me that if one believes in the above, one is, at least by some definition, a feminist. (Although I know that there is a school of thought that would call these individuals pro-feminists, I want to talk about the popular understanding of these words.) Why, then, the extreme distaste for the word "feminist"? Here are 4 possible explanations:

1) These people are ignorant - they don't know what the word actually means. I find this unlikely, as many of these people are in fact quite bright. That everyone of a more conservative persuasion would have the exact same hole in their knowledge base seems like a stretch.

2) This is political spin - that most feminists support particular policies that these individuals oppose, so that conservatives choose to tar the word and the movement. While this is a possible motive for partisans, I've observed the behaviour in question even among fairly apolitical people.

3) That the word "feminist" has developed connotations in our culture beyond a typical dictionary definition of "the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men." When I talk to people in more detail about their reluctance to call themselves feminists, I hear things like "I'm not one of those people", "I'm no radical", "Of course not, I wear a bra", and, my personal favourite, "I believe in feminism, but I'm not a feminist."

In other words, for a large number of people, the term "feminist" no longer refers to someone who believes in feminism, but someone who resembles a stereotypical advocate of feminism. While this is unfair, it is perhaps understandable. Few feminists, in my opinion, do much to sell feminism to people who might be called "traditionalists." Maybe this is in the interest of feminism - maybe such a political strategy would dilute the movement and make it less effective. Whatever the tactical implications, feminist activists should perhaps try to be more aware of how they are perceived in the centre-right half of the country.

While I think this theory is the right one, I also offer another the following speculation based on no evidence whatsoever:

4) That the main fault line is abortion. Most people who call themselves feminists are pro-choice, and someone who is pro-equality of women but pro-life as well might abhor the label for that reason. (Although this sentence can lead one to a very interesting discussion about whether someone who is committed to the equality of women could be pro-life at all, such a topic is probably, as Mr. Obama might say, above my pay grade.)

Lastly, I want to share with you another socioeconomic finding. Men who say they aren't feminists usually say so calmly, almost apathetically. Women who say they aren't feminists will often say so vehemently. (In one case, a women was actually offended that I had "accused" her of being a feminist, and because of this avoided me for the rest of the evening. At least, I think that was why she avoided me.) Make of this what you will.


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