Beyond Feminism has started a flurry of blog posts on whether it is right for feminists to criticise other women, both for and against. Debs at Burning Times argues that criticising other women, who regardless of their wealth or status in society, share our oppression is pointless and divides women. Poly Styrene argues that we need to be able to criticise women, or, otherwise, we would never challenge women who further women’s oppression. So, despite being days behind, I thought I’d throw my hat in to the ring.
First, I think feminists can legitimately challenge and criticise other people’s ideas and behaviours. But, I think that we have to be careful how and for what reason we do so. There are certain ideas that most, if not all, feminists agree on. We agree that women are human beings who should be extended all the rights and privileges of men. We, generally, agree that women should be represented in the public sphere and in politics. We, generally, agree that women should have the same rights to education and the same legal privileges, such as with regard to divorce law, as men. We, generally, agree that women have the right to be paid equally to men for the same job, to have the same opportunity of employment and promotion to men, and, for many, to challenge traditional working practices that limit women’s ability to achieve in the workplace. Many feminists agree that we should challenge social norms that locate women in the private sphere and in an exclusively child-rearing, forced domestic role. Most agree that women should be equal to their husbands within in marriage. Most feminists support the right of women to have intimate, and/or sexual, relationships with women and still hold all the privileges of straight women and men. Most feminists support women’s right to control their own bodies, including the right to access abortion and contraceptives. Most feminists recognise that men hold socially recognised and legitimate power over women that frequently, but not exclusively, manifests itself in domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, and that this is wrong. Many feminists believe that male power over women is systematic, and we describe that system as patriarchy. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list of the things most feminists would agree on, and this is without even broaching on how sexism intersects with other forms of oppression, including racism, dis-ablism and homophobia.
If someone, male or female, says, writes, sings or otherwise conveys that these ideas are wrong, then as feminists we have the right, and perhaps even the duty, to challenge this. We have the right to say why we think these ideas are wrong and to critique them.
So, what about new territory? Surely, if the feminist movement is to continue to grow and evolve, feminists have to be able to challenge new ideas that oppress women. This, too, I think is acceptable and important. If an idea, behaviour or a product comes along that needs to be given a feminist critique, then that is valuable.
However, I think this is different from blaming women who conform to patriarchal standards for that conformity. First of all, all women to some extent conform to patriarchal standards. This is because how we understand femininity, masculinity and gender is shaped by patriarchal discourses. To use but one example, how we dress is always determined by patriarchal standards. Currently, dressing sexily is frequently critiqued as conforming to patriarchal standards, but the problem is that dressing in any other way is given meaning by how it relates to the norm. So, we can reject sexy, but then we are just frumpy, unsexy, undesirable. Being undesirable may seem good in a world where women’s worth is measured by desirability, but it does not overturn the system. Alternative fashions are not anti-patriarchal, because they are still given meaning or definition within the patriarchal system. And this is before we get into the fact that the patriarchal standard for fashion is constantly shifting. We cannot dress ourselves out of the patriarchal system; it will take something more revolutionary.
Criticising women for conforming to patriarchal standards is not helpful, because we all have to do it in our daily lives. Criticising women for conforming is not helpful, because in the case of much behaviour, it is not the behaviour itself that is problematic, but the meaning given to it by the culture. Wearing high heels or short skirts is not of itself problematic, it is how the wearing of such items is interpreted that is problematic. If we start limiting what women can do, because it conforms to patriarchy, we will soon be limited to a very small range of behaviours, and that cannot be good for women. We also get into the very problematic territory of what behaviour is better, or more feminist, than others, and this sort of ranking tends to discriminate against women without cultural authority (and please note that authority may be different in feminist circles than in patriarchal society).
This is not to say behaviour should be left uncritiqued. It is perfectly legitimate to question why women choose to dress in particular ways (although I think it would be difficult to create a simple good dress/ bad dress dichotomy). It is perfectly legitimate to say why certain behaviours help reinforce the patriarchal system, and ideally explain how they do. It is also legitimate to take a stand against certain behaviours. Few women would agree that domestic violence was ever acceptable, and many feminist are uncomfortable with cosmetic surgery. Feminists are allowed to have opinions on these topics. But, we also have to accept that it is very difficult to make black and white rules within patriarchal society and that women should not be attacked because of the choices they make to survive within that system. We also have to accept that there will be some disagreement over what behaviours are feminist, or not, and that is ok, in fact it makes for great blog posts. We need to separate our criticism of women from our criticism of behaviour. They are not synonymous. Few women are the sum of what they wear, or the image they present, or even the ideas they express. Furthermore, as human beings, they are entitled to hold the opinions they hold, even if we think they are despicable. That is the right we grant men and should be granted to all women. We might want women to behave better, but expecting women to always be perfect or to represent the rest of womankind is to remove them of their humanity, a humanity that is flawed. Through doing so, we defeat our own aims.