I recently stumbled upon a video clip about the book The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know — and Men Can’t Say (2011) written by two American women, Phyllis Schlafly and Suzanne Venker. The fact that they are white, privileged and conservative is important. If there was any furore about the book I missed it, but my recent discovery of their clip made me wonder about what it means for feminism when women are also the enemy to feminism. But more importantly, why is it that the face of feminism is characterised by anger and reactionary responses to “patriarchy”?
The general perception is that patriarchy is the enemy to gender equality. The obvious enemy comes in the form of a male body that holds conservative and often dangerous views about masculinity. Displays of violent masculinities are more overt and cause tangible harm and therefore men become the target in feminism. The cases of gender-based violence and the rape statistics make it easy for us (feminists) to identify the enemy who happens to be in the body of a man and thus men become the enemy. This has resulted in the biggest misconception about feminism as a group of angry women who want to castrate men and toss them into the sea. Hence the feminism gevaar.
People are often shocked that I identify as a feminist. There are two reasons for this: when looking at me, people see a “lady” who carries herself within the boundaries of the politics of respectability (this is until they see more than one tattoo on my body). I am also a black woman. When people think of feminism, it is associated with white women in academia or television burning their bras. Feminism is still seen as an ideal that is antithetical to African beliefs (because of course, by looking at me one can deduce that I believe in African beliefs wholeheartedly) because feminism is a “Western” idea that we should return to the West. I won’t rehash these arguments, but it seems arguments against feminism haven’t changed over the years. We often talk about feminism (or feminisms) as though there is no history to the women’s movement, and more importantly, there’s no history to the women’s movement in Africa. Prof Elaine Salo’s recent article dealt with this. Enough said.
The most common criticism against feminism is that feminists are always angry and reactionary. This has been written about recently and the author implored feminists to stop scaring people away from conversation: “less rage and more explanation”. I have often wondered why the narrative of the “angry feminist” continues to persist and why the work of feminism is always hell bent on proving this idea wrong (the truth is, most women have a right to be angry). It’s also not a new conversation that most (modern and successful) women shy away from identifying as feminists because they don’t want to be seen as angry and as a friend of mine always says, she understands the issues of feminism as human issues therefore she’s a humanist rather than a feminist.
My encounter with feminism was through my grandmother. I doubt she thought of herself as a feminist, but rather she was a mother. A single mother raising children in apartheid South Africa. She didn’t have the word “feminism” but she understood inequality. I grew up in a world with few men (both at home and at school) in a sense men were not dominant in my life. Mothers were dominant in my life. Seeing men as a general group that is the enemy came much later, much to my dismay. I understood that a set of political, social and economic structures limited my grandmother’s choices. I don’t think there’s a word for patriarchy in isiXhosa (my mother tongue) but we have a word for equality, masilingane. Thus I never came into feminism because “Mr Patriarchy” has done women wrong but because “umasilingane” is a good idea. The idea of many feminisms — motherisms, womanisms — needs to be revisited because the narrative of angry feminists (understood as white, middle class, liberal women) is not the single narrative for understanding the inequalities between men and women. This single narrative is dangerous for both men and women because it sets up the unnecessary dilemma: should men be feminists?
What if feminism wasn’t only about annihilating “the patriarch” but rather about providing women, girls, men and boys with the opportunity to think about their reality differently? Not as victims oppressed by patriarchy but as agents who are within structures (neither patriarchal nor matriarchal) that must be questioned in order to make the choices they want to make as human beings. What if feminism wasn’t always about anger but a conviction that Alice Walker simplifies as “the world isn’t good enough and we’ve got to make it better” whether one is a man or a woman.
I’m not trying to rescue feminism. I am a feminist. Feminism doesn’t need rescuing because it is alive for as long as women are alive and continue to question gender inequality. What I am arguing for is the tendency to try and rescue a narrow understanding of feminism as though feminism can only be one ideal, sans context, sans history and sans change.