What Would Make Me a Feminist: Response to Comments and Criticisms

            My argument is that there is an important distinction between women’s rights as a goal and feminism as an ideology. I support women’s rights, though I prefer to advocate for universal human rights without exclusion or demarcation. The feminist ideology, however, is far too problematic for me to identify with. I write this fully aware that feminism has various strains.

            Feminism, in my experience, relies on an insultingly crude dialectic: men, women, and patriarchy. This formula leads to some facile and incendiary assumptions and claims. In my first post, I argued that too many feminists fly into rages over the income gap, even though differences in wages are the result of many complex factors and the role of discrimination may be vanishingly small. There is a report of a study that found 6.9 % of the income gap in 2004 was unaccounted for by other factors stemming from different preferences. But eight months after the paper was covered, it has yet to be published, suggesting it failed to make it through peer review. (It may still appear, but we should reserve judgment.)

            If the 7% figure holds up, I admit I’ll be surprised. But I doubt there will be many feminists who look at the twenty percent income gap and rush to remind everyone that over ninety percent of the difference is attributable to divergent preferences regarding fields, working conditions, and family management. (For a more sober discussion of the pay gap from a staunch conservative--strange bedfellow--go here.) I have to emphasize that my argument is not based on a complete absence of any pay gap; it focuses rather on the assumptions feminists make about it. Again, the vast majority of it can be attributed to choices freely made.

            My secondpost took on the feminist tendency to conflate male attraction with oppression. Many complained that the idea of “objectification,” though perhaps untrue, was nevertheless useful. Men who engage in harassment or sexual violence, they maintain, are not recognizing their victims’ humanity. These commenters are mistaking familiarity with usefulness. If objectification theory actually did identify factors that make violence more likely, then we could conclude it was useful. But it simply doesn’t. The theory points to media portrayals of women that emphasize body parts (objects) over emotions or intelligence and suggests such portrayals encourage men to dehumanize women, which might lead to violence. Psychological experiments find this not to be the case at all. Further, as the availability and consumption of pornography have exploded over the past decade, sexual violence has actually decreased. Objectification is an invalid theory with offensive implications about men. And there are better factors to target—like economic inequality—to address the issue of violence.

            My third post took on the ridiculously facile assumption that all gender differences stem from stereotypes and socialization. Many feminists charge anyone who suggests natural differences in behavior or career preference with essentialism. This is nonsense stemming from scientific ignorance. None of the commenters brought up any challenges that require addressing.

            While my problem with feminism begins with the term itself—because it comes freighted with tribal implications—I accept that unconditional opposition would be pretty much meaningless. So here are some things that would make me more accepting of feminism:

-         Evidence that people learning about feminism are systematically warned of the dangers of demonizing or vilifying men.

-         Evidence that feminism, as an ideology and not as an extension of Enlightenment ideals regarding human rights, has contributed valid or useful insights that have advanced science or benefited society.

-         Evidence that being a feminist has beneficial effects for individuals.

On this last point, a study that was published with much fanfare in 2007 reported that feminism had no ill effects on romantic relationships and that men in a relationship with a feminist were more likely to say their sex lives were satisfactory. The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, is titled, “The Interpersonal Power of Feminism: Is Feminism Good for Romantic Relationships?” The authors, Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan, leave little doubt regarding the purpose of their study:

            What is particularly disturbing is that, by eschewing feminism, women themselves may
be participating in backlash. Thus, it is important to understand the reasons why women
today tend not to embrace feminism.

It’s amazing to me that something this blatantly ideological got published in a scientific journal. What the media coverage failed to mention is the study actually discovered that the female participants who labeled themselves as feminists actually reported higher levels of conflict within their relationships. Rudman and Phelan felt this was a statistical artifact, though, and dismissed it. I don’t understand their reasoning, and I have to assume if it wasn’t valid the reviewers would’ve picked it up. But it does suggest the methods they used might not have been sufficiently sensitive.

            The biggest issue I have with the study, however, is that it willfully conflates support for career women with feminism; in this study, I would have been counted as a strong feminist. The authors justify the move by pointing to a strong correlation between the actual label and attitudes toward women in high-powered positions. But the self-reports didn’t match up in many cases—as they wouldn’t have in mine. Using attitudes toward working women as a stand-in for feminism also opens the door to confounds like higher education and the benefits to a household of having two incomes.

            With regard to my concerns about ideological feminism, the Rudman and Phelan study is completely meaningless. Some studies I’d like to see: a comparison between academic departments measuring relationship satisfaction and stability; some objective measure of women’s support for feminist ideology, like knowledge of prominent authors, compared with attitudes toward men as measured by self-report and results from Implicit Association Tests; an objective measure of men’s exposure to feminism, like a test of their knowledge of feminist authors, and both their attitudes toward women and the satisfaction and stability of their relationships. I would also like to know more about how ideological feminism impacts young girls and boys.

            We shouldn’t keep giving this tribal ideology a free pass because we assume it’s in the service of a good cause. We shouldn’t celebrate studies designed to produce congenial results. Feminism, like any other idea, needs to pass empirical muster if it is to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, policies inspired by it continue to be implemented in the absence of any tests or challenges.