One of my most cherished friends is an angry feminist. Of all the people I know personally, she has probably had more influence on the way I understand the world, and particularly issues relating to gender, than anyone else. She could well be surprised to learn of this. We’ve argued about these issues many, many times. Possibly more than I’ve argued with anyone else – and I argue with people a lot. Not only this – she has yelled at me many, many times for my views on issues relating to gender. Not necessarily because she thinks my views in particular are awful. Because she thinks the issues are of such importance, and because she is so passionate about them.
I have tried to listen carefully to what she has had to say, and consider it honestly. Sometimes I have maintained my disagreements with her. Other times, I have been persuaded. I have tried to educate myself further at times, and have read an assortment of feminist writings (Greer, de Beauvoir, Ehrenreich, etc).
There is much that I don’t know, and much that I still have to learn. But there are some things that I would not understand without my friend explaining them to me with her passion. Her passion is part of what is worth considering. When one considers racism, it is not enough to look at statistics. Perhaps a white person can never understand racism as experienced by a black person. But in seeking to understand that experience, one must not just look to statistics. One must try to understand how it feels to them. It is not enough to seek to understand how racism is applied to others – we must seek to understand how it looks to those who experience it.
In the same way, what are important feminist issues may be conceived by men in one way. Women may think of entirely different issues. In seeking to understand, one must understand how women are affected by their experiences.
And my friend is angry. She hates seeing the types of images of women that she sees everywhere. She is angry at how many men physically assault and sexually harass women. My friend has had appalling experiences: but so have many of her friends. It is perhaps easier for women – and certainly men – to respond without anger. By refusing to be angry, and accommodating such things. Saying ‘it’s not such a big deal’ is the first step to accepting how things are. And it’s easy for men to do so. After all, we are generally not affected by violence against women. If society bombards women with pressure to look and act in a certain way, we can get by without objecting to such pressures. Indeed, it’s often easier not to rock the boat, and certainly for a man there’s no shortage of women who will defend such values. So why get involved?
It is people like my friend – who some might call an ‘angry extremist’ – who provide an answer. They do not beg, and they do not pretend to be dispassionate. They demand that more people care. And I think that that is right.
My relationship to feminism is a little more complex. However, if we describe feminism as devoted to redressing the substantial socio-economic disadvantages faced by women, and by trying to create a more equal society, it seems to me unimaginable that one could reasonably oppose such a movement. Indeed, it seems to me the only question should then become: what kind of work does feminism have to do?
In Australia, it is not hard to think of major issues. Something like one in three women experiences domestic violence. When I looked at the statistics last year, the government so grossly underfunded women’s shelters, that about one in two women were turned away from them every day. In NSW, when a woman is raped, there’s a one per cent chance her rapist will be convicted. Women are paid on average 18% less than men, and this gap is growing. They are significantly underrepresented in many occupations, and in the highest positions.
There is, of course, much more. Emily Maguire – the most intelligent and thoughtful feminist commentator I know of in Australia – gave a lecture describing the obstacles women face through life.
This is not all. For feminism alone cannot address the issues of race and class, and any feminism that fails to do so is not feminist in the sense I described above. Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory like Barb Shaw have urged an end to compulsory income management and the racist measures of the Intervention. Aboriginal women also suffer in particular from rapes and domestic violence. Chris Cunneen’s book Conflict, Politics and Crime surveyed the literature when he wrote 10 years ago, and noted that 88 per cent of Aboriginal women didn’t report rape and assault cases. He quotes Judy Atkinson – an Aboriginal activist – explaining why: ‘If a white women gets bashed or raped here, the police do something. When it’s us they laugh.’ The National Inquiry into Racist Violence describes a police officer describing the dismissal of a rape allegation by a senior police officer, on the grounds that ‘You can’t rape a coon’. The rape, incidentally, had independent witnesses. One can see the continued failure of the criminal justice system to protect Indigenous women from violence in the sentence former Chief Justice Martin of the Northern Territory Supreme Court gave to a man who raped an Indigenous 14 year old girl: one month. Plainly, it wasn’t a big deal to him, just like when five white men beat an Aboriginal man to death. The ‘justice’ in the criminal justice system should also be considered in the particularly high incarceration rates of Indigenous women, or of Aboriginal people in general, which is significantly higher than blacks in Apartheid South Africa.
A white feminism that fails to redress the particular issues confronting Aboriginal women would fail, just as surely as an anti-racism that failed to address gender issues. And the issues of the privileged white woman are also surely different from the poor and working classes. A privileged woman may be distressed by her inability to live up to impossible demands of appearance peddled in popular culture. There are other issues faced by less fortunate women, without wishing in way to diminish the significance of either. It is to suggest that creating a more just society should be the goal, and this goal should not face narrowly circumscribed limits.
I think these issues can only be understood by more of us listening to angry feminists. We must be willing to learn from those who say things that confront us. I understand the view that feminism should not seek to dismiss or alienate men. In my view, feminism, in my understanding, does not, and the very best of it seeks to understand what gender roles and patriarchy mean for men. Simone de Beauvoir was a brilliant feminist intellectual. In her enormous tome The Second Sex she wrote about women being forced to be housewives – and then conceptualised what this mean to men.
If he seems to be the victim, it is because his burdens are most evident: woman is supported by him like a parasite; but a parasite is not a conquering master.
If it is asserted that men oppress women, the husband is indignant; he feels that he is the one who is oppressed – and he is; but the fact is that it is the masculine code, it is the society developed by the males and in their interest, that has established woman’s situation in a form that is at present a source of torment for both sexes.
It is for their common welfare that the situation must be altered by prohibiting marriage as a ‘career’ for woman. Men who declare themselves antifeminists, on the ground that ‘women are already bad enough as it is,’ are not too logical; it is precisely because marriage makes women into ‘praying mantises’, ‘leeches,’ ‘poisonous’ creatures, and so on, that it is necessary to transform marriage, and, in consequence, the condition of women in general. Woman leans heavily upon man because she is not allowed to rely on herself; he will free himself in freeing her – that is to say, in giving her something to do in the world.
One cannot expect another de Beauvoir. One can hope that more will try to conceptualise feminism in a way that is not just talking to women, about women, but that also talks about men, and also to men. In Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre wrote:
Richard Wright, the Negro writer, said recently: ‘There is no Negro problem in the United States, there is only a White problem.’ In the same way, we must say that anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem; it is our problem. … it is not up to the Jews first of all to form a militant league against anti-Semitism; it is up to us.
I would perhaps go a bit less far: feminism is not just an issue for women. It is our problem too. And perhaps if we got angrier about it a little more, fewer women would need to.
Originally published at Social Scapegoat.