BY: JESSICA BURDE
I am a feminist. It is a label I embrace, and I’m proud of the achievements of the feminist movement. But I’m not blind to the flaws of feminism. From the earliest days of women’s suffrage, feminists have had to make hard decisions about what they were fighting for, and how they would fight. Some of those decisions may have worked in the short term, but in the long term they planted dangerously toxic ideas in the heart of feminism.
The ideals that would become First Wave feminism and the women’s suffrage movement merged during a time when it wasn’t enough to say “we deserve rights because we are human.” Sojourner Truth’s famous speech captures the early ideas of woman’s suffrage:
“Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well!”
But in the world as it was then, saying “we deserve rights because we are human,” wasn’t enough. Eugenics was a popular ‘science’, Jim Crow was booming, and voter-restriction laws were common. For over 50 years suffragettes tried to gain the right to vote using these arguments, and got nowhere. To make any progress in the world, suffragettes needed a reason that they deserved the vote. They found their reason in the Purity Movement.
The Purity Movement was a social movement of the same sort that the US seems to spawn every 100 years or so. These movements have the same basic philosophy, “Society is overrun with evil and we will save it by forcing everyone to be more moral.” The Purity Movement set its sites on alcohol, sexual licentiousness (which among other things, included same sex relationships), prostitution, gambling and drug use as the sources of evil in society. Coincidentally, these vices were all seen as male vices. Women were socially barred from drinking, gambling, drug use and sexual excess. Prostitution had already been successfully painted as a form of ‘white slavery,’ and prostitutes were publicly seen as victims of brothel owners and their johns, so the blame there also fell on men.
For the suffragettes this presented a tactical opportunity. Women were free of all the vices, which were destroying society, so if given the vote, women could save society with their purity. It was a deal with the devil. Women got the vote, but only in return for throwing fellow suffragette Victoria Woodhull and her fellow free love advocates under the bus, along with prostitutes (who in spite of being ‘victims’ were the ones who suffered the most under the new laws), and lesbians, while vilifying men and supporting a number of highly restrictive moral laws.
Feminism parted ways with the Purity Movement almost as soon as the ink was dry on the 14th amendment. Feminism’s drive for the liberation of women was in direct conflict with the Purity Movement’s desire to impose ever increasing restrictions on society. But the damage was done, and a strain of the Purity Movement’s rhetoric can still be found in some feminist circles today.
Over time, women’s suffrage evolved into feminism. Feminists achieved many more successes, gaining for women the basic rights so many take for granted today. Eventually, the focus of feminism shifted from gaining legal rights to gaining social equality. The idea of “gender equality” became popular during this period—neither the early suffragettes like Sojourner Truth, who took men’s greater intelligence as a given, nor the Purity Movement suffragettes of the later years ever spoke of gender equality. It was a huge step forward in the way society saw and talked about gender relations.
Unfortunately, a different, and dangerous, idea evolved at the same time.
In my grandmother’s generation, and those before her, women stepped forward proudly to demand their rights as people who contributed to society. Feminists of my mother’s generation became victims. Like allying with the Purity Movement, this new identity had tactical advantages. Women had already achieved legal equality, but as Orwell put it, “Some animals are more equal than others.” However the social inequality that women now faced was hard to fight. There was no clear goal. No hard and fast point at which to say “We’ve won,” and perhaps most importantly, there was no easy way to explain what feminists were trying to achieve or how exactly they would achieve it. So this social inequality became personified as “the patriarchy” and all women became its victims.
Also like the alliance with the purity movement before it, tactically this worked. While men still hold the majority of the world’s wealth and organizational power (political, business and academic positions, military rank, etc.), women are rising above men in buying power with annual spending ranging from five billion to fifteen billion dollars. Now women are graduating college in more numbers than men with a ratio of 140 women to every 100 men according to the US Department of Education. The image of men as lazy, incompetent and stupid that is popular in many sitcoms shows that while objectification and hypersexualization of women in the media is a problem, women aren’t the only ones with a shitty PR image.
Today, with freedoms our grandmothers never even dreamed of, the label of ‘victim’ is ludicrous, yet many well-placed, celebrity feminists wear their victimhood proudly and lead their fellow ‘victims’ on metaphorical (and sometimes literal) rampages against their perceived oppressors— as well as anyone who speaks up to say “we’re suffering too you know.”
A new strain has entered feminism in recent years. Known as intersectional feminism, it is based on the idea that everyone lives at the intersection of numerous privileges and oppressions. A woman may find herself sexually objectified on a daily basis, but a man who has been raped will have a harder time getting help than a woman would. A disabled white man and a able-bodied woman of colour will each struggle, in different ways, with a world stacked against them. All gender identities, sexualities, and life choices are equally valid so long as they are not forced upon the individual.
I believe intersectional feminism is a step in the right direction, but it often seems to retain the victimhood of radical feminism. If we are to save feminism, and once again make a positive impact on the world, we must retain and strengthen intersectional feminism’s recognition of the way society harms and benefits everyone differently. Perhaps more importantly, we need to relearn our grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ wisdom: we are not victims, we are contributors to society and that, in turn, gives us power in it.
Let’s make sure that we apply that power wisely.