Feminism Should Save the World! or, why feminism can't be all things to all people

by Alana Wingfoot

One of the common debates within feminism is how involved we should be as a movement in other social struggles. We at 3rdWWWave are all for getting in active in issues besides feminism, and we are -- as individuals, not as a group. When it comes to feminism getting involved in the world's ills, we get antsy.

You Don't Use a Screwdriver to Put in a Nail

Many people believe that feminism should not only work on the problems facing women, but also the problems facing non-whites and the problems facing homosexuals. But while superficially these issues are similar, if we actually analyze them, we find that sexism, racism, and heterosexism have a couple major internal differences and therefore require different tactics.

  1. Visibility. Gender is generally visible. Race and ethnicity are often visible. Sexual orientation is generally invisible. You rarely hear someone say 'I didn't know she was a woman!', whereas 'I didn't know she was a lesbian' is far from unknown. Someone who tells a racist joke can't say that they didn't know one of their listeners was black.
  2. Integration. It's fairly easy to separate whites from blacks, whites from Native Americans, whites from Hispanics, and so forth; ask anyone who's lived in a large city with ethnic neighborhoods or a tiny town where everyone is white. It's more difficult to separate sexual orientations from each other, but people manage it to a degree -- if nothing else, they can come home at night to a partner who shares their orientation. Women and men, however, have to interact with each other regularly. Even in the most gender-segregated society, people interact with opposite-sex spouses, siblings, parents, and children. Especially children -- think of how race relations would be different if two white parents could produce a black child or vice versa.

Feminism is a movement to help women, a visible group that is completely integrated with the 'other' group. Some tactics that help an invisible group won't work as well to help women. Some tactics that provide great support to a segregated group won't do squat for women. And vice versa; the techniques that we develop to help women may be of no use to people who aren't as visible as women or who aren't as omnipresent as women.

Feminists Are Individuals

I'm against the death penalty. (Or more precisely, I am in favor of the death penalty when it is administered by the victim in self-defense or by a bystander in defense of the victim, but I believe that the government has no business putting people to death.) I'm a feminist. Does this mean that feminists are against the death penalty?

Hell, no. (Ask the rest of WWWave.) It means that some feminists are against the death penalty. Some are heartily for it. Some don't really care either way.

And that's okay, because the death penalty is not inherently a women's rights issue. There might be feminist concern in a particular death penalty case, if it is clear that the defendant is getting different treatment because she is a woman; there is no direct connection between the execution of convicts and the social and legal status of women. I can think what I want about the death penalty and still be a feminist.

For that matter....

Feminists are individuals, not cookie cutters. We'll debate and disagree even about issues that we can generally agree are of importance to women, let alone unconnected issues.

Who Was This Movement Supposed To Help Again?

Most of us are keenly aware of our limited time, money, and energy. With so many worthy causes, organizations, struggles, and ideas out there, either we spread ourselves so thinly that we don't do much good to anyone, or we focus our resources on the issues of most importance to us and get results.

What makes any group think this doesn't apply to them? A big feminist organization has a lot more money and far more pairs of hands than a single person, but it's not unlimited. So if they fight the good fight against racism, for gay and lesbian rights, against land mines, for better food safety standards, against animal testing, for disability rights....

What will they have left to use in the fight for women's issues?

Do they think other groups are going to fight for women? I checked out some sites, and on this date, 15 February 2000....

So here we have the best-known feminist organization in the U.S. supporting all these other causes, while these other groups...support their own causes.

Who is supporting women?

Yes, feminists can get involved with the other issues that they're interested in, and more power to us! Feminism, however, is best focused on its central mission: women's problems, women's rights, women's challenges, women's success. It may very well be aligned with other groups when all are interested in the same issue, but if it forgets its primary mission, it suffers.

And so do women.

Copyright © 2000 by Alana Wingfoot

07/05/07 at 2:7