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The Danger Of The Feminist Label

There is no obligation, moral or logical, to call oneself a feminist

I do not identify as a feminist. Yet I believe in the equality of the sexes. I see no contradiction here.

If I were asked, “Are you a feminist?,” my response would likely be, “What do you mean by feminism?” I would then consider the definition and say, “by that definition, yes” or “by that definition, no.” To achieve greater clarity, we might differentiate various subsets of feminism.

The point isn’t to be pedantic. What my conversation partner believes to be the definition, or simply what he or she means by the word, is not necessarily the way I’d define it, or the way I’d use it. Just as importantly, the way he or she uses it may not enjoy a one-to-one correspondence with feminism as a broader social category — as an identity marker or as a scholarly program.

Embracing a label is not an innocuous act. If it were, labels would be socially inconsequential. But we know they’re not. It’s precisely their power as social identity markers that make them unsuitable stand-ins for simple agreement with certain principles.

There is a difference between affirming a principle and enlisting oneself in an ideological community or interest group centered around the principle’s advancement. Though the two often get conflated, there is a meaningful difference between believing something and joining a cause.

Those who conflate the two might argue as follows:

(1) Those who affirm the equality of the sexes advance gender equality.

(2) Those who affirm the equality of the sexes are, by definition, feminists.

(3) Hence, those who advance gender equality are feminists.

An implication of this argument, of course, is that everybody else is sexist. But something’s gone wrong here.

The Importance of Semantic Meaning

Though this is not a settled matter within the philosophy of language, the meaning of a word comes from what it refers to and what it connotes in its usage. The purpose of a definition is to articulate this meaning in a manner that accurately describes what is being defined. It must be co-extensive to the meaning, covering all instances of what is being defined and excluding none.

Underlying the use of “feminism” as a label is a conflation between belief in a principle and complete identification with a cause. The label monopolizes the linguistic territory in such a way that affirming the equal rights of the sexes becomes a sign-up form for social advocacy, or an application to join a school of thought. The conceptual space is entirely eaten up by the notion of feminism as a movement—whether social or intellectual—which leaves those simply wanting to affirm equality of the sexes without a way to do so with that label.

Ascertaining the meaning of feminism is not as simple as referring to a dictionary definition. The word “feminism” is associated with both a section of academia — that of feminist theory and its proponents — and a social movement. As a result, the word connotes what amounts to a significant amount of intellectual and historical baggage.

When ascertaining the meaning of “feminism,” all this must be taken into account. This means it will be partially defined by a large corpus of ideas and events—some good, some bad, all relevant toward establishing the term’s meaning.

I’m not saying that doing so is important because it’s a roundabout way of discrediting feminism or what it stands for. Rather, this is important because it will lead to an understanding of feminism in terms of both its merits and its flaws, an outcome that is absent in a reductionist dictionary definition, and among those whose political investment in a movement supersedes their interest in accurately categorizing the world.

Feminism

According to a paper by Rachel Williams and Michele Andrisin Wittig, holding views that favored equality between the sexes is not predictive of taking up the label “feminist.”

A Vox poll suggests that while 85 percent of Americans believe in the equality of the sexes, only 18 percent identify as feminist. A HuffPost/YouGov poll puts the figure for American women who identify as feminist at 20 percent, with 29 percent believing the term to be ethically neutral and 30 percent believing it to be mostly negative.

Another poll finds that, while most British women believe in “feminist” ideas, only nine percent of them identified as a feminist.

The above is important because, unlike definitions of universal facts and laws that hold true regardless of what society thinks of them, concepts like “feminism” both exist as, and get their meaning from, social constructions.

It is clear that, for many, belief in equality does not get them all the way to “feminism.” It would, perhaps, if equality—and all else that is good—entirely constituted the meaning of “feminism.” But people don’t think it does, which means we shouldn’t embrace such a reductionist definition. Doing so is tantamount to declaring all gender egalitarians to be feminists against their will.

Any imperialistic imposition of one definition over others amounts to nothing more than a political move aimed either at (a) shifting the definition in popular understanding or (b) reinforcing the illusion of a definition with consensus. In both cases, the goal is political rather than philosophical.

But because a popular word’s true meaning—by that I mean a definition motivated by delineating a meaning rather than forming a movement — cannot be co-opted by a school of thought or by a social cause, I disagree with the idea that believing in the equality of the sexes necessarily makes one a feminist.

The Consequences of Cherry-Picking

Nothing but a political claim can exclude unsavory streams of activism and inaccuracies from what feminism is. Doing so amounts to nothing more than a no-true-Scotsman fallacy. Due to the way ideology works, even if one recognizes this, one may project the best parts of feminism in one’s own eyes as the most significant aspects, while delegating the undesirable aspects as insignificant or inconsequential.

Such claims can come from a place of good intentions — for example, the notion that there needs to be a unifying label for all who claim to support equal rights for men and women in order to perform effective activism and achieve political solutions.

What such an attitude fails to take into account is that the feminist label creates links of association with more elements and truth claims than that with which one might agree, lending political power and validation to persons and causes that one might share nothing with beyond the label. Feminism does not envision the equality of the sexes in a uniform manner, and each conception warrants different solutions.

The Perils of Tribalism

The neat and convenient division of the world into feminists and sexists invites every peril that plagues tribalism. Tribalism replaces the process of thinking for oneself with the simple acceptance of the party line.

The feminist label, through the links of association it creates, acts not only as a marker of advocacy but also creates an identity and a community — a tribe. A feminist, with or without their knowledge, is likely to be molded by these social pressures to hold positions that those in their ideological circle hold. Whatever wins the approval of their ideological peers.

Like any movement, feminism has its leaders. These include both academic ideologues and celebrities who identify as feminists. The actions they perform in the name of feminism, due to the nature of tribalism, are treated not according to their merits but are given aplomb at least partially in the spirit of the collective, despite often risking absurdity and advancing untruths. Being a member of a tribe creates a bias towards defending tribal actions rather than disavowing them when necessary.

Coercive conscription from shoehorning individuals into ideological collectives based on the imposition of misleading definitional claims allows ideologues to use the dynamics of tribalism to generate conformity, and as a consequence, political power. Appeals to feminism’s history and tradition to this end are discredited easily by the fact that it is the holding and following of principles upheld by the civil rights victories of the past that is valuable, not membership in a collective that claims ownership of them.

Interestingly, such claims extend to people of the past, such as the suffragettes of the 19th century, who are likely to find little in common with what is espoused in the feminisms of today.

What We Should Do Instead

Ideally, one would take careful stock of the positives and negatives of embracing the label and would make a decision accordingly. Requiring others to take up the identity is, however, wholly unproductive in terms of what’s really important: principles, ideas, and facts. Such identity politics serve to do little past crowding out nuance and critical engagement in public discourse and in the marketplace of ideas, emphasizing instead conformity to an orthodoxy. Disavowing the label, I contend, has the opposite effect.

We are best served by advocacy for individual solutions rather than a broad movement that takes for granted the support of its members for particular agendas advanced by a powerful few. By not delegating thinking to the machinery of a movement, specific issues can be given the attention they deserve. A movement with a grand narrative and a romanticized identity is far more likely to make large herds of people support illogical and ineffective ideologically-driven solutions than if the focus remains solely on identifying problems and having objective conversations about how they can be solved.