Women need to get over themselves

| November / December 2005

The biggest problem with American feminism today is its obsession with women.

Yes, you heard me. It's time for those of us who care deeply about eliminating sexism to stop caring so damn much about what women, as a group, are doing. Because a useful, idealistic, transformative progressive feminism is not about women. It's about gender and all the legal and cultural rules that govern it, and it's about power -- who has it and what they do with it.

A transformative progressive feminism envisions a world that is different in two major, related ways. Most obviously, this world would be one in which gender does not determine social roles or expected behavior. More broadly, it would be one in which people are not sacrificed on the altar of profit -- which would mean universal health care, living wages, and drastically reduced consumption with an end to the voracious marketing machine that fuels it. The link between these two elements is clear: Gender, like race, is a socially enforced category that shores up a consumer capitalist system by providing opportunities for marketing and exploitation.

But much of the contemporary American feminist movement is preoccupied with the mistaken belief -- call it femmenism -- that female leadership is inherently different; that having more women in positions of power, authority, or visibility will automatically lead to, or can be equated with, feminist social change; that women are uniquely equipped as a force for action on a given issue; and that isolating feminist work as solely pertaining to women is necessary or even useful. The most pressing issues facing women worldwide -- slave wages, inadequate health care systems, environmental degradation, the endless war and surveillance society of Bush-era neoconservatism, and the rampant corporate profiteering involved in all of the above -- are (a) no less important to feminists just because they also happen to be the most pressing issues facing men; and (b) directly related to the particularly ruthless brand of global capitalism we're currently living under. This vulture capitalism would not magically disappear if women were in charge of more stuff. Racism would not go away. Hell, sexism itself would probably be alive and kicking. God knows the gender binary would be stronger than ever. In short, the actual workings of power will not change with more chromosomal diversity among the powerful.

Yes, gender difference exists. Of course women often behave differently, see the world differently, and have different political views -- when they have been raised with sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice expectations. But such differences are neither automatic (as the evolutionary biologists would have us believe) nor universal (as the cultural essentialists assert).

If we cling to any gender categories at all, we lose out on tremendous liberatory potential. In other words, the half-witted, sentimental obsession with women that is femmenism causes sloppy thinking, intellectual dishonesty, and massive strategic errors. Thanks to the tremendous feminist work of the past century, we have the opportunity to leave that obsession behind. If vital feminist work is going to continue, we need to seize it.

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