Saturday, 26 July 2014

Women against feminism: what's the story?

There's "a large and growing number" of women who are against feminism, says the BBC, referring to "a wave of anti-feminist argument from young women". This evidenced by a group Tumblr blog with 4,700 members and a Facebook group with 14,784 members (a good many of whom are there to argue with its founders, to troll, or simply as observers). Far be it from me to dismiss these women's voices, as they may have important points to make on an individual basis, but numbers like this are, when considered in proportion to the number of women using each medium, hardly evidence of a mass movement. The pop group One Direction has over 400 times as many Facebook fans and its cultural relevance is not accorded that kind of weight.

Several publications have now seen fit to publish lists of some of these women talking about their feelings on the subject. If we are to take these as representative at all, we must further question the premise behind these rather wild claims. Around half of those interviewed stress that they are for equality. They say they want the chance to achieve things on their own merits. In other words, they are not anti-feminist at all - they simply describe themselves that way because they don't know what feminism is. Given how little education is available on the subject, this is hardly surprising, and it doesn't mean they're stupid - most of them seem to have arrived at reasonable ethical positions by themselves, just without using the same labels. It does mean, however, that journalists should know better than to treat them as part of the same 'movement' as women who don't believe they are the equals of men.

In between, there is the more obscure group of women who believe they "have all their rights already". Again, this belief doesn't mean they're stupid - they may simply never have been in situations where they were knowingly impacted by gender inequality. It's relatively easy to be sheltered from these things if young and from a relatively comfortable middle class background. If they have limited experience of employment, living independently, raising children, coping with ill health etc., they may not have noticed the worst inequalities, and if they are aware that the potential for male sexual violence has a limiting effect on their lives, they may not see that as part of the same phenomenon. But just as we can't assume they're stupid, we can't assume they wouldn't rage against inequality if they did encounter it, so construing them as anti-feminist, even if they label themselves that way, is rather misleading.

In other words, this notion that a great many women are rising up to say that they don't want to be equal and would rather spend their lives deferring to men just can't be substantiated by the evidence put forward it its support. So why is it circulating at all? There are a few possibilities. First up is sheer sensationalism: it's a simple case of man bites dog, where what is less likely, if presented as truth, gets more attention. Secondly, it's an example of fear porn - that is, people love to be shocked and horrified by reading about what is supposedly going wrong with the world, and the idea of a group turning on its own is easy clickbait. Thirdly, there's the possibility that it serves certain agendas - although most articles express horror at the "growing phenomenon", the idea nevertheless helps to trivialise feminist concerns, positioning them as outdated, elitist and out of touch with everyday reality. (It's also possible, of course, that all these factors are involved to some degree.)

Rather than getting angry at young women who are trying to do what's right with limited information, feminists need to be asking why this non-story has been inflated and passed off as something meaningful - and why it's happening now. At a time when worldwide movements to reduce violence against women are finally gaining ground but when things like access to contraception and the right to equal pay are coming under attack in parts of the Western world, feminist ideas that were once minority currency are gradually moving into mass circulation. We should all be on our guard against insidious attacks based on flimsy evidence. It is the story that is the problem, not the myth upon which it is based.