Feminism: It’s about equality, not about being proved right

In 2002, back when the world was fucked up in a slightly different way to how it’s fucked up now, Katharine Viner wrote a piece for the Guardian in response to George W Bush’s assertion that war in the Middle East would increase “respect for women”. It ended with this paragraph, which I’ve always remembered:

Feminism is used for everything these days, except the fight for true equality – to sell trainers, to justify body mutiliations, to make women make porn, to help men get off rape charges, to ensure women feel they have self-respect because they use a self-esteem-enhancing brand of shampoo. No wonder it’s being used as a reason for bombing women and children too.

While I’m unsure of a couple of specific examples, I can’t help thinking the general point is spot on, and as true now as it was 11 years ago. Feminism is a brilliant marketing tool, except for when it comes to marketing feminism itself.

This Sunday’s Observer features an article in which Nick Cohen explains “why leftists and ‘revolutionaries’ are not the best feminists”. Cohen doesn’t actually say who the best feminists are (presumably people who think a little more like Cohen himself, despite his own uncertain views on equal pay principles). As for the worst feminists – well, the impression you get is that the more Nick Cohen dislikes you, the worse you are for the welfare of womankind. That, it seems, is a basic rule of thumb. When you act in a misogynist manner – regardless of whether it’s in the specific context of the SWP covering up rape allegations or the Catholic Church denying access to contraception – the overall context is not one of institutionalised hatred of women. It’s one of not agreeing with Nick Cohen.

I do not for one moment wish to defend the SWP’s behaviour regarding accusations of sexual abuse, misongyny and victim blaming. Nor do I wish to defend the SWP in general; I’m not a member and have never been tempted to become one (I protested against the invasion of Iraq by joining the Lib Dems. Yeah, I know. It was a long time ago). It just seems to me that there is something incredibly exploitative about Cohen’s sudden hijacking of the feminist cause. There is no broader interest in rape culture; where the argument is extended, it is to make opportunistic sideswipes at the “political correctness” that prevents other liberals from being as feminist as Nick Cohen:

If even the brainwashed minions of the SWP can rebel, maybe one day timid liberals will find the courage to condemn a “liberal” legal system that, for reasons of political correctness, has failed to prosecute a single case of female genital mutilation.

Fans of the “what about FGM, eh, you fake feminists?” non-argument will at this point fondly recall the efforts of Neil Wallis and Charlotte Vere. There ought to be a word for this – FGMsplaining = the act of wilfully exploiting the mutilation of another person in order to promote your own personal agenda.

As Viner points out, feminism is about and for equality. It is not be a weapon for others to pick up, use and then discard, and yet so often it is treated as one. There are people who decide feminism legitimises their racism, telling us to “look at the way they [whoever ‘they’ are] treat their women” (with no acknowledgement of inherent sexism of  “their” and “they”). There are people who seek to use it to trash the idea of social responsibility, suggesting that such a thing militates against female independence and choice. There are people who even use the idea of feminism to attack feminism itself, on the basis that real feminists would be ashamed of women today. None of this comes close to engaging with what feminism truly is, but the rhetoric is seductive. It feels cleverer than it really is because it’s being suggested that the knee-jerk, one-dimensional feminism of PC liberals has been out-manoeuvred, even though what’s really on display is nothing more than an opportunistic straw-man argument.

I for one am sick of feminism being misappropriated by part-timers who breeze in, offer their own “reasonable” take on where we’re getting it wrong before passing judgement on the faux feminists who disagree with them. I’m not interested in which political group has “the best feminists”, or indeed the worst. It’s not a question of judging people by their feminism; it should be about feminism changing the ways in which we judge people full stop.