Is feminism sexist?

Is feminism sexist? It’s a question men’s rights activists have been posing for decades, to which the response from feminists has tended to be “no, it bloody isn’t. You’re sexist, mate”. For most of us, the sheer ridiculousness of this question is obvious. Of course feminism focusses on differences in the social and economic status of men and women. Of course feminism claims women experience forms of discrimination that men do not. Of course feminism identifies a power imbalance that is reinforced via gender. But feminism does none of these things in order to reinforce oppression; it does so in an effort to eradicate it. “I see no gender hierarchy,” pleasant as this is for the person not seeing, is of no use to those still stuck at the bottom of the (apparently invisible) pile.

And yet the “is feminism sexist?” question persists, even amongst feminists themselves, even if the latter don’t use quite the same words. Take Catherine Bennett’s current Observer piece, which seeks to inform us that “the idea that violence is gender-based is widely held, but sadly female pacifism is just another myth”. It’s a curious non-sequitur to start with – women don’t have to be actively pacifist for male violence to be a significant problem – but it gets worse as the article goes on. Bennett, ordinarily sharp on women’s issues, genuinely seems to believe there is something horribly sexist in stating the obvious: women simply aren’t as violent as men.

There are many reasons why this is the case. It’s not that we’re all flowery, peace-loving Earth mothers, innately driven to love and nurture. Unless you have some particular urge to reinforce such a stereotype, there is no reason to read it into a basic observation. Moreover, for feminists the key question has not been “why are women less violent?” but “why are men so violent?” It’s the latter that’s the problem, and the latter that needs to change. If we believed that male violence was inevitable, most of us would simply pack up and go back to our (unsafe) homes. Feminism is not a competition to show who’s the most violent, or a campaign for violence equality, measuring success by women killing men at the same rate men kill women. We don’t want anyone to be killing anyone else but we don’t get there by pretending violence is not gendered.

Bennett compares generalised comments on gender and violence to attitudes towards gender stereotyping in toys:

No Let Artillery be Artillery campaign challenged a statement by […] Sajda Mughal […]. “Women are the agents of change, particularly mums in the home,” she said. “They are the ones who can nurture and safeguard their children.” Samantha Lewthwaite, mother of four and, incidentally, the Islamist “white widow”, has presumably, according to this essentialist view of things, undergone the same unsexing programme as Lady Macbeth .

The trouble is, it’s not “essentialist” to point out that fewer women than men are violent terrorists; it’s just true. Furthermore, one has to presume that Mughal, in referring to “agents of change”, isn’t simply thinking “men are violent, women aren’t and that’s that”. She is referring, in general terms, to the specific social and cultural conditions which shape women’s lives. You don’t have to think women are born with some magic, pinkified, group hug part of the brain to note that things that happen to women – and expectations placed upon them – lead them to act differently to men (there are always exceptions, of course). It shouldn’t be a fine line to tread. We should be able to point out that women’s lives are different to men’s (if they weren’t, why would feminism even exist?) without having to say “and therefore the difference is innate and there’s nothing we can do about it”.

The logical conclusion to an approach which sees all observation of difference as “essentialist” is no feminism at all, for wouldn’t it make the very observation that a gender hierarchy exists a form of stereotyping? It’s at this point that the incoherence of such an approach becomes obvious; pointing out that something already exists is not the same as reinforcing it. Description is not prescription. And yet shoot-the-messenger anti-feminism, masquerading as nuance, is becoming more and more commonplace. To say womanhood means anything at all can be decried as regressive and cissexist. But we do have a concept of who “those people” are and we do treat “those people” in a particular way and they, in accordance, feel forced to act differently to “those other people”. To say that isn’t to say “that’s how it should be”; on the contrary, it’s simply noting that we have a problem.

It’s not sexist to describe a sexist world; what’s sexist is telling women that the cost of describing their reality is to be trapped in it forever.