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[Chalice] Problems With Feminisms [Chalice]

Presented October 18, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

When I first came to Quincy University in 1990 to be the junior member of the philosophy department, my two senior colleagues in philosophy were both Franciscan friars, Fr. JJ and Fr. Phil. I was responsible for renewing the philosophy department offerings. On of the courses I thought we really needed was a course in Feminism, Feminist Theory or Feminist Philosophy. Since there was no woman philosophy colleague around to teach this course, I created it and have taught it just about every other year for about 14 years now. Of course if I were working in a larger university there is no way I would have ever been allowed to teach this course. And of course there are many feminists out there who I am sure would say that there is no way a man should be allowed to teach a course on Feminist Theory.

And perhaps they are right, but I have been reading about it and teaching it for years anyway. It is always one of my favorite subjects to teach, and I am in fact teaching it this semester. Now I never have enough time to read enough on any of the subjects I teach and am concerned with professionally so perhaps this is due to my insufficient knowledge of the various streams of feminist thinking but I do have this growing sense that at this point feminism and feminist theory has become a complicated mess hard to understand and to explain. At this point it is hard even to say what feminism is and who is a feminist and who isn't a feminist and who gets to say who is and isn't a feminist. I think the entire Sarah Palin controversy has put a spot light on the foggy confusion and lack of clarity that is feminism in our country today. Of course to put a spot light on the foggy confusion and lack of clarity is not to clarify it or to eliminate the foggy confusion but just illuminates it. The Sarah Palin controversy similarly illuminates the fogginess of our conversation today about feminism. What do we mean when we say the words feminist and feminism? What does it mean to be a feminist? Who gets to decide who is a feminist?

Perhaps to dispel the fogginess about what is feminism, the best thing to do would be to settle on a minimal definition. Anyone who supports equal rights for women and who does not think that women should be second class citizens is a feminist, whether he or she would take that term for him or herself or not. Only a sexist caveman would not agree with that. That definition would fit everyone from Anita Hill to Anita Bryant and yes, it would certainly fit Sarah Palin. But most if not all feminist authors and intellectuals would insist that feminist consciousness is consciousness of women's oppression and victimization. They would say that to be a feminist and have feminist consciousness you must be aware of the continuing effects of patriarchy. For many feminists, you cannot have feminism without the concept of patriarchy, without an awareness that we still live in a male dominated society. But how do we know when patriarchy has lost and feminism won? Do we still really live in a male dominated society? To what extent? Do not women have equal opportunity to go to college and grad schools and become professionals, lawyers, doctors, whatever, and are not more women doing this now than men in our society? If we still live within patriarchy, surely the nature of that patriarchy has been changed by feminism and by the progress of women. Should we still even use the concept of patriarchy, or do feminists insult and oppress women when they describe women as oppressed within patriarchy who don't experience themselves as oppressed? A generation ago, when women were much less free and had fewer opportunities open to them than they do now, the concept of patriarchy well described our society. But now, do we live in a patriarchal society? And what are the signs, the manifestations, that patriarchy still exists?

There are many self described feminists who would say that if you are a feminist you not only have to acknowledge and fight against patriarchy, but one of the essential battles you must wage is against patriarchal society's control over the female body. To many feminists, if you want to consider yourself a feminist you have to support the majority decision in Roe Vs. Wade. Women's right to make their own reproductive choices and to make their own decisions during at least the first term of their pregnancies is to many feminists today the central issue confronting American feminism today and an absolutely essential woman right. Both Bush presidencies have placed ultra conservative judges on the Supreme Court, and there are now 4 votes to overturn Roe vs. Wade, so for many feminists it is absolutely crucial to make sure the next president supports that decision and supports women's right to make their own decisions. For many feminists, if you don't support Roe vs. Wade and support a woman's right to choose, you can call yourself a feminist but you are not one. To be a feminist you have to support the pro-choice position.

Of course Sarah Palin is a member of an organization called Feminists for Pro-Life., and she is a self described feminist who does not believe in abortion or the right to choose and who thinks Roe vs. Wade should be overturned. She is not the only one. There are many people in America and many women-some of whom consider themselves feminists-who oppose abortion and want to overturn Roe vs. Wade and who obviously do not see that as patriarchy taking increased control over women's bodies. Should they be excluded from the group and from the very definition of feminism?

And if we did that, would that not contradict what is a very central concept in most versions of feminism, something that for some feminists like bel hooks is the very definition of feminism, sisterhood. For hooks among other feminists, sisterhood is the active sense and activity of solidarity and support among women. Now that is not much solidarity among women, sort of a violation in sisterhood, if some women say to other women that if you don't support Roe vs. Wade you are out of the group of feminists. And is there really such a thing as sisterhood, an active sense of solidarity and support among women, and is this central to how we should think and define feminism? Should it be? Should there be sisterhood? Should women act in solidarity with and support other women because they are women? Do women support and act in solidarity with Hillary Clinton or Condolezza Rice or Sarah Palin because they are women? Is sisterhood in this sense integral to feminism? Should it be?

Another large school of feminism and another way to think feminism is something called gynocentric feminism. Gynocentric feminism argues that the goal of feminism should not be equality with men precisely because men and women are not the same but are different. The central notion within gynocentric feminism is gender difference. It argues that women in liberating themselves from sexist oppression should not strive to make themselves like men but should free themselves from masculine dominance and embrace their own difference as women. Gynocentric feminism argues that there is something like a male way of being in the world and that it involves separation from others, dominance, competition, control, power, often violence. This male way of being in the world is displayed rather clearly, according to gynocentric feminist Mariah Burton Nelson in her book The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, in violent sports like football and rugby.

And of course gynocentric feminists argue that women's ways of being in the world are different from men's. Women's ways of being in the world involve connection to other people, caring, communication, sharing. Carol Gilligan, one of the original gynocentric feminists, argues that gender different is apparent in the way men and women think and live out morality. Men tend to think of morals and ethics as a system of rights and wrongs to be obeyed and their moral thinking involves separation from others whereas women's morality and the way women think about and live in ethical situations are very different. Gilligan argues that women live out not so much a rule-based ethic but more an ethic of caring for and connection to other people. Sara Ruddick, another important gynocentric feminist, argues that since women tend to spend so much time , raising and nurturing their kids, protecting them, keeping them safe, helping them to flourish, so much time doing the work of mothering, that women through this process of mothering come to know in a profound way the value of human life and want it protected. What is natural to women, then, is what Rudduck calls a "maternal peace politics," a politics which believes violence is an evil and that differences have to be resolved peacefully so mothers do not know mourning and their children are not sacrificed for anything. Ruddick argues that mothers, people who raise and nurture kids, can be men but are much more frequently women. Cindy Sheehan and the women around her who were camped outside the Bush ranch in Crawford are rather perfect examples of mothering and of Ruddick's notion of "maternal peace politics." And gee, come to think of it, George W. Bush is a rather perfect example of gynocentric feminism's view of men and of male ways of being in the world. He does seem all about separation from others, power, dominance, etc.

But of course not all men are George W. Bush, nor are they embodiments of gynocentric feminism's view of male ways of being in the world, disconnection, competition, aggression, etc. It doesn't sound much like, for example, Ted Morrisson. Many people reject gynocentric femininism because of all the counter examples. Students reject it all the time with the argument but my mother isn't like that or my dad or my brother isn't like that. Of course gynocentric feminism does not claim that all men are embodiments of the male way of being in the world and all women embody female ways of being in the world. That would be easily disproven. The argument gynocentric feminism makes is definitely an "in general" or "for the most part" type of argument: in general, women are like this and men are like this. It is still often difficult to get students to take gynocentric feminism seriously because they always think of counter examples. You always have to point out that gynocentric feminism doesn't say all men are like this and all women are like this, but that in general men are like this and women are like this. Dana and I were talking about this the other day, and she said in general and for the most part are not very strong forms of argument, and that is true. It is probably not as strong as students and lots of other people want. A lot of students and others respond by saying "if you cannot make statements like all men are and all women are, then we should just talk about people and not men and women. Gynocentric feminists respond that feminist thinking that works along the lines of "for the most part men are" and for the most part women are is still meaningful and important feminist language.

Many people are really turned off by gynocentric feminism because they believe it insults and tears down men. But others really like gynocentric feminism because it involves a powerful critique of male dominant values. Gynocentric feminism can bring a powerful and insightful critique to the whole Sarah Palin controversy. What is the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick. So much for Sarah Ruddick and maternal peace politics. Mom's love hockey and they can be as aggressive as a pitbull. Hmmm and Sarah Palin loves to hunt we were told over and over again at the Republican Convention. She is the only one at the convention who killed and dressed a moose. Gynocentric feminists would argue that John McCain gave to all of us the possibility of a woman vice president, but he chose a woman who embodies the values of male dominance and male ways of being in the world: aggression, competition, separation, killing, violence. Sarah Palin is the male way of being in the world in the form not only of a woman but of an attractive and overtly sexual and flirtatious woman. A gynocentric feminist would probably say Sarah Palin gives men exactly what they want, the opportunity to support and endorse male ways of being in the world while also being sexually attracted to the person who embodies them. And men can also claim to be non-sexist and pro-feminist men because after all they are so non-sexist that they can vote for a woman to be Vice President! And John McCain has certainly proven that he is no old sexist guy by picking a woman to be his Vice President, a woman who he said in the second presidential debate provides a great role model for young women.

This is enough to send gynocentric feminists and lots of other people screaming into the night. I hate to say this but to some extent John McCain is right. Sarah Palin is a role model for a lot of young women. She is what they want to be: she is successful and accomplished, is a wife and a mother, and at the same time she is very sexy and men are very attracted to her. And she could be our first woman Vice President. There are a lot of men and women out there who would say, if that is not a sign of all the progress women have made, what possibly could be?

©2008 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2008. Problems With Femenisms, /talks/20081018.shtml (accessed May 26, 2019).

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