April 13th, 2012

What makes a good feminist?

It shouldn’t matter that there is no consensus on how a person should behave or the causes she should support as a feminist. The question that guides a feminist should be: Am I hurting or helping other women?

By Zheng Huifen

On March 4, 2012, hundreds of women (and a few men) packed the theatre of the Sydney Opera House to hear Naomi Wolf and Germaine Greer present on feminism. I was in the audience, having flown 8 hours from Singapore for this event in honour of International Women’s Day.

The day’s topic was The F-word: A Day Of Global Feminist Debate. Notwithstanding the promise of a ‘global’ view in the title, the speakers largely touched on “Western feminism”, i.e., the women’s liberation movement from an Anglo-American perspective, beginning from the 18th century.

American author and prominent feminist Naomi Wolf started the afternoon by wondering why many young women no longer felt comfortable identifying themselves with feminism. She also noted that many Anglo-American women expressed dissatisfaction with their lives, wondering “is this all there is?”, even as women around the world continue to break away from traditional gender roles while assuming positions of influence in society and the workplace.

Wolf then attempted to trace the so-called main sources of Anglo-American feminism: The 19th-century concept of women as the “angel in the house”; the existentialism of the mid-20th century; and the frantic consumerism of the late 20th century.

Wolf believed that this intellectual heritage has led to the adoption of a ‘victim’ posture in modern feminist writing, with debates focused on superficial lifestyle choices like working mothers vs stay-at-home mothers, or going barefaced vs using cosmetics.

There is also an underlying assumption that before a woman can be stand up to be an advocate, she must be first be seen as socially acceptable and able to represent the higher moral ground. This is a legacy, says Wolf, of the Victorian suffragettes, who placed women on a pedestal as the fairer, purer sex deserving of protection from ‘male viciousness’. Thus idealised, women were seen as the moral bulwark of society, the nurturer of children, and the the linchpin of their families.

Wolf ended her talk with the suggestion that the feminist movement reclaimed Mary Wollenstoncraft’s 1792 piece Vindication of the Rights of Women as the feminist manifesto, as Wollenstoncraft espoused Enlightenment principles of universal equality and rights.

The second speaker, Germaine Greer, is an Australian writer and academic known for her sharp wit and take-no-prisoners attitude. Greer’s talk certainly lived up to her reputation. She declared that gender equality is not worth pursuing, because women should not desire to ape men. Women should instead pursue solidarity with each other. She gave the example of labour unions, uniting to demand better treatment for workers.

The afternoon’s events closed with a panel discussion between Wolf, Greer, war correspondent Eliza Griswold and Clem Bastow, a freelance journalist and the organiser of Slutwalk Melbourne.

Griswold shared her experience as a war correspondent in Arab countries. She clearly disagreed with Wolf’s proposal for a ‘declaration of universal rights’ as the basis for feminism. Griswold stated that in Arab countries, people used the language of justice to counter perceive inequalities. The language of rights was viewed as an American imposition on local Arab culture.

Bastow offered half-hearted solidarity with Wolf, while Greer and the audience were unresponsive.

At the end of the programme, Greer suggested that anyone who was interested in advocating for women’s causes should “just do it”, instead of worrying about how feminism and feminists are perceived. Indeed, a woman in the audience stood up and offered to start a new activism group. Her suggestion elicited the most enthusiastic response of the day.

So what was this writer’s takeaway from the afternoon?

Truth be told, I came to Sydney feeling somewhat jaded about the feminist movement, and was hoping to find answers at the F-Word debate. While I actively volunteer with AWARE and proudly and publicly identify as a feminist, I have found little personal satisfaction in the philosophy. In my mind was the very question raised by Wolf: “Is this all there is?”

I had a vision of the ‘Ideal Feminist Woman’ as a high-powered superwoman juggling career, family, friends, love, and good works, while maintaining perfect composure and a happy disdain for and independence from gender norms. At the same time, I wondered why few female peers identified with the movement.

It appears that I was also guilty of the “holier than thou” attitude identified by Wolf. And that may explain why many women shy away from identifying with the movement.

On the other hand, this may also explain why some readily use the feminist movement to boost their own legitimacy – to tap into the higher moral ground which they believe to be part of the feminist legacy. For instance, Sarah Palin, the right-wing American politician, has described herself as a ‘conservative feminist’.

The conclusion to draw from these episodes is that a woman does not advance the feminist cause simply by being in a position of some authority, or because she has certain accomplishments, or by trying to be ‘perfect’.

The fundamental principle of the feminist movement is to advance gender equality and support full autonomy for girls and women. Agreeing on the underpinning philosophy is important, and good to know, but not crucial.

During the F-Word session, there was no warm embrace by any speaker of the other speaker’s ideas. Wolf complained of being isolated by the ‘sisterhood’ due to ideological differences; Greer spiritedly defended the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) on the grounds of cultural and moral relativity.

It shouldn’t matter that there is not (and probably never was) a consensus on how a person should behave or the causes she should support as part of the Church of Feminism. The question that guides a feminist (aspiring, conflicted, or otherwise) should be: Am I hurting or helping other women?

I didn’t get the intellectual epiphany I was hoping to find in Sydney. But I did resolve to worry less about the academics of feminism and focus on practical application – supporting autonomy for girls and women, and empowering them achieve their full potential, whatever they choose to be.

The lived experience of men versus that of women will always be different, because of entrenched societal and gender norms and (yes, I’ll say it) biological differences. Even women in a modern society like Singapore continue to have unique issues that require advocacy and special representation before our lawmakers. Otherwise there would not be such great and continued demand for AWARE’s support services and advocacy efforts.

You do not have to be a ‘perfect angel’ of the ‘feminist church’ to help advance the cause. As Germaine Greer suggested: Just do it.

The writer is a lawyer and an AWARE volunteer since 2009.

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