From last month’s Women’s Marches in Stanford and San Francisco to the sparkly “Of Course I’m a Feminist” stickers adorning laptops and water bottles across campus, the Stanford student body almost unanimously supports feminism.
Of course we should support women’s rights. But before we unthinkingly vouch for the cause of feminism, we should contemplate an important question: what does it mean to be a feminist in 2018?
About a month ago, a friend reflected the sentiment of many self-described feminists when she posted a Snapchat story proclaiming what it took to be a “feminist”: special concern for women of color, transgender women, and Palestinian women. She even urged those who didn’t prioritize these concerns not to call themselves feminists.
Given that I’m not a feminist, my response caught her completely off-guard: I said that I agreed with her definition, and thanked her for making the distinction between feminists and non-feminists clear, since, being in support of women’s rights, I am often lumped in with the feminist movement against my will.
Today, the term “feminist” is popularly understood in the context of "intersectionality" -- feminism which tries to consider issues of others besides “white, middle-class women,” by lumping women’s issues together with those of issues of race, sexual identity, and other categories. Given this incredibly restrictive definition of feminism, it is bewildering that so many students proudly display stickers reading “Of course I’m a feminist.” The insertion of “of course” should raise some eyebrows. The movement holds that feminism isn’t a choice and stigmatizes arguing against it, yet expects its members to adhere to a hyper-specific set of do-or-die stances on a range of contentious political issues.
Stanford’s student body labels anyone who does not identify as “feminist” as anti-woman. In the 1950s, this might have been true, at which time I might have considered myself a feminist -- perhaps even a radical one. Yet in 2018, both the word and the movement have morphed into something far more exclusionary. Today’s feminists not only advocate equal rights for women, but also a series of corollaries, such as the recognition of a gender pay gap motivated by sexism, transgender and abortion rights--the list never ends. In fact, the Women’s March’s policy platform, called "Unity Principles," include the belief that "gender justice is racial justice is economic justice," and that those who do not follow their agenda cannot be true feminists—whether or not the critiques originate from misogyny.
But this binary of “feminist” and “misogynist” is too simplistic, unfairly excluding those who believe that different means more effectively improve life for women.
For instance, the contemporary feminist movement refuses to even countenance the idea that "sexual liberation" may not have benefitted women. It's certainly true that women have historically been held to far more stringent sexual standards than men. However, instead of opting to crack down on men who took advantage of women, the movement advocated for loose sexual standards for women as well: a route which might have been more "fun" in the short term, yet today has had detrimental consequences. The idea that this development helps women is deeply counter-intuitive and short-sighted. If men are sexual predators, then encouraging women to give them what they want helps the wrong side of the equation.
The result is a system of perverse incentives--many women sleep with men without demanding commitment in return, not as an act of "freedom," but because they feel that they won't be competitive for a partner unless they immediately offer sex. Men, in turn, have come to take sex as a given. To be clear, I'm not referring to the culture of sexual assault which has recently come to light and which I vehemently oppose, but rather to completely consensual sex, given before women are psychologically ready and often without the support structure of a relationship in place. Men and women have had different sexual standards for millennia. If the goal is to set a uniform standard, one side must conform. Right now, I believe that women are the ones conforming.
Stanford actively supports such behavior at mandatory events like Beyond Sex Ed, which celebrated casual sex for both women and men who felt “ready.” Are women who aren’t “ready” going to have a harder time finding a partner in such an environment? Probably, though this wasn’t discussed. Although some women certainly prefer casual sex, women who feel peer-pressured to provide something so personal before they are ready suffer far greater psychological harms.
My point isn't that my view on this issue, or any of my other critiques of intersectional feminism, are indisputable truth. You may agree or disagree, and I am completely open to discussion or debate. But I describe it to demonstrate that many critiques of modern feminism originate not from a hatred of women, but rather from different ideas on to how to help ourselves. Since there are many well-meaning and intellectual arguments for separating oneself from the feminist movement, doing so shouldn't be stigmatized.
Unfortunately, at Stanford University, home to its own Women’s March styled after the national one and even hosted by Stanford’s International Socialist Organization (that’s right—apparently to be a feminist at Stanford, you have to be at least ambivalent towards communism), people with dissenting views don’t feel free to express their opinions. According to some of my friends in freshman dorms, during Crossing the Line, every person publicly claimed to be a feminist. But, when asked afterwards about their individual beliefs, their opinions were in fact far more diverse. This is the symptom of an unhealthy movement using cheap intimidation tactics.
When movements aren’t open to dialogue and different means of achieving a shared goal, they begin to rely on dogma rather than search for truth. In the age of the #MeToo movement, for instance, has anyone stopped to consider the possibility that women feel pressured into sex because men expect them to, and likewise men develop the expectation of sex because so many women are willing to give it to them with no strings attached in the first place? Feminists smear this kind of thought process as “blaming the victims,” when in fact it takes the more realistic view that fault occurs on multiple fronts.
Our university was founded for “the cultivation and enlargement of the mind,” not the adherence to a hyper-specific and uncompromising set of “social justice” values. A more inclusive definition of feminism allowing greater introspection within the movement, might allow women like me, who care just as much but propose less orthodox solutions, to join the movement and find common ground. And, by welcoming alternative perspectives, the campus movement might create real solutions rather than merely rallies.
When Linda Sarsour famously claimed that Zionists can't be feminists, many Jewish feminists frantically asserted their right to remain part of the movement. I understand that Sarsour's views are extreme and not espoused by most feminists I know. However, given the respect she still garners within the feminist movement and the fact that she co-chaired the Women’s March, I would challenge all critically-thinking feminists to ask the same question I asked my friend: if this movement doesn't welcome me, my opinions, or my solutions, why would I want to be part of it?