Saturday, 16 May 2009

A Great Wall of Feminism? Introductory Post

I think this cartoon has some misleading implications.

The first thing I found in it to dislike was the top image, which implies that lesbian marriage rights are less important than heterosexual marriage rights. I hope that the intention was more to show the (debatable) difference between demanding 'pieces of paper' and the right to see one's partner frequently, but it would've been much less misleading to have contrasted lesbian marriage rights in Britain with the right not to be executed for being homosexual in Iran.

My other concern is about the reference to a Great Wall of Feminism itself. Development and gender theory have recently been about diversity and breaking down generalisations about human experience or women's experience. These are valuable contributions, and I'm not advocating a return to essentialism or ethnocentrism. However, I do wonder whether rigid distinctions are being set up when in fact there are more widespread mentalities at work, and when solidarity is not hopeless. I'm also alert to the fact that whilst 'Western' feminism is a product of culture, so are the alternative mentalities promoted in 'post-development' - and culture has generally had its winners and its losers.

The images on the left are all of women standing on soap boxes or giving righteous (and self-interested) speeches. I think the cartoon was a response to the UN conference on women in Beijing in 1995, and thus does make the important point that not all issues do get covered by supposedly representative conferences. However, the implication is that the problems being talked about by First World women are not real issues at all, whereas Third World women are actively suffering and working. Is this supposed to make First World feminists feel guilty? Why is there no picture of homophobic bullying in an American playground? Or a London woman raped because of stereotypes about what she wanted? Conversely, why is there no picture of a Third World woman activist?

I wonder if there is a hint of Molyneux's distinction between 'practical' and 'strategic' women's interests here. A practical interest is one which needs to be fulfilled for someone to have the best standard of living possible within her role, as ascribed by social structure norms. A strategic interest is an interest in changing those norms, structures and roles themselves. This is a useful distinction when investigating the aims of different movements, but I suspect that in terms of eventual outcomes the distinction is false. By implying that a focus on long-term goals (smashing the glass ceiling) detracts from the need to focus on immediate welfare (putting a roof over women and children's heads), this cartoon misses the point.

I plan through this blog to muse and research my way through the connections and differences between structures, mentalities and realities for rich and poor women. I'm under no illusions whatsoever that my decision whether or not to shave my legs is going to have a momentous impact on the lives of those suffering because of the gender status quo. However, I do find that reflecting on the meanings behind even small decisions can be very revealing. Furthermore, as a privileged British woman I am lucky enough to have choices over how to adjust my lifestyle to my ideals, and to choose to interest myself in gender at many different levels. I'd like to be coherent. I will be posting about leg hair, but I will also be posting about more violent parallels, and about 'separate' issues.

Finally, where in the cartoon is the husband who is visited only twice a year, and what does he think of all this? I wonder whether we have set up other Great Walls which limit our understanding, not only between different women but also between women and men. I believe fervently in equal rights for men and women, I don't agree with double standards, and I do think that in most parts of the world women have had a rougher deal: I therefore call myself feminist. However, women enforce gender norms on each other and on men; men enforce gender norms on other men as well as on women. My upcoming dissertation project will be on female genital cutting. Some feminists have been in uproar against men who 'diverted' discussions about this onto the topic of male circumcision. I agree that there is a difference of scale, but in many regions they are seen as highly comparable practices. How are we to understand this issue if we shout down that belief? I hope I can draw into this blog ideas about men and masculinity as well as women.


  1. OH WHAT. I just wrote the longest comment ever to this entry, and Joe's internet failed and deleted it. It took me about twenty minutes to write :(

  2. Things covered by my comment which has now been forever lost in the ether:

    The way that people dismiss small issues because they think they're unimportant, when in actual fact they are interlinked with much bigger issues and often stem from essentially the same problem.

    What exactly the cartoonist thinks we should do about the state of the world if we're not supposed to be 'selfish' and push for equality because there are other people suffering more than we are

    The idea that, in my opinion, you can't talk about ideas about women in society without also talking about ideas about men in society (one of my favourite slogans highlights this dichotomy with regards to 'Playboy' culture: 'women are not objects; men are not animals'. You can't peddle stereotypes about one gender without peddling contrasting ones about the other). So I don't think feminism can be exclusively women-focussed, despite the name.

    Derailing discussions about FGM to talk about male circumcision: when I've seen this done, it's by people complaining that we're getting all upset about other people's barbarism towards girls but completely failing to notice the SAME barbarism going on towards baby boys IN OUR OWN HOSPITALS! And that's annoying. But I can see how it's different if you're talking about male circumcision in cultures where people practise FGM, and where the practices are seen as comparable by the people who are practising them.