Feminism, defined in the reading, focuses on the movements and discourses around the struggle for women’s equality. It is one thing to assert, as most people now do, that men and women are equal, and that this equality ought to be political, economic, and social. It is quite another to theorize as to how this equality can be achieved.
Vocabulary terms to focus on in the reading: patriarchy, agency, first wave feminism, second wave feminism, intersectionality.
If anyone identifies as feminist, what does the identity mean to you personally, and what/where do you think that the primary struggle is? If anyone identifies as anti-feminist, why; what are you against?
I am not going to ask a lot more questions, because there’s a lot of material in the reading, and I would like people to respond to it in their own way. I will shortly post two more forums, one on feminism and religious doctrine, and one on the #metoo controversy with ‘Grace’ and Aziz Ansari.
2) Circular Reasoning, Religion, and Feminism
‘We are different kinds of dust.’
Resistance to first wave-feminism is frequently based on an appeal to tradition and to religion. It is easy to oppose this in the same vein as any other form of systemic inequality: we have never had a female president because of sexism, and have probably never had a female Pope for the same reason. That seems logical enough,
One of my former college roommates is named Luke; now a history teacher, he is a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, and he and I once had a series of conversations about what seemed to me a contradiction: he supported the basic feminist goal of equality, in that he believed women were equal to men spiritually and intellectually, and also that women should be able to run for office, run businesses etc……however, on the other hand, he resolutely supported his faith’s position: that women should not be priests, bishops, or popes (his faith has more than one pope). I have detected some version of his reasoning in conversations with Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and Catholics. The reasoning goes something like this:
There is a shrine in each home, and then there are the sacraments administered in Church; the shrine at home is not understood in Orthodox theology to be any less important than the church; it is simply different. Women maintain the shrine at home, are, in some translations, even called Priests of the home. God is both male and female; it is not a difference in importance.
I pushed back as hard as I could: There is a difference in power. Priests are professional religious leaders and thinkers; they are paid for their work, and they decide doctrine for for the whole faith. Objectively speaking, they are political and intellectual leaders of their faith. Any faith that does not allow women to be a political or intellectual leader is inherently sexist.
He pushed back, and we reached an impasse: He explained that the Orthodox church has existed in non-capitalist societies where the priests were given only a little food by their community, and many were also farmers; it is a modern secular misconception that being a priest or a bishop is about ‘power.’ It is, in theory, a very humble role. All power, unless wielded for the service of humankind, is evil. A woman should never seek power because she wants it, and neither should a man. There are corrupt priests and bishops, evil people in the church, because it is a fallen world.
No man becomes a priest because he wants power; he becomes a priest because he feels called by God. God’s calling, in his faith (and, in different ways, also in Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, and Islam) is interpreted by and through religious scripture and doctrine. Therefore, it is wrong to imagine a woman deciding to be a bishop, a Rabbi, or an Imam because she thinks she would be good at it: she would have to feel called, and if she believed in her faith, then she couldn’t feel called, because her faith speaks through doctrine and theology, and doctrine and theology say that being in that priestly role is nothing, not actually powerful at all, not any more important than anything else…but that it is simply not a woman’s role.
That perfectly circular argument might help explain why religious faiths as big as the Catholic church will not be changing anytime soon on this issue. Luke’s parting shot in our conversations was this: he truly believed that his faith did not teach that men were better than women, simply that they were different. An ambitious male politician, in Luke’s view, was just as sinful as an ambitious female one: the Church was a haven where things were kept in their proper place, but it was not a hierarchy: compared to God, we are all dust, so we were simply different types of dust.
Needless to say, this view overlaps massively with secular debates about feminism: many so-called anti-feminists would claim that they are not saying that men are better than women in any sense, simply that they are different. Many non-religious conservative writers have put the phrase, “Men and women are different,” on their basic list of conservative beliefs, alongside limited government and free-market capitalism. The implication is that feminists believe that men and women are exactly the same, which is not necessarily the case, of course.
Much of religion resists feminism at every turn: Religious leaders have been at the forefront of opposing first wave feminism, of opposing the proliferation of birth control and sex education and other hallmarks of second-wave feminism, and (today) of a call-back to more traditional values and roles. I share the story about Luke to relate that religious view on this topic are much more complex than merely saying that God thinks men should have power and women should make babies; indeed, that is almost never the case. Instead, Luke’s theological commitment taught me something about just how entrenched these ideas are: he’ll proudly vote for female politicians he supports, but he still believed that his faith, where no woman will ever lead a Church service or serve as bishop or pope, represents an enactment of how things, ‘should be,’ in terms of gender roles.
There are significant movements in every Abrahamic religion to allow women to serve in leadership roles (ie, reformed Judaism, some branches of Protestantism), but they are minority movements when you look worldwide. The thought structure of this type of sexual discrimination are quite different, which leads me to the broader point I would like to make: If John were to say, “I believe that my faith teaches that being gay is wrong and that women can’t serve as religious leaders,” it is easy to assume that John is sexist. In many cases, however, John really doesn’t like believing that, doesn’t particularly want to believe it, and it does not correlate with other politics that John has (ie, he might support gay marriage and vote for Hillary Clinton. The reason why he believes what he believes is that that’s simply what he thinks that his scripture says. Millions of conservative Jews, Christians, and Muslims around the world have intellectually contorted themselves trying to agree with the progressives within their faiths… but they simply can’t, because their minds tell them that their scripture is clear.
Therefore, we should have intellectual empathy and compassion for the plight of theologically conservative, politically progressive people among us (there are more than you think). If you are religious, like Luke, you can’t simply make your scripture mean what you want it to mean; you have an intellectual and spiritual duty to believe what you think it truly says, and that might be politically inconvenient.
Does anyone know anyone with this sort of plight, where they desperately want to support something popular like gay marriage or women having equal access to all jobs…but they just can’t, because of their faith? What is the way forward for feminism amidst dynamics such as this?
3) Feminism & Aziz Ansari: a generational divide?
NOTE: All articles cited in this post are linked at the bottom of the post (note: the articles are not required reading, nor is this post; it is an expansion on the feminism discussion, but in terms of material for the final, the downloadable reading is the only required reading).
4 years ago, in September of 2014, California passed the nation’s first, “ affirmative consent,” laws regarding sexual assault. in preparing to talk to my class about it at the time, I read the entire text of the law, and was quite astounded at how misrepresented it was in much of the media. Not just and right-wing blogs, but even in mainstream newspapers like the San Jose Mercury and the New York Times, columnists weighed in on at the law, claiming it that demanding that a verbal affirmative and continuous consent law turn to normal sexual interactions into crimes. And yet the law itself does not contain the word verbal anywhere, and makes it clear through this omission that there can be different types of consent.
Polls at the time showed the first evidence of a substantial generational difference regarding this issue. Many adults (not always a majority, but a substantial percentage) over 40 tended to find the idea of redefining consensual sex as requiring affirmative, continuous, and enthusiastic consent as either offencive or unnecessary. In every poll done, college students basically are in favor of these laws. Indeed, it seems overwhelmingly clear that the concept of affirmative consent, not just as a definition of what good sex is, but it definition of what legal sex is, speaks to young people in a way that it does not speak as often or as much to people about my age (40 and over). In general, the controversy regarding affirmative consent laws died down for a while, particularly in light of the #metoo and #timesup campaigns; pretty everyone seemed on board with the idea, but I found myself a little bit intellectually queasy, thinking that there were some basic assumptions about agency that had not really been sorted out. The best summary I’ve found for affirmative consent laws is Jaclyn Freeman’s summary: “The idea is simple: In matters of sex, silence or indifference aren’t consent. Only a freely given “yes” counts. And if you can’t tell, you have to ask.” They key phrase, of course, is, ‘have to.’ Should you, ‘have to,’ morally, or should you, ‘have to,’ legally? This is not a small or a simple question.
In the midst of a profound sense of sisterhood and coalescence around common purpose, the #metoo movement hit perhaps its biggest most publicly talked about snag a few months ago when an anonymous woman accused popular comedian Aziz Ansari of sexual assault on the website babe.net. Her account was extraordinarily, unnervingly detailed, and one of the few things that everyone agrees on afterwards is that a mainstream media organization, such as the New York Times, would probably not have have published the story, and definitely would not have published it in the same way. That doesn’t make it wrong, of course. Speaking broadly, her account is this:
‘Grace’ met Aziz at a party, asked him out. She was very excited about the date, went into it with positive energy and high expectations. He was pushy and in a hurry from their first conversation, and she didn’t like how quickly they wound up back at his place with their clothes off, and made this clear when he kept asking about ‘f–king,’ saying to him, “Next time.” From the article:
“And he goes, ‘Oh, you mean second date?’ and I go, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ and he goes, ‘Well, if I poured you another glass of wine now, would it count as our second date?’” He then poured her a glass and handed it to her.”
This exchange may result in doctoral disstertations in Women’s Studies departments, alongside the song, Baby, it’s Cold outside! Before and after the exchange, as it is legally defined, ‘Grace’ and Aziz had sex. She hated all of it, wound up crying in the hallway outside his apartment. She said, ‘next time,’ and he replied with a clever line about the glass of wine being the second date. She also said that she, ‘didn’t want to feel forced,’ but did not actually say that she felt forced. When she unequivocally said no, he apparently stopped and suggested that they watch Seinfeld. She took days to mull over hos tramatized she was, and, in her words, ‘validate’ the encounter as sexual assault.
The reaction to the article was swift and brutal. Bari Weiss, a female New York Times columnist, wrote their most clicked column of the year: “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of not being a mind reader.” She (Weiss) claimed that the babe.net story was, “arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October. It transforms what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness.” Lucia Brawley wrote for CNN Opinion that it was fair to compare what ‘Grace’ did to a bad Yelp review, and that, “if men publicly shared details about bad sexual experiences with women, we would call them misogynist monsters.” Caitlyn Flannegan, a longtime writer for the New Yorker the Atlantic, wrote that, as a 50 year old, the sexual morality that would call Aziz’s actions sexual assault seemed like, “science fiction,” and that, “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab.” I mention these specific writers because The New Yorker, The New York Times, and CNN are not exactly men’s rights forums; the reaction was brutal in exactly the places where we expect ‘woke’ feminist discourse. And the reason is simple enough: this is a debatable issue. A committee of human sexuality and women’s studies theorists, if you gave them a year to come up with a text, could not have done a better job of creating a text perfectly designed to divide feminists, divide women, divide all of us, over the issues of affirmative consent. There simply are two sides to this type of sexual encounter, and this makes us understandably uncomfortable: there are not two sides to sexual assault, in general.
Dozens of articles came out in ensuing weeks, notably Samantha Bee’s brilliant rant against Grace’s detractors, and thousands of blog posts and facebook messages, mostly from women about Grace’s age, claiming that they had suffered similar encounters, and that this was the next great leap forward in the #metoo campaign, talking about encounters that may fall short of rape but were still deeply traumatizing.
My own opinion: Anyone who reads ‘Grace’s account, and is not moved and cannot feel how such an encounter could lead to her feeling completely horrible, has something a bit wrong with them. This woman should not be made fun of, and I am very glad that the account was anonymous, because I cannot imagine the hatred she would unjustifiably endure otherwise. She did not particularly want to write about this: babe.net sought her out. Her ‘validation’, several days after the fact, that what took place was sexual assault, is exactly how millions of people think now, and this absolutely must be taken seriously. Women expect to be treated well, not manipulated into doing things that anyone paying any amount of attention would see that they don’t want to do.
Anyone who doesn’t understand the fairly brutal reaction, from women who are a bit older, including fairly prominent feminists, needs to think clearly for a moment about what Grace’s story says about female agency. Essentially, she went home with Aziz, took her clothes off, and had sex with him all before saying no, all the while ‘giving off non-verbal cues,’ but ‘puzzled’ that he didn’t pick on them. And then the key: she said no; he said, ‘c’mon, please; I want you so bad!’ and then she kept having sex. The implication is that all a man has to do to force or coerce a woman to have sex with him, to make the act illegal, is to aggressively ask her to have sex following her saying that she would rather not. To quote Bari Weiss, she is concerned not so much about Grace herself, but instead about the idea that her article will become an ‘emblem’ for other young women to imitate: it would take us, “back to the era of smelling salts and fainting couches.” She is referring to cliches of the Victorian age of England, when women were believed to have no sexual agency at all. Even talking about sex would cause a woman to faint, and it was not believed that women could be trusted to make decisions about their own sexuality, hence the practice of always having a male chaperone on every date.
Rape has been traditionally thought of not as having sex that you would rather not have, but as being forced or coerced into having sex that you would rather not have. Until now, it has been believed that it is possible to consent to bad sex, even very bad sex. Bad sex is bad, but it is not criminal. In Grace’s account, Aziz’s force/coercion essentially consisted of enthusiastic, manipulative, repeated asking. If manipulation (ie, the joke about the second glass of wine equaling the second date) equates to assault, that could be argued to be taking us back about 100 years in terms of feminist progress.
And yet…the backlash against the backlash has been extraordinary. Babe.net has exploded as a cultural force, and people my age and older are being told that we just don’t understand. Aziz has disappeared completely from the public scene to the same level as Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, and so I ask all of you: what do you think of all of this? Am I reading too much into it? Is there a compromise that can be reached?
Articles cited in this post; again, these are not required reading:
The original babe.net story:
Articles by Weiss, Brawley, Flanagan: