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Why is ‘feminism’ such a dirty word?

30 September 2013

30 September 2013

A few years back I did one of those online debates on the Times website, the subject being why feminism had fallen out of favour. Within about 60 seconds four people had used the phrase ‘gender is a social construct’ and, well, I sort of switched off at that point.

It’s strange that the F-word is now so unpopular that even David Cameron, a man with a desperately keen ear for metro-liberal opinion, refused to identify as such last week. When asked by Red magazine, he said: ‘I don’t know what I’d call myself… it’s up to others to attach labels. But I believe men and women should be treated equally.’

This is odd because, by the classic definition of the term, Cameron is most certainly a feminist, as are most of us – yet few identify as such.

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Lots of traditionally right-wing worldviews suffer this problem, but feminism is the only (broadly) leftist ideology that has been successfully toxified. Like nationalism, it is popularly characterised by its most extreme elements; I doubt Cameron would identify as a nationalist, even though by the broader definition he, like the vast majority of humanity, believes in national sovereignty.

There are two types of feminism, as Steven Pinker wrote in The Blank Slate:

‘Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.’ 

Most people are equity feminists, including the prime minister; gender feminism is still believed in by plenty of people in the media and politics, but the vast majority of scientific research suggests that it is just that — a belief system — and most non-activists see it that way. But, then, lots of political ideas are based on pseudoscience and are still widely popular.

Neither is radical feminism an especially harmful creed. Socialism, in its worst forms, has killed millions, yet lots of people still happily identify with socialism, even people who aren’t in fact really socialists, but think socialism = generosity and niceness. With feminism it’s the opposite.

Perhaps it all comes down to sex. A lot of political activism is motivated by the mating instinct, which is why left-wing ideas have such an advantage on campus and in the media. Feminism is seen as unattractive, so any woman who proclaims herself as such (unless she is stunningly good-looking) makes herself less attractive. That may not deter the true believers or serious thinkers, but all political movements suffer if people are embarrassed to mention it on their online dating profiles. If more women identified as feminists, more men would too.

Or perhaps it’s just that the major battles of feminism have been won, so that ‘feminist’ just sounds too old-fashioned for the great moderniser of the Tory party.


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Show comments
  • Mackem

    If you want equality stop using a label that is feminine and concern it more with a gender neutral term representing all genders not just that of the female. Feminists undermine themselves straight away by using ‘feminism’ as this automatically communicates that females are the inferior gender by using a word aligned with that gender for the seeking of equality.

  • The Equalist
  • StephanieJCW

    I think the reality is that Gender feminists have toxified the brand.

    I don’t think it’s unfair to state that to a certain extent our gender roles are socially constructed, if this wasn’t the case there would be scarcely any difference between women in America / Iran / Swaziland / Australia.

    However to state ALL differences are a result of social conditioning…I am not so sure. And if they are, I am not sure I care. As long as the sexes are treated equitably.

    Besides if gender is a social construct, where does that leave transgender individuals?

    • Toby Esterházy

      Both are suffering from some form of mental illnesses.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Mental illness, at last, a topic you know something about.

        • Toby Esterházy

          If you were born in a stable, does that make you a horse? And in your case, if you lived and slept up with other Japanese children in a stable (a boarding school in Oxfordshire), ate your own (Japanese) food, spoke your own (Japanese) language and do your own things (doing shopping together at weekends with other Japanese pupils. &c.), does that make you a British horse somehow? NO.

        • Toby Esterházy

          The man who spells the word t-h-e-m as “um” (probably deliberately) on the Spectator and thinks he were funny is the one that needs locking up for his puerile, Hollywoodian humour.

  • Tracheal

    Why is ‘feminism’ such a dirty word?

    Because feminism is such an evil ideology, such a filthy lie, and such a hate filled movement. For more background, do some reading on the mainstream official institutional form of feminism which is most certainly ‘gender’-feminism. Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young’s trilogy on feminist-inspired ideological misandry is must reading for apologist ‘reporters’ like Mr. West.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    To me, the “ism” bit of the word feminism sounds like some awful disease – like eg nystigmatism.

    Feminism sounds simply too clinical.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I`ll believe in Feminism the day feminists condemn Islamic misogyny.
    There are some 2,000 female genital mutilations per year in UK, a crime that carries a 14-year jail sentence, but zero arrests, far less convictions. “Can`t risk a deterioration in community cohesion.” For shame Feminists, and for shame HMG for a bunch of Muslim appeasers.

    • John Lea

      and abortion…no man even has the right to express an opinion on that subject, according to these mad harridans.

      • StephanieJCW

        Nobody except the woman having one should have the right to express an opinion.

        I am not going to dictate to someone else what they can and cannot do with their own body – in reference to what they will and will not hold within their womb.

        • Colonel Mustard

          “I am not going to dictate to someone else what they can and cannot do with their own body”

          Feminists are doing precisely that all the time. They want to dictate that some women should not be permitted to model their own bodies in the pages of a national newspaper. They want to dictate what some men can fantasise about and look at with their own eyes. They want to interfere in a private commercial arrangement between a woman who wants to sell personal services and a man who wants to buy them, both sentient consenting adults planning their mutually beneficial activity in private.

          The whole world of feminism is a mixed up, contradictory agenda that seeks to empower by disempowering and to “liberate” by oppressing. And most unfortunately, like many other causes, it has been hijacked by the left to serve other purposes.

  • andagain

    Neither is radical feminism an especially harmful creed.

    That may be because it has never had the untrammelled power of Mao, Stalin,
    etc. Most ideologues are disastrous in such circumstances.

    More to the point: it is a creed that is manipulative in its rhetoric. “Radical Feminism” would seem to be about making life better for women.

    But they claim to be about equal treatment for men and women, which is not
    remotely the same thing.

    So if you call yourself a feminist they instantly expect you to support privileges
    and support for women, and if you do not do so they denounce you as being
    against equality and in favour of oppression and tyranny.

    This can be quite an effective political strategy. But it is hardly one that
    is ever going to make you trusted or liked. Resentment and contempt are
    certain.

    Chivalry, incidentally, was also about making things better for women, and
    Cameron would not object to being called chivalrous. But then, people arguing
    for chivalry don’t keep playing bait-and-switch.

  • http://www.angryharry.com/ Angry Harry

    Feminism is, in practice and in rhetoric, nothing to do with “equality”.

    It is a supremacist ideology based on falsehoods, a hatred of men, and a desire to empower government – which can now poke its nose everywhere into people’s lives – from the boardroom to the bedroom; thanks to feminism.

    Feminism costs our country billions every year; e.g,. via family breakdown, and it is ensuring that our population extinguishes itself through low birth rates.
    .

    • StephanieJCW

      How does feminism cause marital breakdown and low birth rates?

  • John Lea

    All they need is a good shagging.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Welcome to the 21st century, John.

  • clarice007

    It’s a dirty word, because it’s exclusory and divisive. If you called it “gender-balance”, or something more inclusive, everyone but the real haters would go for it

  • Lee Chalmers

    It’s always nice to see a male writer take on this topic with good grace. Can I suggest though that you take a look at a more credible source for your definition of feminism. You can find reference to the main strands and their academic histories on the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/search/searcher.py?query=feminism

    • Toby Esterházy

      When would feminists (as well as members of Stonewall) realise that feminism, homosexuality and transsexualism and anything else are all diseases and sicknesses of the mind?

  • rtj1211

    The question a feminist must always answer to any man of discernment is whether she is an equalitarian or a dominatrix. There are plenty of feminist dominatrices around, as I know to my own cost.

    The reason this is important is that many feminists seek a wife, not a husband. They expect the man to tailor his career around hers, move when she wants to and, if necessary, give up their career to be a house husband when children come along. Most men don’t want that, their genes don’t predispose them to be happy with that and hence the feminist is saying: ‘bugger your needs, you’ll do as I tell you’. Comparisons to the peony of 19th century married women come to mind…..

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Let me give you the best advice you’re likely to get this year, make that decade. “Widen the search.” British women (that’s the parameter) have raised their prices in a buyers` market. Single and not so single, young and not so young British men really owe it to themselves to check their “somewheres east of Suez” options. And then grasp an obvious reality, namely the wisdom of combining emigration with new spouse acquisition. Because you can get a lot more for what you are bringing to the table when you “widen the search” and investigate the foreign born spouse potential. Presupposing you can get into character as an English gentleman.
      And one final tip, never, ever bring her back to live with you in UK, because the corrosive influence of Feminism will rapidly turn her into the type of person you went international to avoid. 
 In addition to side-stepping the outrageous visa fees HMG imposes.
      “many feminists seek a wife, not a husband” Thank you for that. That`s really helped square a circle for me.
      Jack, Japan Alps

      • StephanieJCW

        “And one final tip, never, ever bring her back to live with you in UK, because the corrosive influence of Feminism will rapidly turn her into the type of person you went international to avoid.”

        So we do accept that our behaviour is largely driven By the society in which we live?

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          “So we do accept that our behaviour is largely driven by the society in which we live?”

          Something of a generalization as the stratum of society you occupy plays a part, but essentially “Yes”.
          Help explain why Britain, especially the middle class, is a nation of bullies. You only fully understand the social structure of Britain when viewed from a distance. The other side of the world is usually enough to grasp the big picture, albeit bereft of the fine detail.
          Jack, Japan Alps

          • Toby Esterházy

            Having been to a boarding school (as a foreigner) in Oxfordshire and never spent a single day as an adult in England do not really entitle you to comment on the Country. If you want to rubbish the Country, at least live here for a little while to give you something to show for!

            • Jackthesmilingblack

              Spectator, how much longer are you going to tolerate this fool, this liar, this racist bigot, this fantasist, this narrow-minded xenophobe, this libelist to pollute your site?

              • Toby Esterházy

                If you were born in a stable, does that make you a horse?

                And in your case, if you did not actually born in the (British) stable, but lived and literally slept on the hay with the other (Japanese) children in part of the stable (a boarding school in Oxfordshire) as stable lads, do all that make you a British horse somehow? NO.

        • Toby Esterházy

          “Jackthesmilingblack” is angry, because he is a Japanese, and he could find no local girlfriend in Oxfordshire because they mostly preferred men and boys “of normal sizes” !

      • Toby Esterházy

        Whereas you are a day-dreaming saddo and a pathetic excuse of a human being, who spend most hours of your days for the last 9 years posting the absolute dross, tripe and piffle from one British site to another, and from Japan!

    • StephanieJCW

      “The reason this is important is that many feminists seek a wife, not a husband. They expect the man to tailor his career around hers, move when she wants to and, if necessary, give up their career to be a house husband when children come along. ”

      Hmm.

      So the expectation is that us women, being mere women, should be obliged to do this if we marry? Why exactly is it ok for a man to expect this of his partner, but not for a woman to expect this from hers?

  • rtj1211

    The women who treat men the way that women are treated by ‘sexist men’….

  • Colonel Mustard

    “the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety”

    Really? How does one “socially construct” a pair of genuine breasts, not to mention other essential equipment, or a smaller, more delicate bone structure? How does one “socially construct” a pregnant man?

    I’m all ears (not literally of course).

    PS I would say Cameron is more big wet sissy than feminist.

    • rtj1211

      Well, in terms of societal functions there was a tendency for work to be back breaking, physical stuff in centuries gone by: mining, agriculture using nothing more than a horse, construction without prefab, that sort of thing.

      Women would have had disadvantages.

      Nowadays, with machines, a lot of work can be done as well by women as men, so in that respect, much of how working society was ordered was artificial.

      Cameron is married to an emancipated, strong woman who is his equal or superior in the place of work. He didn’t choose a stay-at-home, gentle wife who just wanted kids. He will see the world different to those who chose the latter. Blair was the same and I do wonder whether him not wearing the trousers in the marital home made him want to prove his cojones to President Bush.

      • Colonel Mustard

        So nowadays there is nothing to stop women fighting on the front line as infantry and getting their hair cut, instead of walking around with buns under their berets?

        • Tracheal

          Or dying 98-2 in combat too? Or dying 95-5 on the job? Or being drafted?

          Feminist bigots seek equality? Be our guests. But don’t whine about niggardly nonsense like the imaginary ‘gender’ (eg sexed) pay gap as you so.

        • StephanieJCW

          I think the law stops women fighting on the front line.

          • Colonel Mustard

            But why, if the premise is that men and women should be equal under the law? Are feminists cherry picking that “equality” they aspire to but happy for discrimination to continue in those fields they don’t much care to pursue?

            • StephanieJCW

              Why? Because social conservatives block it. Feminists have never fought for women NOT to fight on the front line.

          • The Equalist

            Are feminists fighting to change that then? I’ve heard F*** all about that campaign

            • StephanieJCW

              Open your ears then. It’s just that men like you claim women don’t belong fighting on the frontline, as they aren’t strong enough / will upset the sense of comraderie. Either way it’s a silly example of an imbalance when women aren’t allowed to do it.

              • StephanieJCW

                If women (and of course men) choose not to have children, that is entirely their own affair. It’s not a good reason to support inequality.

          • Toby Esterházy

            As they should. What does full equality achieve exactly for the whole society? An increasingly percentage of childless women and thereby a demographic collapse.

          • Natan79

            It really shouldn’t. Let’s have equality there too.

      • StephanieJCW

        So what if he doesn’t “wear the trousers” at home?

        And are you arguing that he thinks men and women should be treated equally is down to him marrying a career woman? So men with stay at home partners believe in discriminatory treatment of the sexes?

        • Toby Esterházy

          The natural career of a woman is the procreation of children. That is what she is naturally designed for until the age of 45 years. Any other career choice is slightly unnatural.

          • StephanieJCW

            Oh shut up.

            • http://www.ukip.org/ George Smiley

              Cats are no substitute to the little tots!

  • Mr Grumpy

    Depends whether you count the consequences of the dogma that foetuses are extensions of their mother’s body as harm, doesn’t it, Ed?

    • StephanieJCW

      I don’t think feminism says that. It says that the womb is part of the woman’s body though. I don’t think that can be debated.

      So the question becomes do people have autonomy over their body. Feminism says yes.

      And if pregnancy makes a woman lose her autonomy then what next? Do we sanction punishing women who drink and smoke while pregnant? What about after birth? If a parent chooses not to donate an organ to a child in need, prison?

      • Mr Grumpy

        It sounds as if you’re giving me permission to beat up my wife. After all, i have autonomy over my fists, don’t I?

  • http://www.facebook.com/martin.adamson.75 Martin Adamson

    Depends what you mean by harmful. If one of the consequences of it is that large numbers of people who accept the basic premise of feminism withdraw themselves from the gene pool by not reproducing – which certainly seems to be happening in many Western countries – then feminism is certainly self-destructive. When acceptance of the tenets is combined – as it almost always is – with an acceptance of of mass immigration from cultures where, how shall we put it?, feminism has made very little impact and which do reproduce themselves very prolifically, then feminism does indeed look like a suicide pact.

    • saffrin

      “If one of the consequences of it is that large numbers of people who accept the basic premise of feminism withdraw themselves from the gene pool by not reproducing”
      Could that not be why Harriet Harman prioritised the gay contingent when it came to child adoption?
      Although it could have been to give them lucrative access to the benefit system I suppose.

    • StephanieJCW

      “If one of the consequences of it is that large numbers of people who accept the basic premise of feminism withdraw themselves from the gene pool by not reproducing”

      This would make sense if one of the basic premises of feminism is that people should not reproduce.

      But seeing as it ins’t, your comment is utterly nonsensical.

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