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Blogs Coffee House

What would Mary Wollstonecraft make of today’s feminism?

7 March 2014

1:02 PM

7 March 2014

1:02 PM

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, and no doubt it will be marked by plenty of discussions about internet misogyny, everyday sexism, the war on women and all the other things that get people worked up. So I’d like readers to have a look at this blogpost from Australian forensic psychologist Claire Lehmann, on the subject of feminism, which begins:

‘“Pop-feminism,” as a movement, valorises feelings above reason, cynicism above hope. It has regressed to a point where anything at all, no matter how irrational or how narcissistic, can be celebrated as ‘feminist’.

‘Articles such as: I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I’m Not Sorry, or How Accepting Leggings as Pants Made Me a Better Feminist are shared wide and far on social media as feminist political statements.

‘Anyone can identify as a “feminist”. Even men who openly admit to domestic violence… Tare no boundaries, no benchmarks and no standards to which feminism will hold itself accountable.

‘It was not meant to be like this. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her basic hypothesis was that women are capable of reason; just as men are. Yet because women are denied a rigorous education, this capability is rarely expressed.

‘Wollstonecraft’s achievement was to extend Enlightenment principles to women. Women were rational. Women were not innately ignorant, or naive, but socialised to be that way because their educations were neglected. She wrote that the more educated women became, the better off society would be.’

Read the whole thing there as Lehmann pretty much sums up what a lot of people (like myself) feel about the F-word; we support the basic aims of feminism, but not much of the analysis or prescriptions, and the tone of debate makes it difficult to make any concrete progress.

Central to the problem with pop-feminism is that it is often anti-science, and simply ignores the biological as well as social causes of sexual differences. One reads of some fairly senior, influential people asserting that girls and boys are how they are purely or predominantly because of social constructs, an objective untruth that goes unchallenged by the commentariat.

[Alt-Text]


Why aren’t such assertions laughed out of town? It’s because, as Lehmann says, the debate is held in an emotional, irrational tone and criticism is misconstrued as sexism or misogyny. Human beings are not rational creatures, and in all debates much of it is to do with the singer rather than song; you can’t just place bluntly-placed studies in people’s faces and expect them to take it all on board, especially when the person presenting the argument is unattractive.

But on the subject of sexual differences, and how to achieve the most freedom and opportunity for each of us, the standard of commentary is very poor; much, maybe most of it, is written from the point of view of the commentator, and what a particular claim or study means to them, or how it affects them or their daughter. They’ll usually throw in an anecdote or two that is supposed to prove some wider meaning.

This is not confined to feminism by any means; pretty much any area that touches on human biology is filled with this sort of comment. (How DARE the Tories suggest intelligence may be hereditary! My parents are thick as two planks and I went to Oxford!) This is a fairly recent phenomenon, and I’m pretty sure that when the On the Origin of Species came out there wasn’t a comment piece in the following week’s Observer under the headline ‘Why calling my son a monkey is the most offensive thing that’s ever been said to me.’

Personally, and I may not be typical of the newspaper-reading public, I don’t really care how scientific research makes a journalist feel about themselves; I’m interested in whether it’s true, or what it tells us about ourselves as a species, how it might explain our often odd behaviour, how it may affect attempts to reduce violence; and what implications it has on policy, and the trade-offs that are inevitable in all areas of public and private life.

And although enlisting the support of dead writers is always a bit dodgy, I’m pretty sure Wollstonecraft would agree with that.

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