OP-EDS

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May 29, 2009

The third wave of feminism

Feminists would be wise to look at women’s rights as human rights.

The U of C Web site describes the annual Take Back the Night event, a campus demonstration with a “focus on ending sexual assault,” as a “feminist event.” A “feminist” event—not a “humanist” event. The label brings to mind a point raised by legal scholar Katherine MacKinnon: “[W]hy is torture on the basis of sex––for example, in the form of rape, battering, and pornography–not seen as a violation of human rights? When women are abused, human rights are violated; anything less implicitly assumes women are not human.” While MacKinnon herself is generally labeled a “feminist,” this point of hers shows clearly how she is not––and why her not being a feminist is something that she can be proud of.

Modern feminism, in short, is concern for women as women–not as human beings with human rights and human responsibilities. In other words, it is sexist––against women. Self-identifying feminists might protest that feminism, as they understand it, is merely an expression of support for equal rights and the equal treatment of women. If so, they should say so, without using the f-word. There are better words for people who support such things: “Egalitarians” and “democrats” come to mind. In the meantime, it is hard to take seriously the notion that a movement that takes its name from one of the two sexes can really be about equality between the two.

A journey into the Byzantine world of feminist scholarship reveals that there have been three “waves” of feminism in this country. The first wave sought to give women the right to vote; it succeeded. The second wave sought less-crucial rights for women, such as the right to be free from discrimination in the workplace; it succeeded. Equal rights having been won; we are now in the midst of the third wave. In addition to smoothing out some of the rougher, anti-male elements of the first two waves, this wave, explained Naomi Wolf in The Washington Post, seeks to champion women “as cheerful, self-empowered individualists” and affirms that “every woman has something that makes her unique and gifted.”

Modern feminism, in short, teaches that all women should be proud––proud of their being women, proud not because of what they do but because of who they are. How this differs from mere narcissism is unclear. It is completely self-referential, pointing to no values higher than itself. It is whatever is by women and for women.

One might have hoped that since the first two waves focused on rights, the third wave would have focused on…responsibilities. But sadly, not every self-serving Declaration of Independence is followed by a self-limiting Constitution. So instead of a noble vision of how women are uniquely equipped (and better equipped than men) to contribute at all levels of society, we have Girl Power. Instead of a Proverbs 31 (“Woman of Valor”) updated for the 21st century, we have Bitch magazine.

Although feminists often associate their feminism with more elevated sentiments such as a broad concern for the oppressed and voiceless, modern feminism itself is amoral; divorced from humanist values, it treasures pride and power for its own sake. It forgets that there is in fact a difference between self-centeredness and individualism, between arbitrary self-assertion and principled assertiveness.

Sadly, feminists (as I define them) are not alone in the narcissistic celebration of identity as a virtue rather than as a value-neutral, two-dimensional jumping-off point for actual contributions to the world. A good example of this is Gay Pride Week, which students recently celebrated at the U of C. Forget about the seven deadly sins––pride, apparently, is now a virtue. The event might be commendable, and actually advance the just cause of the gay-rights movement, if it celebrated the accomplishments of gays and their tangible contributions. Instead, the operating assumption of Gay Pride Week was that gays should be proud precisely because they are gay. So instead of giving gays on campus an additional, substantive reason to be proud, it included, in the words of the Queers & Associates president, “lewd drag performances with pelvis thrusting and sexual innuendo galore.” Bravo!

This is no way to win converts to the cause of gay rights. A great many Americans resent the implication that not only do they have to tolerate a homosexual lifestyle; they ought to affirm it. Like calling “feminism” a demonstration against activity that is not only a violation of human rights but of state and federal law, Gay Pride Week needlessly turns what should be a matter of universal ethics into one of arbitrary sectarianism. Equality depends on finding common ground, not accentuating divisions.

Nathan Bloom is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.