As with pretty much all (I'd say the answer is all
but I'm giving myself some wiggle room) political/social/whatever you want to call it movements/ideas/groups/whatever you want to call them feminism is a big term that encompasses a wide range of groups. Steampunkette's done a a great job above of setting out many of the various different approaches and views within feminism. The difference between the various "waves" is an important one to note as is the fact that "radfems"/TERFs who often get the attention are a small, small, small minority. If one delves into the feminist blog'o'sphere you'll frequently see feminists themselves leading the charge against such figures (notably the TERFS)... but it rarely goes beyond that online domain to make wider news.
Why do such people get the attention while the efforts against them don't?
1) Because it makes good, clickbait ready (in this modern age) copy to write about man hating, radical feminists who have chosen to become "lesbian" (and I use the quotes as I'm not even sure it can be classed as lesbianism) as a political statement and detest the idea of a woman who's settled down, got married and had children. It gets comment sections flowing, the twitter-verse ablaze etc etc.
2) As Steampunkette says, most of these radfems/TERFs came out of the second wave and so they're now frequently old and established enough to have a louder microphone than their numbers really demand. To give a simple example, I give you Julie Burchill
and an article that neatly encapsulates virtually everything that's wrong with that brand of feminism
(warning, extremely transphobic language). Just to give it some context Burchill is (or at least was) one of the highest profile feminists in the UK regularly writing for the Guardian/Observer (the most prominent progressive paper). Yet in that article (originally written for the Observer) she not only goes on a transphobic rant which deservedly got most of the attention and criticism she also throws in a casual aside about feasting on lobster and champagne as a young writer... not exactly "salt of the earth" style of living.
That in many ways sums up prominent second wave feminists in today's day and age; white, wealthy and stuck with a worldview that concentrates entirely on men vs white, relatively wealthy women. They look at feminism as being solely about men vs women without taking other factors... be they monetary, gender, disability or race-based into account. And they tend to be pretty strongly transphobic.
That's why the third wave is important. It understood that matters of gender can't be divorced from other matters entirely. If feminism is about making life better for women (and I'll comment a bit more on that later but it's a good starting point) then does it really matter if the life of a disabled, poor, black, homosxua woman is as terrible as the life of a disabled, poor, black, homosexual man... sure it's equal but it's still terrible. If feminism is about improving the lives of women then it doesn't matter if the issues aren't strictly gender based... they're still issues.
With that said though, I think there are some issues with Third Wave feminism that do hark back somewhat to the issues with the Second Wave. In truth saying issues with Third Wave feminism is somewhat unfair because it's more to do with issues of the amount of media coverage certain things get, but they also get considerable support from other feminists. I'll call the issue "trivial feminism", although again that's somewhat unfair... the issues may not be trivial in-and-of themselves but in light of other things they seemingly become so and/or only impact on a tiny number of women.
Now, I'm not going to follow the "why are you concentrating on this when something worse is happening?" argument. It's weak and false... no-one says the police should stop investigating robberies because there are unsolved murders to give a simple example. But the triumph of intersectionality was recognising how issues of class/wealth (although the two are different), race, sexuality, disability etc impact on women and thus must be given attention. Yet all too often we instead see the "headline" feminist issues being "Ban Bossy
" (which is actually a somewhat important idea ruined by a terrible slogan and focus) or "No More Page 3"
or "women on banknotes"
or tropes vs women in video games
or increasing the number of female board members at companies
or well, pretty much anything on Jezebel
. Even when intersectionality does make an appearance again it tends to delve into the "trivial" things... what insensitive comment did what celebrity make for example. Again, I'm not saying these issues should be completely ignored or not campaigned for... but why so much attention and support for them as compared to say, increasing the standard of living of those in poverty or campaigning against genital mutilation (although that one does at least get some support)? This touches on the wider privilege argument but in my view the two/three biggest privileges one can have are to be able in body/mind and to have wealth... if privilege is about having advantages in life then I'd strongly suggest that someone without physical or mental disabilities and considerable wealth has a bigger advantage in life then someone who suffers from physical or mental disabilities (or at least the more impactful types) and is incredibly poor regardless of pretty much any other factor. If we follow intersectionality then it's therefore those things that should get the most attention and support... far too frequently it isn't. Far too often modern Third Wave feminism comes across as upper-middle class, fairly wealthy, ablebodied-and-minded women complaining about issues that either impact on relatively few women or that are somewhat trivial. It's privileged women forgetting that they are privileged and thinking that the most serious issues for all women are the ones that impact on them.
And that brings us to privilege.
Privilege is simple. There are certain things in life... having a certain amount of wealth, being of a certain race, sex, sexuality or religion, not having disabilities are all common examples... that in essence make life easier
. That doesn't mean life will be easy
, just easier
. I understand why people react badly to the idea; it sometimes comes across as saying that they do
have an easy life because they're a white, heterosexual male from a middle class background for example when that may not be the case... but the truth is that life is most likely easier for a white, heterosexual cis-male from a "nice" middle class background then it is for a black, gay, trans-woman from a dysfunctional poverty stricken background even if everything else is the same. "Privilege" also is specific rather than universal... a man may have more privilege than a women in matters related to gender but that doesn't mean he likewise has more in other areas... a gay man likely has less than a straight woman when it comes to sexuality for example. You don't "tot up" a privilege score by combining all factors and use that in every situation... you look at the ones relevant to the situation at hand.
But I think there are real issues with the way "check your privilege!" is used.
"Check your privilege!" is a trite phrase that, to me, is essentially saying that one shouldn't rely on anecdote or universalize your experiences. So a man saying "I don't see what's the issue with comments on looks... I'd love a woman to say they thought I was damn sexy" is taking his own (privileged) viewpoint/anecdote and universalizing it for his argument. Because he isn't bothered by it it isn't an issue... but as a result of his privilege he's unlikely to have been subjected to such remarks from unwanted third parties throughout his life or have people who were meant to be taking him seriously professionally say it etc etc. He should step back, acknowledge his privilege and reconsider his view.I do note that this should work both ways... just as someone with a lot of privilege in a given area should be careful not to universalise their views so should someone with very little; someone who has suffered extreme racial abuse throughout their life should not assume their experiences and reaction are universal any more than someone who hasn't suffered any should assume theirs are.
So far so good for me. And it's worth adding that someone can go off, check their privilege and come back with exactly the same position. As long as they're using evidence and not merely universalizing their own experiences/anecdotes then their privilege no longer matters... it's the strength of the argument they use.
And that's why I dislike "check your privilege!". Far too often I see it used not as a call to reconsider your argument/comment and think whether your position in and experience of life made you make that argument/comment without looking at other views, opinions and feelings but instead as a way to shut down discussion or a club to beat people with. A man makes a comment on a gender issue... check your privilege! You're a man and thus your argument is wrong. A white person makes a comment on race... check your privilege! You're white and thus your argument is wrong! What, you're still talking? Privilege! A white person saying that they don't see an issue with stop and search by the police can legitimately be asked to check their privilege... historically the police overuse such powers on certain minorities and thus their race shields the commentator from the downsides of such laws... but if the white person comes back, having considered their position and keeps the same one addng that the police disproportionately stop and search certain minorities because statistically certain minorities commit a disproportionately high number of crimes then telling them to check their privilege means nothing... they have and now have evidence rather than universalized anecdote; they may well be wrong but it's the argument that needs to be confronted, not who gave it.
One final comment on modern feminism. It's caught in a pretty difficult debate with itself on the concept of sexuality or, more accurately, sexualisation and sex. When Miley Cyrus does her twerking, tongue sticking out thing
is that a young woman taking control of her sexuality and reveling in it or is it someone being exploited? Is a pornstar who earns a considerable amount of money having sex on camera (normally more than their male co-stars) an example of feminism in action or a sad example of how women are reduced to a piece of meat? Is a woman appearing on the previously mentioned Page 3 an example of how women can voluntarily enjoy looking "sexy" and be rewarded for it or being demeaned? Are women who engage in BDSM play on the submissive side simply reveling in the fact they are now free to ask for this or are they perpetuating the idea of the weak woman being dominated by a man? The debate between "sex positive" and "sex negative" feminists is still ongoing and there's no end in sight.
Back to feminism specifically.
And back to arguably the biggest question of all.
The nature of it.
First, I'm sure we've all heard the "feminism is wrong, we should be egalitarians" argument. It's fairly weak as it only ever seems to apply to feminism. As far as I'm aware no-one criticizes lung cancer charities for not dealing with breast cancer or aid for Africa charities for not giving aid to Asia. But it does touch on one point, which is the difficulty of getting a nice definition of feminism and what it really means.
Isn't it simple? I did say above that feminism is about making life better for women and that seems to make sense. But it also runs slap bang into the idea of "man haters". If feminism is just about making life better for women then it doesn't matter what the consequences for men are. Screw 'em. Give women all the rights, make men suffer etc etc. For a movement largely built around the injustice women suffered in comparison to men it would be extremely strange to turn it into a "revenge" movement about repeating such injustice but the other way. Would life for women improve if for every bit of money a man earned, half of it was taken away, put into a fund and then distributed to all women? Most likely. Is that the sort of feminism all but the most fringe groups want or would support? I highly doubt it.
So change it round then... make the goal of feminism to make women equal to men. But that runs into it's own problems. Gender pay gap? Lower male wages... problem solved. Slut shaming? Insult men who sleep around just as much as you insult women etc etc. That would be a completely legitimate way to "solve" such issues and bring equality. And if the goal is equality then you also have to consider the ways that men are statistically worse off than women... more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be assaulted, statistically likely to die earlier. You have to solve those issues by either making things worse for women or directly making things better for men... and a feminism based around making life worse for women or concentrating on improving mens' lives seems a very strange brand of feminism.
Worse, it also runs into an issue mentioned near the start of this piece. Make the lives of women equal to the lives of men... but if the life of a mentally and physically disabled, homosexual, poor Muslim is still pretty bad (note; if
) then is it really a cause for celebration that men and women with those characteristics struggle through it on equal footing? It's focusing entirely on one area of privilege and ignoring all the others.
As it stands neither "making life better for women" or "making women equal to men" are a goal in and of themselves that seem acceptable. Trying to combine them works in principle but trying to put together exact wording doesn't seem to help much "improving women's lives till they're equal to men" is a decent start but has its own problems. The concept is somewhat easy to understand but to put that in words, especially short, snappy words which would be the perfect answer to "what is feminism?" Not so easy.
Which is where intersectionality is important again.
If life is better for everyone then life will be better for women as well. If life is better for LGBT people it will be better for LGBT women. If life is better for people of all races, it will be better for women of all races. If life is better for people of limited wealth it will be better for women of limited wealth. If life is better for people regardless of gender then it will be better for women. Feminism and feminists will obviously focus on the female aspect of that... the clue's in the name... but the positive of intersectionality is that they don't have to focus on that alone. Feminism is about making life better for women... but to better the life of women involves bettering the life of everyone.
To give a simple example, many people (rightfully) complain that domestic abuse is sometimes painted as an entirely gendered issue with men as the abusers and women the victims. That's not true... the evidence suggests that while more women are abused (and their abuse tends to be of a worse kind) men are also the victims. Likewise people complain about how services and shelters for victims of domestic abuse are often aimed at and restricted to ciswomen... there have been some awful individual stories about trans-women and men being left alone and helpless. But...
1) We're seeing more and more feminists take the view that they're campaigning against domestic abuse not just domestic abuse against women
and thus the opening of more gender-neutral shelters and support (and occasionally ones specific to men).
2) The issue of domestic abuse against men is getting more and more attention and support then ever. It may be indirect, it may have come about by people trying to say "Gotcha! Men are abused too!" to feminists in arguments and debates but the result is that a problem that had long been swept under the carpet has finally been given some attention. That's a good
There are still debates and issues to be hand within feminism... the sex positive/negative thing mentioned above for one and the role of men within it for another; can a man be a feminist or merely an ally? Can a man take a leading role in a feminist movement? Is it right for a man to explain/correct a woman on feminism (even if he's seemingly right) or is that classic "mansplaining". Is the sort of "OMG!" gossipy, somewhat snarky trend in modern online feminism a real replacement (or improvement) on the more academic, "boots on the ground" type of feminism of yesteryear? We could look at why the sort of issues mentioned in the section on "trivial" feminism get more attention than other areas.
But feminism for me is about making life better for women. But life can only get better for women when it's better for everyone. Feminism is in essence a branch of positive egalitarianism; it doesn't want people to have an equally sucky life, it wants them to have an equally good one.