Where Goes Feminism?

When I started blogging ten years ago, I stepped into a vibrant feminist blogosphere. There were raging battles about reproductive rights and motherhood and employment. I wasn’t a full-time feminist blogger, because I was too undisciplined to commit to one type of blogging, but it was certainly a regular theme at Apt. 11D.

Sadly, all those feminist blogs withered. A handful of bloggers went pro, but most just got tired of the whole thing, like most other bloggers. (One advantage to being an undisciplined blogger is that you don’t really get bored.) Now, we have Jezebel, which is more concerned with Lorde and Avril Lavigne than politics. And then the recession hit and the debates about having a fulfilling career seemed pointless. Having a job — any job — was more critical than self fulfillment.

So, what’s the big issue in feminism today?

I think I found an inkling about where feminists should go buried in a review of Game of Thrones.

In the Atlantic, Amy Sullivan refers to a scene from last night where Cersei talks to Oberyn Martell about her concerns for her daughter’s safety in his kingdom of Dorn. He assures her that we don’t hurt little girls in Dorn. Cersei replies that “Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.”

Sullivan leaves the world of movie reviews and points to reality. “Fantasy would be a series in which little girls and women were off-limits and no one would dream of hurting them. In the real world, men can kidnap more than 200 school girls in Nigeria and their country’s leaders don’t bat an eye. Everywhere in the world, they hurt little girls.”

I think that protecting girls, not just here at home, should be the new direction of feminism. The employment status of highly educated women is not so important. Who’s leaning in and who’s leaning out. Minor. Protecting girls who go to their schools to take a test. Important.


42 thoughts on “Where Goes Feminism?

  1. The problems I see here are:

    1. Most political movements are about helping the participants. For feminism, that mostly means middle or upper-middle class Western women. Violence against little girls isn’t really a big problem for those women, so it’s unlikely that they will be interested in the cause.

    2. In practice, causes like this tend to go after the low-hanging fruit, not the biggest problem. You end up with harsh punishments, under a “zero tolerance policy,” against some kindergarten boy who pulls a girl’s ponytail, while nothing is done about large-scale kidnapping and rape in Africa, because white American liberals don’t have the nerve to do anything actually useful.

    3. Also, causes like this tend to get hijacked by female activists for other causes. Look for Palestinian advocates to define the West Bank occupation as “hurting little girls.”

    4. The whole thing seems vaguely paternalistic. Nobody hurts my little girl, but how could that sentiment be reconciled with any sort of “girl power” concept?

    1. while nothing is done about large-scale kidnapping and rape in Africa, because white American liberals don’t have the nerve to do anything actually useful.

      I wonder if you really think that. If so, it’s amazingly dumb in a very large number of ways. If not, it’s obnoxious trolling. Either way, you should really think more.

      1. Didn’t Bill Clinton himself acknowledge that the West, under his administration, did nothing about genocide in Rwanda, and didn’t he apologize? At the same time, does anyone believe that Congress or any other legislative body in the West would have authorized a useful response to that situation? I rest my case.

        If I was unclear, the big difference between liberals and conservatives on this episode is that a conservative wouldn’t have apologized afterwards. Neither group would do anything useful, but only one group is hypocritical enough to pretend to care.

    2. “while nothing is done about large-scale kidnapping and rape in Africa, because white American liberals don’t have the nerve to do anything actually useful.”

      yes, really? Didn’t we have an interchange about the danger of classifying the “them” as though they were a monolithic group with identical characteristics?

      1. Replying to y81 here:

        Didn’t Bill Clinton himself acknowledge that the West, under his administration, did nothing about genocide in Rwanda, and didn’t he apologize? At the same time, does anyone believe that Congress or any other legislative body in the West would have authorized a useful response to that situation? I rest my case.

        I hope you see that that is a non sequitur from what you wrote. Whatever you think about what could or should have been done about Rwanda, it’s a different problem from “white american liberals not having ‘the nerve’ to do anything about the rape of African girls.” So, I assume you’re resting your case by showing that you, in fact, have no case here, and are just bull-shitting. The “apologizing” bit is just an added bit of strange nonsense.

  2. I’m not sure “government officials don’t bat an eye” is an accurate description of the reaction. Boko Haram is a terrorist organization that has also attacked government offices; they’re not in it with the feds. Last time I heard, the Nigerian army was massing in the area for a rescue attempt.

    You can of course see this as evidence of a government that doesn’t care about girls, and is only interested in their rescue under Western pressure. But it’s not clear to me that’s what’s going on. In a lot of parts of the world, there are states that don’t have full control over the territories that are nominally theirs, and where parts of the government may not even be under control of the nominal head of state. We’re not used to that in the West, so it seems incredible that hundreds of girls could be kidnapped, and the government couldn’t do anything. But that can be the situation elsewhere. For that matter, you could probably kidnap a schoolbus full of 60 kids and disappear into parts of Alaska or Wyoming without the government finding it too easy to track you down and get them back.

  3. Trickle-down feminism is an oxymoron. But so is the idea that protecting little girls can be done in a world where their mothers are devalued. Forget about the highly-educated women; work for a world where women of average education have what we need. Repeat after me: “a rising tide lifts all boats”. The gains of feminism are being lost because working class women were abandoned by the feminist movement after the defeat of the ERA (longer rant about the professionalization of feminism into 501c(3)s instead of being a vibrant rank-aand-file movement that automatically responds to the ground-floor needs of women because that is the wellspring….saved for another day).

    1. I’d have extended the issue further, into the protection of the vulnerable in general. Yes, almost everywhere, women are more vulnerable than men and little girls more vulnerable than little boys, so there is a a gender issue. But, little boys are vulnerable too — the stories of the boys stolen to be soldiers (or, should we say, machine gun fodder?) are pretty horrific, too.

      The stolen girls issue has been circulating in my feeds, and, yes, it’s worth circulating and becoming angry about and making sure that those girls aren’t forgotten, because that can make a difference, to those girls, even if it doesn’t fix the problem. Writing letters on behalf of Amnesty International for prisoners is valuable, too, even when it doesn’t bring down the regime.

      But, the problem, of vulnerable people around the world is a complicated one and not likely fixable by internet petitions. Giving Malala (and not just her, which we can fix, but everyone like her) a chance to go to school requires changing the culture of Pakistan, supporting those who would educate her, building schools on their terms, and encouraging the courage of those girls. It requires supporting freedom and access and free elections and decreasing war and poverty. The tools we have to those ends are far more limited than the tools that we have to prevent the assault of women on US college campuses. Focusing on one rather than the other is an admission of the tools we have to address the problem — we can’t always chose to focus on the biggest problem first. We have to focus on the problem we can solve or mitigate.

    2. The worst thing to happen to the feminist movement was the decline of the labor movement. Employment issues became central to the feminist movement and were reflective of the movement’s participants (i.e. middle and upper class white women). It’s clear that the feminist movement is not capable of being every thing to every one and the answer to this is to expand the number of progressive social movements that are focused on other causes not to expect feminism to do everything.

      1. Point being, the (piss-poor excuse of what passes for a) feminist movement prioritized certain employment issues above others: trickle-down feminism. The concerns of poor and working class women on the job aren’t any less feminist; it’s just more convenient to label us as non- or anti-feminist.

        In other words, the feminist movement isn’t required to be anti-labor, it just is. They’re triangulating themselves into irrelevancy.

      2. Oh, I agree, it doesn’t make sense to focus on the employment issues of relatively well-off women. I also that in addition to that think that the decline of the labor movement translated into a hyper focus on employment issues in the feminist movement at the expense of a host of other “women’s issues.”

  4. I think that protecting girls, not just here at home, should be the new direction of feminism.

    Something seems off about this to me. I guess, what’s driving my reaction is that there’s no meaningful disagreement among the English-speaking discourse community about whether it is a good or a bad thing for schoolgirls to be kidnapped to keep them from attending school — there’s no role for feminism in figuring out which side of the problem to come down on, because there’s no live argument.

    So, calling for feminism to protect girls in developing countries from violence seems to call for a substantial projection of power. Feminism is responsible for bringing an end to terrorism in Nigeria? Feminism should reorder the priorities of the Nigerian government? These are good things to happen, and feminists in a position to take action to serve those goals should do so. But something rubs me the wrong way about saying that the primary focus of ‘feminism’ generally should be doing something extraordinarily difficult that most feminists (like most people generally) are poorly situated to do anything meaningful about. It kind of sounds like a position at risk of being twisted into “What kind of self-centered overprivileged person works on childcare for working women in the US when girls are being abused in Afghanistan?”

    1. Nice summary of what I was feeling, too. I was thinking along the lines of telling kids to eat their peas because there are starving people in India/China/Africa.

      1. bj (zb) – the eat your peas comment is the perfect way to put it.

        elizardbreath – I agree. There is very little an individual can do to “protect girls” around the world and what government can do requires projecting power in ways that might very well make things worse.

  5. Like zb, I also get a little weird about framing the issue as protecting girls worldwide, rather than vulnerable people. ‘Girls’ where they are suffering because of their status as girls, yes, and that certainly seems to be the case in this story. But there’s plenty of suffering to go around.

    Thinking of issues as ‘feminist’ makes most sense to me in a context where equalizing the treatment of the sexes looks to me as if it would be a real improvement in the world. When we’re talking about violence against children in developing countries, it’s possible that making the suffering egalitarian by gender would be a real improvement, but mostly I think the problem is too much violence overall, rather than that if we could just get girls treated as well as boys, then things would be okay.

  6. One of the problems with the feminist movement is that there is no ONE movement. There isn’t one voice for feminists or even one mutually-agreed-upon definition of the term. In the case of this post, I was just talking loosely about women-focused bloggers and writers, and the topics that they’ve been talking about recently. So, when I’m saying that I’m a little bored with the topics from the feminist blogosphere (as much as it still exists), I’m not making judgments about feminism as a whole.

    Alright, let’s leave international issues aside for a moment. (Even though I don’t want to.) Clearly, upper-income, highly educated women have very different needs and concerns than working class women. How about some greater parity of coverage? And actually, I don’t really care whether or not feminist writers do it, as long as somebody is writing on those topics. And I’ll keep linking to them.

    1. That doesn’t bother me in the same way as what I thought you were saying. But I still doubt you’re going to get anything like the vibrancy of the feminist blogosphere you remember from when you started writing. “Vibrancy” seems to me to be about disagreements between people who are close enough overall to successfully talk to each other. Things like the treatment of girls internationally, no one likely to be reading you is going to disagree about much in terms of goals. To get to the kind of disagreement that gets “vibrant”, you’d have to get into real wonkiness, at a level that most people aren’t going to know enough to participate in.

    2. “Clearly, upper-income, highly educated women have very different needs and concerns than working class women”

      I think this is a topic worth discussing. As a starting point, I guess I’d ask what issues upper middle class women have been advocating for, that are contrary to the interests of the working class? I feel like that’s the issue in the undercurrent.

      I think the treatment of nannies & other childcare workers (including some teachers) might be one example — one where upper class families may be the employers who are participants in the exploitation.

  7. You’re not looking in the right places.

    Feminism is partly being subsumed into intersectionality (rightly, in my opinion). Does a black woman suffer more from racism or sexism? The answer is, why are we even asking this question? We have to address both! Likewise gender expression and sexuality bias. And where I see this is not on traditional blogs that converse by alternating posts and cross-links, it’s on tumblr and Dreamwidth and Twitter, and it’s often in the comment sections of those places. It’s in articles about the lack of representation of racial, sexual, gender minorities in popular culture (like movies and comic books) and about reactionary anger of people-with-privilege when oppressive behaviors are called out and punished (like creepers at atheist conferences and science fiction conventions). It’s in online conversations spread across a multitude of platforms about how the old (mostly white male) guard counter-attacks when their sexist, racist, we-were-here-first-and-we’ve-always-done-it-like-this words and behaviors get them tossed out of their professional organizations (like the Science Fiction Writers of America). It’s a head-on conflict between the way things used to be (and since I had a good time impliedly they should stay that way) and the way the rest of us want things to be in the future (which means you can’t keep doing that just because you used to get away with it). And it’s a vibrant, loud, excoriating verbal battle everywhere I look.

    It’s women actors speaking directly to the camera about how few good roles there are for women. It’s male authors dressing up and posing the way women are portrayed in comic books to show how absurd it is. It’s John Scalzi talking about “white male” as playing a game on the easiest setting. It’s women writers across the ‘net opening up about the rape and death threats they get, and sometimes it’s even a major forum (The Comic Book Resources Forum) closing itself and reforming because of the threatening writing posted by some of its participants, or a convention banning somebody because they touched a cosplayer without consent.

    Feminism is out there and in here, at least in my life.

      1. Yes. Would love to read something with some grit and some energy. My usual sources for chick-oriented articles are so dull these days.

  8. I have no solution to the horrible situation in Nigeria and neither do my many well-meaning friends who have it on their FB feed. But here’s why it is a feminist problem: those girls have probably been sold into a form of marriage where they are slaves. They have, most likely, been raped, possibly by men who live in a culture where it is permissible to force your wife, however you got her, to have sex with you, and who may not even think of it as rape. (I am not talking about the kidnappers, whose situation is different.) Some of them may be pregnant already. What feminists have to look at is: what’s next for these women? Do they have, or want, access to abortion? Do they have, or want, access to “divorce” from these sham marriages? What will happen to them if they live alone afterwards? What if they want to keep their children – what rights will they have against their “husbands”? All of these things are connected to a very complicated web of culture, religion, and law.

    1. It’s not just feminists who have to look at this. Men have to look at this. (And yes, I realise these two sets may overlap.) These things are not for “feminists” to “clean up” for everyone else. That’s just women mopping up; same old same old.

  9. No society has ever managed to prevent these kinds of harms to girls and women – who, because of their vulnerability to pregnancy and forced marriage form a distinctive class. But we can try to create a society that is a more livable, hospitable place for women who have gone through terrible things – not just recognition of the crimes committed and punishment of the guilty, though obviously this is important too. Whether we can create it here or even help to create it in other countries, especially ones with such different cultures, is hard to know.

  10. K. Tempest Bradford


    Jim Hines is an SF/F author who promotes diversity, works on safety of women at conventions, and is one of the people who dressed up like book cover and comic book portrayals of women to show how absurd it was:

    John Scalzi on how white male is like playing a game on the lowest difficulty setting

    More anon, after I receive permission from some parties to post their URLs.

  11. I haven’t read the thread yet, but there’s a May 5 WSJ story with the following title:

    Pakistani Girl Forced to Marry as Compensation for Uncle’s Crime

    Apparently in tribal areas of Pakistan, it’s common for families to pay compensation with underaged daughters (it’s called swara).

    “Eight months ago, 11-year-old Amna was married off to a man three times her age to settle a crime her uncle had committed. The uncle had raped another girl in the village, according to tribal elders. Following tribal custom prevalent in highly conservative parts of Pakistan, the elders gave Amna and her 17-year-old cousin, Zulhaj, to that girl’s family.”

    Unsurprisingly, it’s expected (indeed viewed as praiseworthy) for the recipients of this form of compensation to treat the girls badly.

    “In the past, the practice of swara was more symbolic. The girl was handed over as a symbol of peace between the two families and was generally treated with more respect. Today, it has become more about revenge, said Ms. Khan, and the girls are treated as slaves and often sexually abused.
    “There is no point treating the girl well because the community expects you to mistreat her,” she said. “Unless you rape her and abuse her, you aren’t a real Pashtun or Punjabi tribal, they say.””

    The swara can be demanded under ridiculous circumstances:

    “Last October, Mr. Torwali heard that his maternal uncle had approached the village jirga to demand one of his two youngest sisters, ages 11 and 7, in swara for a crime committed 29 years ago. The crime: Mr. Torwali’s parents had married in a love match, rather than arranged marriage. His mother had been ostracized from her family as a result. “Our jirga has only one way to look at it, and it is swara,” said Mr. Torwali. He fought against the jirga’s ruling and in early March, his uncle agreed to accept 300,000 rupees instead.”

  12. I lost a longer comment on this, but one of the areas where US feminists goes wrong is in embracing all manner of weirdness with regard to obstetrical care.


    There’s a mainstream feminist-flavored crusade against responsible standard obstetrical care, and a lot of perfectly normal women get swept along with the more reasonable-sounding aspects of it, not realizing that the movement as such is NUTS.

    (There’s also a non-feminist version of the same thing, which makes this all the weirder.)

    1. Huh? What’s so extreme about reducing unnecessary c-sections? I didn’t see any woo-woo in that article. (which isn’t to say there isn’t some woo in certain out-of-the-way mother’s and pregnancy forums on the internet—just that this article was non-extremist and non-controversial).

      But I’m open to someone explaining how that article was championing weirdness—I read it as the opposite.

    2. I sort of want to call a moratorium on this topic as we have a regular commenter here who has experienced a real childbirth-related tragedy, and it makes me, for example, really uncomfortable commenting on it because it is (very reasonably) very difficult for people who have been through childbirth, good and bad, to separate their individual experiences from the collective accumulation of experience on which public policy/public health decisions are made.

      1. That long-term commentor (if you’re thinking of JennG) is actually pretty active over at Skeptical OB and is strongly committed to the project of safe obstetrical care.

        This kind of calls for a separate thread (if Laura is up for it).

        Lubiddu, have a look at the NYT comment thread. (I had a longer response, but Laura’s comment timer ate it.)

  13. I’m good with that… Let’s leave childbirth politics aside for a while. I’m knee deep in figuring out the summer for Ian right now, but I’ll come up with another topic of debate soon.

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