Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The underpinnings of feminism

Heresy Corner critiques an article by one Melissa McEwan.

Misogyny, Up Close and Personal, by Melissa McEwan, in The Guardian.

She complains that when she makes a feminist statement, intellectual men like to argue the toss with her about it, which makes her cry because they don't understand her trauma. Well, surprise, feminism is an intellectual tradition and a set of propositions about the underlying causes of social phenomena: so it's open to debate.

Yes, her lived experience has clearly been traumatic, and I am sorry she has had a rough ride. But one person's life experience does not make a sociological treatise - it's anecdotal evidence. Her experience is not the same as mine - most men I know are very supportive of my feminist views; and I have not experienced nonconsensual frottage on public transport. I have not been raped. I have experienced sexual harassment and verbal abuse, but it is increasingly rare.

I can't abide the sort of essentialism that assumes that women are all-nurturing earth-mother types and men are all abstract intellectuals, or inherently violent, and never the twain shall meet. It's like something out of GK Chesterton (who said something along these lines).

I can back up my particular variety of feminism with intellectual arguments, and moreover, would expect to do so if challenged. If feminism is a worthwhile discourse, we must be able to back it up with sound intellectual arguments and real sociological and ethnographic evidence.


  1. I could hug you, you know that?

  2. Hugs are always welcome. :D

    I have heard the argument about "you don't understand my trauma because you're not me" from someone else in a different context, and it is ultimately futile. Yes, I don't understand exactly what it's like to be [insert minority of which I am not a member] but I can use empathy and reason by analogy with something I do understand.

  3. Having read this article, I feel much empathy for Ms McKewn's experience- I too have been the victim of men who have persistently attempted to patronise me and put me down, as well as sexual misconduct and threats of violence. I share her view that misogyny is built into the media and the institutions of the society in which we live, including academia. It is often colluded with by women (often women who have done well in the education system) who have internalised the prevailing cultural view of women as 'stupid' and who, in desperation to prove they are not 'like them' engage in slagging off certain 'kinds' of women. Often in front of men in prominent positions. I have done it myself. Challenging this is really hard work, often because it is behaviour which the person is not conscious of and it is uncomfortable having these 'props' that allow higher status taken away.

    As an example of how unconscious this stuff can be, I recently heard that in equally mixed groups of men and women, the men on average speak 2/3rds of the time, to the women's 1/3 and then, when reporting back, the women described the gender balance of speakers as half and half. Women seem blind to the inequality because it seems 'normal' for men to speak more. I wish I had the reference for this study- if someone can help here, and/or put it in context I would be most grateful.

    However, I do think as someone who has more than survived academia; “degrees in Sociology and Cultural Anthropology" (her blog) I am surprised and saddened that she seems to lack (or eschew?) those parts of one's essential tool-kit in such terrain; the ability to argue your position, whilst staying calm. Even if the issue is a personally loaded one. There is no shame in a non-formal/non-academic setting to refuse to argue and any pressure to rise to the bait should be understood as a form of bullying and treated as such. Generally speaking though, it is more helpful for the 'cause' to win the argument!

    I also fully agree with her point that "....being on the outside looking in doesn't make one more objective. It merely provides a different perspective." The important question surely is in how one ought to combine (and weight) 'hard' and 'soft' data in order to make one's generalisations. I suspect there are different unwritten 'rules' about this even within academia as well as between academia and journalism.

    This article was presented as a personal account of the misogyny the writer has encountered in her personal life, and the difficulties she has had challenging it and as such, and in not making any attempt to 'pull academic rank' I believe it to be a valuable piece.

    I would like to read more obviously 'intellectual' articles in the papers about feminism- and this does seem lacking. I don't think writers such as McKewn are to blame for this entirely, even if they are essentialists. Perhaps this is a 'chicken and egg' situation; feminism isn't taken seriously as an intellectual tradition by mainly male editors, so the only articles that get through come under the guise of 'personal experience'...then it isn't taken seriously...(Even though those experiences definitely should be taken up by academics, fleshed out and explained for the benefit of those with different life experiences, of whatever gender...)