Treachery and sisterhood: What does it mean to "betray" feminism?

The whole notion that today's young women have somehow betrayed the "true" feminism is a bit of a muddle - who are these women who are letting the side down?

Today’s young women have betrayed feminism, we were told this week, and not for the first time. The nature of the betrayal may change but the message remains the same: you have deviated from our destined, laid-down path, and we’re not sure there’s any way back now. Pesky capitalism.

This time we are traitors because we are, apparently, far too interested in the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy, and "hundreds of thousands of young, female undergraduates want Kate’s life, and luck".

Do they? Do they really? They may want her £38 spotty Topshop dress but is any young woman today really lusting after that level of media scrutiny, the ceremonial bollocks, the eccentric family? To accuse today’s young women of a Cinderella complex is to forget that they are multifaceted human beings with wit, intelligence, ambition and autonomy. We are not some kind of monolithic force of Princess-loving, Bridget Jones-obsessed bimbos, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown suggested in yesterday’s rant, but a diverse set of individuals whose burgeoning power in the world was undercut by the increasing commercialisation of every aspect of our lives. It isn’t simply that young women are "squandering the hard-won achievements of original feminism" (and that in itself is debateable: we are voting, we are using contraception, we are working, we are writing and talking and even sometimes shouting) but that we saw your feminism and, in the face of so much shiny shiny coming from different sources, we weren’t sure that we wanted it.

We do not, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argues, blame the baby boomers. The Old Fems, as she calls them, did their best. But they just couldn’t fight the tides of consumerism, even the ones who tried their hardest. Even the most tenacious of mothers, the ones who weren’t quite knackered enough to stop trying, couldn’t. These mums who stood in front of Xtina in her leather chaps and her little red knickers and tried to explain about these "common narratives" that are so regressive and anti-women were asked to get out of the way.

Is that a betrayal? It probably feels like it, to the old guard, who worked to create a coherent movement from the chaos of contradictory voices and demands. There is no coherent women’s movement now: to pretend otherwise would be false. Instead there are a number of fights being undertaken on different fronts, by fashionable looking young women who listen to hip hop and even wax their legs when they can be arsed, and refuse to feel guilty about that or any other bigger perceived transgressions they may or may not have committed. And in the face of so much pre-packaged femininity being marketed at us from all directions, we’d say that was a triumph.

Women will never want what their mothers wanted. Not exactly. That is a fact. But this idea of treachery is interesting. What does it mean to betray feminism? If we are to believe Brown, it is through failing to resist market forces: by buying 50 Shades of Grey, or by watching "internet porn sewage". Yet she speaks of women in Birmingham who are struggling to look after their kids. Can these women not do these things too? Who are these women who are letting the side down? These women who will ‘talk of little else’ when the Royal baby is born, who are they? Do they exist? And so what if they do? Is it inherently anti-feminist to like babies now?

This whole notion of betrayal is a bit of a muddle, complicated as it is by notions of false loyalty to a sisterhood that doesn’t exist, as though by sharing certain gender traits we should all somehow be telepathically backing one another, all the time. This week we criticised the journalist Polly Vernon, who ten years ago wrote an article for the Observer about how great it was to be thin that was so disturbing (and encouraging) that many of our generation still remember it today. Several women who were recovering from eating disorders at the time said that it sent them back into a tailspin, one said she printed it out and had it on her wall. Vernon’s reaction to the criticism, aside from being spectacularly immature, was to say that at least she never attacks other women, which the Vagenda does all the time, obviously.

But of course, many of us know that criticism should occur irrespective of gender. This idea of a sisterhood is a false interpretation of feminism. It is not a betrayal of an entire gender to criticise a woman’s actions when she is doing something damaging. It is equality. It is challenging shitty behaviour in the same way that you would a man’s, and that is a positive step, though it may seem a negative one.

As this piece was being written, we received a message on Twitter from one of Vernon’s supporters. It said "maybe your self-esteem issues have nothing to do with another women’s weight and her decision to write about it". Or maybe they have everything to do with it. This failure to understand context is exactly the same problem that Brown has in her piece. You are not a betrayal to women if you read 50 Shades of Grey, or watch Bridget Jones’ Diary, or care about the Royal baby. You are a betrayal only if you fail to realise that your words and actions have the power and the potential to injure others, to send them backwards, to make them weaker and not stronger. You are a betrayal if your pursuit of individualism is such that you have forgotten completely the needs and vulnerabilities of those around you. You are a betrayal if Cinderella has won.

Those women, those women should be condemned absolutely. 

Campaigners at a rally organised by UK Feminista at Parliament in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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No, single men do not have a “right” to reproduce

The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies.

Last year, Katha Pollitt wrote an article for The Nation in which she asked why the left was simultaneously making progress with equal marriage while falling behind on abortion rights. “The media ,” she wrote, “present marriage equality and reproductive rights as ‘culture war’ issues, as if they somehow went together. But perhaps they’re not as similar as we think.”

She highlighted the ways in which the right can afford to cede ground on marriage equality while continuing to deny females bodily autonomy. She is right to do so. While both reproductive choice and gay rights may be classed as gender issues, each has its own very specific relationship to patriarchy.

A woman’s desire to control her reproductive destiny will always be in direct opposition to patriarchy’s desire to exploit female bodies as a reproductive resource. The social institutions that develop to support the latter – such as marriage – may change, but the exploitation can remain in place.

This has, I think, caused great confusion for those of us who like to see ourselves as progressive. We know that the idealisation of the heterosexual nuclear family, coupled with the demonisation of all relationships seen as “other”, has caused harm to countless individuals. We refuse to define marriage as solely for the purpose of procreation, or to insist that a family unit includes one parent of each sex.

We know we are right in thinking that one cannot challenge patriarchy without fundamentally revising our understanding of family structures. Where we have gone wrong is in assuming that a revision of family structures will, in and of itself, challenge patriarchy. On the contrary, it can accommodate it.

This is why all feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.

According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:

“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”

It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.

I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.

I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.

There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.

In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.

This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.

Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.

“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?

Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.

The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.