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25 January 2017

As a feminist, should I support a woman’s right to choose to be anti-feminist?

Perhaps we have to accept that the fight for women’s liberation cannot pander to the individual desires of those women who stand against us.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

“Feminism,” claimed Andrea Dworkin, “is a political practice of fighting male supremacy on behalf of women as a class, including all the women you don’t like, including all the women you don’t want to be around, including all the women who used to be your best friends whom you don’t want anything to do with any more.”

That’s all very well, but what I want to know is this: does feminism also have to include Ann Widdecombe?

Last Saturday, millions of women across the globe took to the streets to march against Donald Trump and the anti-feminist politics for which he stands. It’s a display of resistance that former MP Widdecombe dismissed as “pathetic”. Speaking to Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, she argued that women already had “absolute equality”, even claiming that things had gone “very unfairly the other way”.

Yes, the most powerful man in the world, one who openly admits to grabbing “them by the pussy”, may have just signed legislation that will lead to the deaths of pregnant women in developing countries, but Widdecombe doesn’t have a problem with it. What’s more, she’s not the only one.

bell hooks may have told us that feminism is for everybody, but there are plenty of women who are more than happy to claim it’s not for them. This causes problems for a movement aspiring to represent one and all.

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Some women remain committed to the project of women’s liberation, but have particular reasons to distance themselves from feminism per se – experiences of racism or classism within the movement, for instance. Yet there’s another, very different, group. Those who question the idea that women need liberating at all. Usually white and economically privileged, such women take the line that if they don’t feel oppressed by gender, why should anyone else?

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As one “viral” anti-march Facebook post put it:

“There is nothing stopping me to do anything in this world but MYSELF . . .

“Quit blaming.

“Take responsibility.

“If you want to speak, do so. But do not expect for me, a woman, to take you seriously wearing a pink va-jay-jay hat on your head and screaming profanities and bashing men.”

Truly, these are words to gladden any insecure, feminist-fearing man’s heart. Indeed, according to the conservative columnist Matt Walsh, most women, “would literally rather die than put on a vagina costume and march through the streets chanting for more abortions”.

I somehow don’t think this is true (me, I’d dress as a penis and profess undying love for Trump if the alternative was literal death). Nonetheless, even if vocally anti-feminist women are a minority, they are saying the things many men want to hear.

And do we, as feminists, have the right to ignore them? Even if we wanted to, I’m not sure we could. The anti-feminist woman is paraded before our eyes as an example of how all of us could be if only we weren’t so whiney/self-pitying/aware of the fact that 47,000 women are dying every year as a result of unsafe abortion. The anti-feminist woman cries foul on our attempts to represent all women, everywhere. “You don’t represent me,” she says. What’s more, maybe she’s right.

Maybe feminism doesn’t represent every individual woman. Maybe we have to admit that, as a movement, we can stand for the liberation of women as a class, but cannot pander to the individual desires of those women who stand against us.

It is a difficult thing to acknowledge, particularly when so much store is set by respecting other women’s choices, but feminism has to have clear moral principles. It is about work and bodies and lives. I don’t think you can be anti-choice and a feminist. I don’t think you can ignore unpaid care work and be a feminist. I don’t think you can support race- and class-based exploitation and be a feminist. I think you can be flawed, as we all are, with all sorts of internalised prejudices, but there are beliefs and systems that feminism asks that you explicitly oppose.

In her 1991 book Backlash, Susan Faludi argued that the anti-feminist women of America’s New Right benefited from feminism perhaps even more than those who spoke up for it:

“While mainstream professional women were more likely to voice feminist principles while struggling internally with the self-doubts and recriminations that the backlash generated, the New Right women were voicing anti-feminist views – while internalizing the message of the women’s movement and quietly incorporating its tenets of self-determination, equality and freedom of choice into their private behaviour. […] The women always played by their men’s rules, and for that they enjoyed the esteem and blessings of their subculture. On the other hand, working and single women in the mainstream, who were more authentically independent, had no such cheering squad to buoy their spirits; they were undermined daily by a popular culture that parodied their lifestyle, heaped pity and ridicule on their choices, and berated their feminist ‘mistakes’.”

Almost three decades later, women such as Ann Widdecombe and Theresa May gain male approval for supposedly standing on their own two feet and not needing any “extra” help (and yes, I know that May has claimed to be a feminist, but her actions have done more than enough to reassure any fearful men that she is not).

I’d love to claim that deep down, all women benefit from feminism. But right now, in the world as it is, it seems clear to me that some women benefit – at least in a superficial sense – from opposing it. Even so, this need not make them terrible people. As Dworkin wrote in Right-Wing Women, “no one can bear to live a meaningless life”:

“Women fight for meaning just as women fight for survival: by attaching themselves to men and the values honored by men. By committing themselves to male values, women seek to acquire value. By advocating male meaning, women seek to acquire meaning.”

But there are better meanings for which women can fight, and those who marched on Saturday know this. Not all women stood with them and we need to admit this. It doesn’t mean we’re wrong.