Thursday, December 4, 2014

Feminism and Books

From time to time over the coming weeks and months, I am planning on reading and sharing my thoughts on several books that relate to the topics of feminism and violence aimed at women. Before I begin to post about these books and the ideas contained in them, I think that it is important to share a little bit about some of my personal biases, options and associations in relation to these topics. As of late my views have become very strong.

I have always considered myself a feminist. Feminism has always been one of the belief systems that I advocated. As with several other social topics, I would have described myself a moderate on the issue.  Over the past year, for various reasons, on various social media, but especially on Twitter, I have strongly spoken in support of causes focusing on the reduction of violence aimed at women as well as upon feminism. Over the past year, my support for feminist ideals, as well as my belief that violence aimed at women is an enormous societal ill that needs more attention, has strengthened.

There are two reasons for the increased level of my convictions. First, I have been reading blogs and articles, as well as listening to women, both in my life as well as on social media, concerning these issues. This has convinced me as to the gravity of the issues that women face worldwide as well as the far - reaching benefits of feminism to all of humanity.

Something else has solidified my beliefs and led me to a point where I would now describe myself as an adamant and committed feminist. Something dark has come along with the recent trend of women speaking out strongly on social media  about violence and sexism. I am not unique in observing unrelenting threats, harassment and insults, some of it perpetuated by semi - organized groups, against women who speak about gender issues on social media. This goes well beyond the usual trolling. It is extremely serious. At its worst it involves death, torture and rape threats directed at both notable Internet personalities as well as against less famous people who I know personally. There have also been campaigns of slander, as well as the release of extremely personal information aimed at women who speak about gender issues. Lately, there has been a fair amount of media coverage, especially on the serious American public policy shows and publications on this issue.

Most of what my friends and acquaintances have experienced was not even the result of speaking about feminism, but instead was prompted as a result of protesting the morally unambiguous issues of rape and violence directed at women.

There is a lot more that I have witnessed that has shocked and angered me. It has been really ugly and unrelenting attempt to silence women who express views on these issues.  If anyone is curious for additional details I will be happy to discuss in either in my comments section or through private email.

All this has helped to convince me that misogyny is a much greater problem in the Western world then I ever imagined, and that the ideals embodied by mainstream feminist thought are directly relevant to what is going in in social media.

I bring this up in context of my future posts to highlight that fact that I am not unbiased in this argument. The unrelenting rage that I have observed by a percentage of my fellow men, directed at women who speak on these issues has influenced my opinion in many areas relating to gender issues as well as feminism.

Though I believe that it a extremely important issue, social media harassment of women is certainly not all there is to gender relations, or to the idea set that is feminism. It is but one of many issues and arguably not the most important.  However, my observation of all this has influenced my personal views and has led to an emotional response. I have become downright furious at times. At other times I have lost my objectivity. I am the first to admit that I must be on guard to the fact that my outraged reaction to the harassment may be distorting my view of the big picture. With that said, what I have observed is clearly relevant to the big picture. As such, I felt the need to air this out before I begin commenting upon relevant books and ideas.

I choose to strive for intellectual honesty. That means I will attempt to examine all ideas critically and fairly. I will listen and discuss dissenting views. I intend to be as open minded and civil as I always am. My regular readers know what I mean.

I can and will apply my usual open mindedness to anti–feminist or the ambiguous opinions of others. Feminism is a set if ideas that like any set of ideas, should be open to scrutiny. There are reasoned and civil arguments against feminist ideals. I would even point out that I do not agree with every pro - feminist idea or concept. I will express my disagreement with ideas, including pro – feminist ones, as I see fit in the context of these books.

It is not anti – feminist ideas and opinions that anger me, rather it is the ubiquities and unrelenting harassment of feminists on social media (I must qualify this to say that there are a few extremely odious ideas that I have encountered recently that I have no respect for. For instance, I have run into folks who claim that most women are intellectually inferior to men, that society should accept rape as natural, etc.) . I have had rational discussions with both men and women, who for various reasons are anti – feminists, who are reasoned, respectful and are in no way misogynist. I consider this an intellectual disagreement.

Since I am bandying about the word, I think it is fitting to define what I believe feminism is. In my opinion the term is one of the most misconstrued around. For now, I will start with the basic Miriam - Webster’s definition,

The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.


Organized activity in support of women's rights and interests.

The above definition is simple and in accord with my own beliefs. I would go a little further and argue that in order to be a feminist these days also means that one believes that there is still progress to be made in the pursuit of equality.

Some of the thinkers that I will discuss in future posts may have alternate definitions that I hope to explore.

In my opinion feminism has been given a bad name. Feminists have been unfairly stigmatized as all adhering to the most extreme positions. Like most broad based ideologies with a lot of adherents, there are some very controversial feminist thinkers and ideas out there. One does not need to accept all, or any, radical or revolutionary ideas to be a feminist. However, I hope to investigate and weigh in upon some of these controversial ideas in upcoming posts.

I also would like to address the contention that I have heard from some feminists as well as others: that is the opinion that men cannot be feminists. Since I consider feminism to be a set of ideas and ideals, I would argue that anyone who holds such ideas and ideals is a feminist.

I want to mention a couple of books that I have already read and written commentary on.  While not considered a book on feminism, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, is in my opinion, a profoundly important work that relates to the subject. In this book, Pinker lays out a hardheaded and convincing case for what he believes are five historical forces driving humanity to a more peaceful, prosperous and virtuous future. One of the factors he calls “Feminization”, which is basically the empowerment of women and the increased influence of women on society. My commentary on this work is here.

Christine de Pizan ‘s The Book of The City of Ladies was written in 1405. Christine was amazingly ahead her time in her presentation of what I would call pre - feminist ideals as well as in her identification and criticism of what today we would call stereotyping. I commented upon this book here.

I do think that I will take on some challenging and controversial books. I will be reading authors who have ideas on gender issues that I both agree and disagree with. Thus I anticipate some very interesting posts to come.


Suko said...

Brian Joseph, thank you for this post, and for your support of feminism! Your definition is a good one, I think, and yes, we still have work to do. The Book of the City of Ladies sounds intriguing and definitely ahead of its time. I look forward to your next post about this important subject, which affects us all in profound ways.

Anonymous said...

I applaud you for exploring this topic and also look forward to hearing about the books you discover.

Anonymous said...

I left a comment, but it didn't post so I will try again. Bravo for taking on this topic and exploring the various sides to it. I look forward to hearing about the books you discover.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - One of the arguments that I hear against feminism is that full equality has been reached in Western nations but I agree, there is still progress to be made. The harassment that I refer to alone is evidence of that.

My next post will be on a feminist non fiction book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ebook- Thank you!

I've already finished one book that I will be posting about soon.

Maria Behar said...

Oh, Brian, what an EXCELLENT post!! You have made your position very clear, and your honesty is so refreshing!

You have made an extremely important point in regards to violence against women. It's an unfortunate fact, however, that the early feminists were also subject to violence, although directly. When suffragettes protested in large cities, they were pelted with bottles and rocks. Nowadays, it's harassment on social media, but the violence is still there.

I don't understand why some men feel so threatened by the idea of female equality. And, as you also point out in this post, these men insist that women are intellectually inferior to men!! I don't get mad when men point out that, physically, women are not as strong as men. That is certainly true, although I also believe that we are not as weak as some insist we are. However, the idea that a woman is considered intellectually inferior by these men totally INFURIATES me!! That is just NOT so. Besides, brain wins over brawn any day. The great ideas of history have made sweeping changes that were never brought about by sheer physical force.

Another thing that infuriates me is the stereotype of feminists as man-haters. That, too, is totally FALSE. We female feminists do NOT hate men. What we hate is the oppression of the patriarchy, perpetuated by a LOT of men to this very day. It's a fact that women were once considered the property of men, and, unfortunately, many men still think this way. We can even still see this in the custom of a father "giving away" his daughter to her new husband, during the wedding ceremony. And women still, for the most part, take on their husbands' last names when they marry.

Like you, I do not agree with all the tenets of feminism. As you know, I am staunchly pro-life, for instance. I do firmly believe in contraception, but only if it doesn't harm the life of an unborn child. But I do agree -- quite vehemently -- that women have every right to be paid an equal salary for equal work. We also have the right to determine our own destinies. And we certainly have the right to walk without fear through city streets. Furthermore, the double standard, which is STILL around, has got to go. Men have GOT to stop boasting about how many women they've "conquered".

Of course, the changes in such things as rape culture and the double standard have to come about through collaboration from feminist parents. This is still all too rare, unfortunately.....

I first learned about Christine de Pizan from your blog, by the way, so I thank you for introducing me to her work!!

To sum up, I commend you for this post, and for having the courage to begin a series of such posts. And I'm glad you have comment moderation in place, so the haters won't have a chance to spoil things. As you say, polite disagreement is welcome. Hate speech and threats most certainly are NOT.

Thank you so much for your thoughts!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

It was the fact that I was so naive. I thought that such determined and widespread hatred of women was a thing of the past.

It is not just traditional hate speech that I have observed. While, as I mentioned there are people arguing rationally against Feminism there is a large number of men, who are seemingly calm, using what I believe are passive aggressive tactics against women who speak out against violence.

For instance, a women speaks about a violent attack on social media. She names no perpetrator so it cannot be argued that anyone is protecting a wrongly accused person. Multiple men demand proof that she was attacked. Or a women speaks out about rape, multiple men calmly ask her a non related question meant to goad her such as "why do feminists hate men".

I have interacted with a lot of committed feminists over the past year or so. Only a tiny few harbored hostility to men. As a feminist I have no problem with men either :)

The contention that women are intellectually inferior to men is infuriating, but also laughable.

Some men are really threatened by empowered women. I must admit not understanding it all. Such thoughts and feelings are not in me. Perhaps it is because I have always been surrounded by strong and intelligent women.

As you know I agree with you on the other issues too.

Violet said...

I agree with your definition of feminism, although there are SO MANY feminisms out there these days. For me, it's all about equality for everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, age, etc. It's about acceptance, inclusion, and mutual respect.

I don't see why anyone would disagree with that idea, but some people do. I think there are deep-seated psychological reasons underpinning their stance. :/

Are you going to read any of the 1970's feminists? Some of them were real firebrands and quite off the planet, but I think that was due to their incandescent rage!

I've heard a bit about the 'men can't be feminist' arguement. I think it's rubbish. Men need to talk to other men about their sexist behaviour and make a stand against it, because women have tried and tried and there's still a long way to go. It's a difficult situation, though, because there are so many mixed messages in society.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - i have been exposed to many anti feminists lately, ranging from the civil to the downright vicious and sadistic. I agree that there is a psychological barrier the minds of some men when it comes to treating women equally and when encountering women with strong opinions.

Ironically a really popular anti feminist argument is that feminism is divisive and that we need to treat everyone equally.

I will definitely be reading some of the 1970s feminists as I really want to examine some controversal views and perhaps challenge my own perceptions.

I am just finished reading No Turning Back, The History of Femism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freedman. In it there is a lot of emphasis on the many Feminisms. I will be blogging about it shortly.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

That's an interesting topic and a very sensitive one. There's still so much work to be done in this area. This reminds me of a famous quote - I'm probably paraphrasing but this is what I remember - "Behind every great man is a great woman".

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Interesting and sensitive are good words to describe it.

That quote is making me think as I just finished and will be blogging about Estelle Freedman's No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. In it she looks into the issue of the value of the household work and other work provided by by women to men who have achieved success. The question that is explored is if the success would have been possible without that support.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

And in turn your comment makes me think of how Stephen King wrote Carrie and threw the manuscript in the bin only to be rescued later by his wife who sent it to a publisher.
And speaking of housework, I really like this quote: "A clean house is a sign of a wasted life." I don't completely agree with it but I do agree with the idea.
I look forward to your next post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia- I never knew about that Stephen King story! It is a great story and it is indeed relevant.

James said...

I think you have chosen a difficult task, but a worthy one. One aspect that resonates with me is your recognition that there is a spectrum of positions among "feminists" and that not all of those who espouse the name adhere to the most extreme of these positions.
Good luck in your project. I will read your comments with interest.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James- To the extent that I plan on choosing some authors who have views that may be incongruous with mine, despite supportong femism, it may be a little difficult. I also expect to be interesting and fun.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Ooh, looking forward to this greatly. Something I have very mixed views about in that I'm all for equality and yet feel men sometimes get a raw deal at the hands of some (and I stress some) women/feminists.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy- Thanks so much for your comment. The question about some Feminists being too critical of men is one I long to have. The conditions that I described above made it impossible to have on social media.

Without a doubt some folks have views on men that are questionable. I would argue that any broad based belief system, such as Christianity, liberalism, conservativm, supporters of capitalism, all seem to have adherents with very questionable positions.

I do tend to think that feminists tend to get tagged with the most extreme beliefs (thinking about it, perhaps Christians to do too. This is something unfair that my fellow non believers do).

With all that, as I alluded to above, it seems that some feminist writers and theorists hold views that I strongly disagree with. Some of these thinkers have been influential upon a lot of feminists. Always up for a challenge, I do intend, to cover some books that present these views.

seraillon said...

Brian - Great. I'll be eager to see what you take on in your explorations of the subject. I've been struck recently by how many 19th century writers, men included, take on feminist issues, and, conversely, by how so many contemporary male authors seem to pay almost no heed to them. It's a bit depressing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - Interesting what you mention about 19th Century authors. I have been reading alot of Anthony Trollope lately. His mother was a strong advocate for Women's Rights and he definately showed these sentiments in his books.

In fact, I just ran into this quote in The Last Chronicle of Barset concerning men's poor treatment of women.

"there are men who will allow themselves all imaginable latitude in their treatment of women, believing that the world will condone any amount of fault of that nature"

Caroline said...

I'm very keen on following your posts on this. This one was already excellent.
Of course a man can be a feminist. I believe in equality and accepting differences.
What I find awful is that I've hear many women start something saying "I'm not a feminist but . . . " How can any woman not be a feminist? Why do we have to defend being feminists.
I had no idea things like this happened on Twitter.
People sometimes wonder why there are still wars in our world but as long as men think they are superior and women - children - animals - are inferior - there will always be war as well. That's why I think being a feminist and speaking for equality will serve peace in the end.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Thanks for your kind words about the post.

The "I'm not a feminist but thing..." seems to be function of labeling feminists based upon the very controversial views of a small minority.

I wholeheartedly agree that that feminism and the empowerment of women promotes peace. The Pinker book not makes a very strong argument for it and even provides a lot of data top back that up.

Brian Joseph said...

I just want to add that the harassment, and harassment is too mild a word, terrorism seems more appropriate to me, goes way beyond just twitter and encompasses all social media beyond.

Below is a link to one of many articles on it.

JaneGS said...

It's such a shame that the feminism label is perceived as a negative these days--back when I was a teenager in the 70's it was an aspiration and I have never shirked from it.

So glad you're embarking on this reading project--I look forward to many thoughtful, interesting posts.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Indeed many have cast dispersions on feminism lately. There are some good signs these days too. Over the past year feminists and people focusing upon violence aimed at women have strongly asserted themseves on social media. The nasty backlash that I alluded to above has actually spurred new awareness and activism in and of itself.

In addition I cannot say enough how heartened I am by Emma Watson's He For She Campaign.

Brona said...

All we can do, Brian is document our own journey.

By adding to your knowledge base & taking the time to be self-aware, I believe these pieces by you will add significantly to the reasonable debate about feminism.

Mr Books & I often discuss how feminism should be discussed by women & men.

I often use religious belief to highlight the varieties of feminism. Like religious belief, feminism has fanatics, extremists & militants. There are lapsed believers, recent converts & various non-believers.
But most people reside somewhere in the middle - quietly believing and living their life by the philosophy of their choice.

I look forward to your future posts on this topic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Brona - I really like your religious allegory and used it myself in the above comments. Those with controversial options and those who are fanatics seem to have become ingrained in the minds of many as to what feminism is.

I do agree that most people are moderates which to me make them moderate feminists.

I appreciate your comment about each of us documenting our own journeys. For me, that is a good part of what this blog is about.