Ifeminism versus Gender feminism

By Wendy McElroy

The old establishment of feminism is crumbling. And fast. The National Organization for Women lost over 50% of its membership as a result of hypocritical stands it took during President Clinton's sexual abuse of various women. And NOW's numbers are still declining. A cash-starved MS Magazine recently merged with the Feminist Majority in order to survive. Policies that were formerly unquestioned and unquestionable -- like affirmative action -- are being overturned in courts and in state legislatures. The hottest controversy in "women's issues" right now is the "babies versus career" debate, that has been revived partly by Sylvia Ann Hewlett's new book "Creating Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children." And the recent resignation of White House counselor, Karen Hughes, who wants to spend more time with her family, has raised the specter of another haunting question: can women really have it all?

The ranks of "old feminism" realize that a revolution in attitudes is taking place...or, more accurately, it has taken place. Last November I did a debating tour of American universities with Kathleen Barry, a prominent radical feminist mostly known for her writings on prostitution. I was amazed...and so was she. The students didn't want to hear what she had to say. Afterward, Kathleen told the lecture agent who had arranged the tour that she would no longer speak in public on prostitution or pornography -- the two topics we were debating. In trying to find a replacement, the agent went through what could be called an honor list of radical feminists...none of them would debate...even for good money. Finally we found another Canadian who agreed to debate and, so, next November, two Canadian feminists will be imported to U.S. campuses, to tell American students what they should think about sex.

The old paradigm of feminism is crumbling because it simply does not answer the needs and questions of the 21st century woman. So tonight I will be introducing you to the new paradigm, to the new feminism that is knocking loudly at the door of the future. Ifeminism.

I want to begin by contrasting some of the basic ideas of ifeminism with those of establishment feminism, which is sometimes called politically correct feminism or radical/gender feminism. I want to start with fundamentals in order to give you a sense of how profoundly the two traditions differ. They are, in fact, two diametrically opposing ideologies. Then I'll move on...to examine how the clash in ideology creates totally different cultural attitudes...for example, attitudes toward men and toward sex. The clash also results in the two traditions taking totally different approaches to societal change.

After that -- after sketching how radical and ifeminism embody distinct ideas, attitudes and approaches -- I'll present what I consider to be the single biggest challenge confronting feminism today. As well as offering a whirlwind tour of where ifeminism stands on the basic issues, such as pornography, abortion, and affirmative action.

Of course, to a get a fuller sense of the issues, you can always pick up a copy of the anthology "Liberty for Women," which has just come out from the Independent Institute. And the contributors will give you a sense of who constitutes the new feminism -- Camille Paglia, Cathy Young, the prostitute-activist Norma Jean Almodovar, Rita Simon of Women's Freedom Network... Equally important is the fact that men are contributors, because ifeminism welcomes the perspectives of men, who are full partners in this adventure we call society.

This is going to be a tightly-packed talk. So let me take Lewis Carroll's advice on how to tell a story: you start at the beginning and, when you come to the end, stop. Let me start at the beginning....

The ideas of radical and ifeminism are diametrically opposed. They form the two extremes of opinion within the feminist movement. In order to illustrate this, I want to back up for a moment and ask of feminism the most fundamental question that can be asked of anything: what is it? What is feminism?

My response is simple. Feminism is the doctrine that says "women are, and should be treated as, the equals of men." It is the political movement that focuses on women and objects to inequality between the sexes.

"Women are the equals of men." As simple as that statement sounds, we're already in trouble. Because what does "equality" mean? How is the term being used? For example, does it refer to equality under existing laws and equal representation within existing institutions...which requires only that current society be reformed to become gender blind? Or is the definition of equality more revolutionary, requiring that existing laws and institutions be uprooted and replaced so that society becomes fundamentally different?

The manner in which the word "equality" is defined is a litmus test by which various schools of feminism can be distinguished -- one from the other.

Throughout most of the 19th and twentieth centuries, mainstream American feminism defined "equality" as equal treatment under existing law and equal representation in existing institutions. That's what the drive for suffrage was about in the 19th century: that's what the ERA was about in the 20th century. The goal was not revolution -- it was reform. Mainstream feminism said, "treat us equally under existing law. Give us equal representation within existing institutions."

Those feminists who were more revolutionary protested that existing laws and institutions were the source of injustice to women and, as such, could not be reformed. The system -- or large parts of it -- had to swept away and rebuilt according to a new vision.

Again, in simple terms, the two most revolutionary traditions were socialist feminism, from which contemporary radical feminism draws heavily, and individualist feminism of which current ifeminism is a continuation. These two traditions believed that equality required revolution but they differed dramatically in opinion about the direction that revolution should take.

To socialist feminists, equality was a socio-economic goal. Women could be equal only by eliminating capitalism and other institutions that were said to favor men, such as the traditional family and the church. They said, "don't reform capitalism to include women in its injustice: sweep capitalism away and start with a new economic slate." As socialist feminism evolved through the 19th into the late 20th century, it became what the key theorist of the '70s and '80s Catherine MacKinnon called "post-Marxist feminism." But the goals remained basically the same. A legal restructuring of society to ensure an even distribution of power and wealth...through comparable worth, for example.

The revolution envisioned by individualist feminists was quite different. To them, equality was achieved when the human rights of individual women were fully acknowledged under laws that protected the person and property of men and women equally, including the right of every individual to freely trade their labor and property. Which includes the free market, laissez faire capitalism. And the revolution it envisions is the sweeping away of all laws and institutions that hinder individual rights and liberty...the equal liberty of all human beings, male or female.

Where does this emphasis on individual rights come from?

In the 19th century, ifeminism arose from abolitionism -- the radical anti-slavery movement in the 1830s -- that declared every human being, white or black, to be a self-owner. That is, everyone simply by being human had a right to his own person and the products of his person -- that is, labor and property. In fighting for the rights of slaves, abolitionist women began to ask themselves a question: they asked, "do we not have these rights as well?" The abolitionist Abbie Kelley observed, "we have good cause to be grateful to the slave...in striving to strike his irons off, we found most surely that we were manacled ourselves." What manacled them were laws that discriminated against women in a manner strikingly similar to how they discriminated against blacks.

In short, the original ifeminists sought to destroy the institution of slavery and to rewrite the law from scratch so that it made no distinction between man and woman. It spoke only of human beings. That was their revolutionary vision.

What does all this mean in modern terms? I began by saying there was an ideological war between the two extreme traditions of feminism in terms of ideas, attitudes and their method of operating in society.

First, the clash of ideas. And we may as well use the concept of "equality" -- since we are discussing it already. For 21st century radical feminism, equality remains a socio-economic goal but a cultural goal has been added. The goal of compulsory respect for women through measures such as sexual harassment laws -- by which I don't mean laws that punish unwanted physical contact... Laws against assault and battery could address that behavior. By sexual harassment I mean laws that restrict which attitudes toward women can be manifested and what words about women can be expressed.

To 21st century ifeminists, equality still means equal treatment with men under just laws -- laws that protect person and property. Ifeminism says nothing about forcibly redistributing anything, except that force should play no role in human interactions. Ifeminism says to the law, to government, "protect my body, protect my property then leave me the hell alone."

But what of respect for women? The ifeminists I know care deeply about women being treated better by our culture, not just by laws. But law is not the way to change culture. You do not change peaceful behavior that is offensive by the barrel of a gun. And that is what law, what government ultimately is..."rule by the barrel of a gun." Guns can used only in self-defense, in defending your person and property against physical attack. The law has no place in regulating attitudes or words.

Regarding respect for women, ifeminism says if you dislike pornography in your local store, if you object to the discriminatory hiring practices of a business then you should use all the nonviolent means at your disposal to change them. Education, protest, picketing, boycott, moral suasion...use the whole slate of persuasive non-violent strategies. What ifeminists cannot do -- without violating their own principles, at least -- is to use force to restrict words and attitudes because these are nothing more than other people exercising their own right of free speech.

This springboards into the question of cultural attitudes in general. And I want to focus in on attitudes toward men in order to contrast radical and ifeminism.

Radical feminism tells us that men and women are separate political classes whose interests inherently clash. That's what patriarchy is: white male culture that necessarily oppresses women.

Men and women are separate political classes. The foregoing statement is quite distinct from saying men and women differ significantly. I am talking about the supposed political class conflict between men and women -- the gender war -- that lies at the root of radical feminist theory.

And, since this theory of class conflict is a key to why radical feminism is seen to be anti-male...is anti-male, in my opinion -- bear with me as I keep hitting on theory.

Class warfare...what is a class? A class is nothing more than an arbitrary grouping of people or things that share common characteristics that is useful to whoever is defining the category. For example, a researcher studying drug addition might break his research subjects into classes of heroine-users and cocaine-users. A class can be defined by almost any shared characteristic: hair color, sexual orientation, deodorant use...

For radical feminists, gender is the common characteristic. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that choice. Many fields use gender as a dividing line. For example, medicine often separates the sexes. Women are examined for breast cancer and men for prostate problems. But medicine does not claim -- as radical feminism does -- that the basic interests of men and women conflict. The sexes share the same basic biology that requires the same approach of nutrition, exercise, oxygen and a common sense lifestyle. There is no attempt to deny the shared humanity of men and women.

By contrast, radical feminism doesn't say that there are some issues on which men and women differ or should be approached differently. It says there is a fundamental class conflict based on gender. It says that men and women do not share the same basic human needs politically such as freedom of speech or the protection of private property. The two genders do not have the same political interests. This is like the doctor saying that the two sexes do not have the same biological needs. Thus, what many of us would consider to be a basic human right -- such as freedom of speech -- becomes a tool by which men oppress women. Through pornography, through the very use of language such as "history" rather than "herstory."

How did this come about? The idea of class conflict is widely associated with Karl Marx, who popularized it. He said that people were either workers or capitalists. In short, he divided up humanity by looking at their relationship to the means of production and said that the two classes that resulted were inevitably and irresolvably at war. He made a further claim. The political interests of every worker were the same, just as the political interests of every capitalist were the same.... And this was true whether or not any particular or capitalist knew it to be the case.

Radical feminism consciously adapted this theory to produce "post-Marxist feminism." Gender -- not your relationship to the means of production -- became the sorting point by which humanity is divided into two classes with antagonistic political interests. The political interests of every woman are the same, just as the political interests of every man are the same.... And this was true whether or not the individuals involved know it to be the case. Thus, radical feminists can level accusations of "rapist" at a man who has never harmed a woman -- at a man who has protected a woman from attack -- simply because he is male. As a male, he benefits from the "rape culture" -- also known as patriarchy -- because he shares the same political interest as all other men.

If this class analysis makes no sense to you...welcome to my world.

As far as I can see, both men and women are human beings. All of us benefit from the same political circumstances...like freedom of speech and conscience, private property, the right of self-defense. Any particular man is no more my enemy, no more a threat to me, than any particular woman is. We are all individuals to be evaluated individually.

I hope you can see how this difference in attitude toward men has widespread implications. Let me give you just one concrete example. Marriage. Both radical feminism and ifeminism want to revolutionize marriage, as we know it today. Radical feminism wants to eliminate the traditional family because it is a "breeding ground" of patriarchy, a source of women's oppression.

Ifeminism looks at marriage and just sees individuals making choices...about whom to love and live with...choices that are valid whether we are talking about the traditional family or a homosexual union. What ifeminists want to eliminate is the role of the state in marriage and in every other personal interaction. Marriage should be a contract between those involved. If the marriage falls apart, then the divorce should handled like any other breach of contract...by binding arbitration, civil courts, whatever. So the revolution ifeminism envisions doesn't involve changing anyone's personal choices: it involves getting the state out.

This leads into my last point of theory -- I promise! Radical feminism and ifeminism operate differently in society. I used the concept of "equality" to show how their ideas differ, I used "class" to show how the difference in attitudes. I want to use the concept of "justice" to illustrate the difference in methodology.

For radical feminism, justice is an end state. By which I mean, radical feminism has a specific picture of what constitutes a just society. A just society is one without patriarchy or capitalism in which the socio-economic and cultural equality of women is fully expressed. One in which employers are forced to pay men and women equally for the same work, pornography and prostitution do not exist, sexual comments in the workplace..."poof!"

By contrast, the ifeminist view of justice doesn't have an end-state in mind, any more than it defines "what is a marriage?" That definition is up to the people involved. For ifeminism, just is process and it can be expressed as "anything that is peaceful, anything that is voluntary." In other words, any situation or outcome to which the people involved have consented is, by definition, just.

You might make a foolish choice, a mistake, or end up badly. But as long as you agreed to the process by which you arrived at a certain point, then your being at that point is just.

Aspects of the society that results may or may not be moral. For example, the society may have strains of racism. I am anti-racist. I married into an Hispanic family and feel very strongly about anyone slandering, arbitrarily refusing to hire or otherwise demeaning members of my family. If that happened, I would use every peaceful means at my disposal to change that vicious behavior. But what I wouldn't do is use force -- either directly or in the form of government -- to make people treat my family differently. Why? Because the freedom of association means that other people have the right not to associate with me for any reason they see fit, including my race or my gender. They have a right to not invite me into their homes and to not hire me. And I have no right to use force to override their judgment...however wrong I believe that judgment to be.

So the main difference between how radical feminists and ifeminists approach society and social change is that radical feminists use the state -- the point of a gun -- to impose their agenda. (Of course, at the same time, they condemn the state as patriarchal and irreparably harmful to women -- but they can deal with that contradiction themselves.)

Meanwhile, ifeminism seeks private solutions to social problems. And recognizes the right to pull a gun on another human being only in self-defense against a real attack on person or property.

And this difference in approach makes sense when you think about it. After all, the radical feminist ideal of justice can be established by the use of force. Radical feminists want a particular arrangement of society. And it is possible to impose specific arrangements. For example, you can impose affirmative action policies and arrest or otherwise severely punish anyone who doesn't abide by them.

Ifeminism doesn't have this option. You cannot use force to impose a voluntary society. It is a contradiction in terms. You cannot put a gun to a person's head and say, "you are now free to choose." Freedom of choice involves taking the gun away.

And, in the final analysis, this is what ifeminism is talking about. Choice. Its view of equality is the equal protection of person and property...so that everyone can use their own judgment in choosing how to use their person and property.

So...having sketched the difference between the ideas, attitudes, and approach of the old feminism and ifeminism, let me move on to what I believe is the greatest challenge to feminism at the dawn of the 21st century. And that is to make the law and the application of the law -- for example, in courts and police behavior -- gender blind.

This is not necessarily a revolutionary goal. To me, it seems like a modest goal. But it is necessary to achieve before anything else can be accomplished. We have to make sure that the law and the application of law do not discriminate for or against either sex.

In some cases this means removing bias in favor of women. For example, in the family court system, especially concerning the custody of children in divorce cases and support payments. So let me deal first with bias that unfairly favors women...which leads me to the Men's Movement.

The men's movement is a loose coalition of individuals and organizations dedicated to removing bias against men from the system. And it is about to explode in North America. It is about to go off the charts.

Let me tell you a story. In the early morning hours of Kan. 7, 43-year-old Derrick K. Miller walked up to a security guard at the entrance to the San Diego courthouse, where a family court had recently ruled against him on overdue child support. Clutching court papers in one hand, he drew out a gun with the other. Declaring, "You did this to me," he fatally shot himself through the skull.

Miller is not an isolated case. Consider Warren Gilbert who died of carbon monoxide poisoning, clutching a letter from the child protective service. Or Martin Romanchick the New York City police officer who hanged himself after being denied access due to charges brought by his ex-wife, which the court found to be frivolous. I could go on and on with stories that break your heart, complete with testimonials from children who no longer have fathers... Actually, they are more pleas than testimonials.

One thing is clear: there is an alarming rise in male suicide in most western nations. According to a 1999 surgeon general's report, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in America, with men being four times more likely to kill themselves than women. A round of studies conducted in North America, Europe and Australia suggests that one reason for the increase may be the discrimination fathers encounter in family courts, especially regarding the denial of access to their children.

Feminism must extend a hand of goodwill toward men who are being destroyed by gender bias in the system. Women must stand up and call for the elimination of all law and all application of law that discriminates on the basis of gender, whether or not the discrimination supposedly benefits women.

(By the way, I dispute the idea that legal privileges for women actually benefit women. For one thing, the men being oppressed are lovers, fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, and good neighbors. How could it possibly benefit us to wrong them?)

The other side of the coin is bias that exists in system against women. As an example, I'll use the current attack that is being waged by the medical establishment on midwifery. Consider California. And for this I want to read from a letter I received from Faith Gibson, a midwife who is deeply involved in the fight to preserve midwifery and who also wrote the essay entitled "The Official Plan to Eliminate the Midwife 1899 -1999" in the Independent Institute anthology "Liberty for Women."

Faith writes of the various ways that midwives are being currently eliminated. "The lobbyist for California Consumer Attorneys privately told us they would 'permit' midwives to remove the unworkable supervisory clause" -- that's the legal requirement that midwives must have physician supervision for home birth even though there is no requirement for physicians for provide it -- "they would permit midwives to remove the unworkable supervisory clause if we swapped it for a mandatory malpractice insurance clause. We of course would love to have equivalent (to docs) malpractice insurance but our 'pool' of midwives is so small that premiums for coverage would be twice our annual income."

"Every time a midwife transfers a laboring women to the hospital and an on-call obstetrician gets notified to come in, he makes a complaint to the medical board that she is practicing without a physician supervisor. When the medical board prosecutes a doctor or midwife, the price tag to the practitioner for legal fees is $50,000 to $100,000.

"The last straw is that there are no direct-entry midwifery schools in California so we are now capped at the max number of 130 midwives as there is no way to get licensed without moving to Florida or Washington state and doing a 3 years out of state program. Bottom line for all of this is that we are now moving towards a return to underground lay midwifery and a massive resurgence of 'planned unattended do-it-yourself' births. I could just cry."

Of course, midwives are not the only victims of this planned obsolescence -- some would say they're not even the primary victims. Every woman is victimized because she and her daughters are denied an option. They are being denied choice in how they wish to give birth to their own children.

Again, these two issues illustrate the greatest challenge facing feminism right this moment. Gender bias that has been institutionalized into the system.

Now...with a sense of the theory that underlies ifeminism and with some examples of how the theory translates into real issues, let me give you a whirlwind rundown of where ifeminism stands on some of the most important women's issues. And I'll be quoting from "Liberty for Women" to do so.

But, first, remember the abolitionist women -- from the anti-slavery days -- who argued that all human beings, male/female, black/white, are self-owners. If you put that sentiment into 20th century feminist terms, you arrive at the position "it is a woman's body, it is a woman's right." Remember that principles as I run through the issues.

Pornography and prostitution, as long as everyone involved is a consenting adult, it is their business and the law should not intrude. As Martha Nussbaum concludes, the true role of feminism is to expand the options that sex workers face and to increase protection for those who choose that path.

Affirmative action and other regulation of employment, every business owner has the right to use his own property as he sees fit, including the hiring or refusal to hire anyone he chooses. And, since I've discussed this issue already, I'll just move on.

Sexual harassment...as long as there is no force or threat of force involved, as long as the harassment is verbal; it deserves the protection of free speech. Most employers today would probably have rules against verbal harassment...which is their right on their own property, just as it is my right in my parlor. But the law has no business regulating words and attitudes. As Cathy Young declared in "Liberty for Women," quote "...an individual's non-coercive sexual behavior is no one else's business and a lawsuit based on sexual misconduct should involve actual damages to the plaintiff."

The choice to be a housewife...it is just that -- a choice, every bit as self-respecting and valid as the choice to become the CEO of a corporation. I think that Mimi Gladstein's article in the anthology is the first feminist defense of housewives and housework I've seen in the modern literature.

Violence against Women...here the force of law is appropriate. What isn't appropriate, however, is to deny women the ability to defend themselves. The right of gun ownership should be respected. Richard Stevens has co-authored a terrific piece that not only debunks gun control myths, but also argues for gun rights along specifically feminist lines. "Victim disarmament laws that discourage women from developing the skills and using defensive firearms actually heighten the risks of criminal violence that women face. Such laws place women at a disadvantage against violent men and run against the feminist goal of equal treatment of the sexes under law."

Abortion...it is a woman's body, a woman's right.

From this short list of issues, I think you can see where ifeminism would fall on most of the other issues so I won't go on with a laundry list. ("Liberty for Women" pretty much covers the spectrum.) Instead, I'll make a quick point in conclusion and let any loose ends be tied up in the Q&A.

My quick point is this... The mainstream feminist movement desperately needs the infusion of ifeminism because it is dying. The mainstream of feminism has become irrelevant to the needs and realities of the average woman...the housewife, the home schooler, women who love and value the men in their lives, women who rise through merit not privilege...

The mainstream of feminism has become so dogmatic that it views women who question -- like me -- as the enemy. Yet women who question is almost a definition of feminism itself. Alexander Cockburn, a columnist for the Los Angeles times (among other periodicals) summed up the impact that ifeminism will have upon the mainstream movement when he said of "Liberty for Women" -- it will "jolt a near corpse back into life." By the corpse, he meant feminism. But after it is jolted, it will come alive and become the healthy, robust being it once was...when women embraced men as partners, and both of them celebrated choice.

Thank you.