Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How irresponsible is it to talk about second-wave feminists, and not mention their failures?

This isn't a rhetorical question; I really want to know. I'm not new to feminism, but I'm new to talking and writing about feminism, and I often turn to online feminists for what's "right" or correct. And most of the time I can't find the answer.

If I'm being completely honest, I discovered the feminists of my mother's generation through the criticisms of their writing, rather than the work itself, so it’s hard not to be biased against something you’ve grown to know as homophobic, transphobic, racist and classist. But I still see these same women held up as paragons of feminist thought while condemning their bigotry. I guess what I'm asking is, can we still praise the good that someone's done? What if that good comes with quite a bit of bad: Mary Daly, Robin Morgan, and Janice Raymond's history of transphobia, Margaret Sanger's support of eugenics, or Betty Friedan's infamous lesbian slur, "lavender menace." What do we do with that when these are the women are our alleged "icons?" Conveniently ignore it? Unfortunately, that happens:
This does all of us a big disservice. I'm not really a fan, generally speaking, of re-writing history to erase its more unpleasant bits, but in this particular case, the problem goes beyond that. Many feminists are unaware of the deeply embedded racism, ableism, classism, ageism, and transphobia in the feminist movement. As a result, they don't comprehend why some people feel alienated by and uncomfortable with feminism. (s.e. smith)
I think what we're doing is raising a generation of feminists unaware of feminism's sometimes contentious history.

Accountability is key, and we saw that recently after Naomi Wolf's remarks about rape victims' names being published in the media:
She seems to say that anonymity in the media means that rape victims will never have their motives examined, and that the context of the alleged assault will never come to light. Which is just not true. In fact, that is exactly what we have courts of law for. And that’s why Wolf’s argument falls totally flat — we do have legal mechanisms in place to counteract all of the harms she alleges occur from keeping rape victims anonymous. We do not, however, have very many mechanisms in place to counteract all the harms that routinely occur to rape victims when we publicize their names in the media. We also have a whole lot of people, like Wolf, who are happy to publicly shame rape accusers, and who in doing so discourage other rape victims from coming forward. And we have a disturbingly low reporting rate for sexual assault, and an even lower conviction rate. And, while Wolf says that the clothing a victim was wearing or who she had sex with previously are “irrelevant,” those details and others are very often trotted out to discredit women who accuse men of sexual assault; rape accusers are routinely painted as sluts or gold-diggers or attention-whores or vengeful bitches or crazy people. (Jill Filipovic)
Naomi Wolf's book, The Beauty Myth, is a big part of my generation's contribution to contemporary feminism. If we can hold our own to their words, why not feminists of our parents' era? Is it that their brand of feminism is so antediluvian it just isn't worth it?

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