Friday, 18 March 2011

Freedom and Feminism

Feminist and anarchist activist Voltairine de Cleyre, c.1900 - via Koroesu at Wikimedia Commons - public domain. Here is an excellent open letter to men from Cluegirl, the blogger of Just a Baker Street Muse at LiveJournal. It advocates strong feminism as a necessary, and even obvious, consequence of liking and respecting men in general.

An open letter to the men of America and the world, on the subject of my feminism.

Most of her arguments can be flipped over to explain my own feminist sympathies. I was brought up to be a gentleman - English working-class variant - in most of the senses Cluegirl expresses in her article. How far I succeed may be questionable: whether I should try is not a question permitted by my code.

The minimum that could possibly require, is that I ought to oppose sexism. The reason I, too, identify as a feminist - in however dissident, wild, and woolly a way - is that when I look at the actual world about me, I simply don't see mere gender-blindness as being much more of a solution to patriarchal oppression than setting up a totally equal Total Equality Commission to rule all the insufficiently equal people's lives for them. For the dirt is ground under the fingernails, the stupidity soaked into the brain... That is the way, with systems of thought and status that run down to the roots of a culture.

To suppose formal equality under the rules would make this kind of oppression vanish, is pie in the sky of the highest order. A State-worshipper has at least the excuse of believing that government has only to say to an abuse "go!", and it goeth. A government-sceptic who believes no such thing - has no such excuse, either. Society doesn't, and shouldn't, just do what it's told to. Society bloody well enacts what the people in it believe. If a lot of us were acting on stupid, cowardly, contemptuous, oppressive beliefs before the laws that expressed them were changed, so will a lot of us be afterwards.

Including, sometimes, those of us who palm ourselves on having rejected the rotten old laws. Yes, even those of us who think of ourselves as thoroughgoing libertarians and non-sexists. Certainly observation doesn't acquit me of dirty fingernails and marinated brain.

So the beliefs themselves have to be attacked, and arguments like Cluegirl's are one fine way to get at them without attacking the believers.

Is attacking the rotten assumptions a libertarian act in itself, though? Libertarianism and feminism don't generally have a good rep for getting along well together. If government isn't enforcing bad assumptions on people, a libertarian might say, why bring politics to bear on them? To which a feminist might retort, with equal incomprehension and suspicion: if libertarianism isn't about breaking dominance hierarchies, it's a rum kind of liberty it believes in!

To me, the feminist challenge is more nearly right. Institutionalized domination and violence don't spring fully-formed from the brow of Leviathan. It was Leviathan that sprang up from all that crap in the first place. And if you leave the crap in place, then you may do all the smiting you like, but you will still end up with Leviathan by some other name. Which is not much of an improvement, even if it ends up being your name. Maybe especially not then!

Roderick Long and Charles 'Rad Geek' Johnson have examined this tension at much greater and more scholarly length here:

Libertarians often conclude that gender roles must not be oppressive since many women accept them; but they do not analogously treat the fact that most citizens accept the legitimacy of governmental compulsion as a reason to question its oppressive character; on the contrary, they see their task as one of consciousness-raising and demystification, or, in the Marxian phrase, plucking the flowers from the chains to expose their character as chains.

- Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?
- Roderick Long & Charles Johnson, 2005.

A great deal to chew on in that one, which the Open letter and subsequent discussion in comments moved me to read and think upon anew.

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