Feminist Unison

First-year undergraduate Thomas Birken expresses how in a complex, divided society the myriad traditions of feminism need to unite under a single, much larger cause.


How do ants manage to form organized, concerted and efficient anthills? Most definitely not by being, acting and thinking all the same. Rather, it is their individual differences, skills and contributions that complement the larger group, and turn their anthill into something that works well. My goal here is not to compare feminists to gross little bugs, but rather to showcase the functional stability and efficiency of such an organization. 

Let us zoom in and understand gradually what I mean by this. Let us also posit that the anthill represents an overarching vision of feminism, and that each ant has its own mode of reasoning, goal and specialization. Even though each ant is different, it is easy to draw general categories : those who help in building the anthill from the inside, those who protect and consolidate it from the outside, those who go far away to bring back resources, … 

In comparison, feminism is not that different. We feminists are all trying to build one coherent and concerted anthill, contributing how we can to the cause, in our own individual ways, but following general categories, i.e. feminist branches. Except we are far less efficient and concerted than we actually think. 

As feminists, each of us are specialized, but instead of contributing to one identical and shared project, we focus on what distinguishes us from one another. Are we going to let ants beat us this easily? In this interspecies competition, are we really going to let them be more efficient, concerted and united than us? I cannot know for sure what you think (everyone has their own ideals after all), but I certainly would not appreciate that. Let us analyze the current feminist situation we are facing. 

There is such cleavage in the feminist community that we have reached a point where there is more debate among feminists than between feminists and their “regular” peers. In addition to that, the number of different identifiable feminist branches is innumerable, which creates further division. Let me illustrate those problems.

It is often said that there are more or less four main branches of feminism : liberal feminism, cultural feminism, radical feminism and postmodern feminism. Of course, many others have been theorized and have become well-known by feminist scholars, but for the sake of simplification, let us just consider these four. If you wish to skip the explanations that I have tried to keep as concise as possible, see you in 7 paragraphs ☺ 

Liberal feminists are in favor of formal equality. They argue that women should be treated the same way as men, and they are hence not endorsing positive discrimination. The effects of laws, for example, should be neutral : everyone should have exactly the same rights and liberties. 

Cultural feminists, certainly emerging out of Carol Gilligan’s impetus in 1982, argue that there are biological, natural differences between men and women, specifically in their mode of reasoning. But men’s mode of reasoning is not inherently better than women’s, it’s just different. Law should hence acknowledge and embrace these differences; using different complementary approaches to solve problems is the best way to create discussion and innovative responses to thorny situations, while still setting everyone on an equal footing.

Radical feminists, whose momentum was also kicked-off by the uncontestably prominent feminist scholar Catharine McKinnon, are in favor of substantive equality and affirmative action. They argue that what feminism should focus on is not biological differences, but rather questions of power. Based on the assessment that our institutions reflect and come out of this imbalanced power relationship between men and women, radical feminists have concluded that the institutional decisions are taken by men, for men.  

Finally, postmodern feminists are those who question the generalizations often induced by the very concept of feminism. They are pointing out that the victimization of women is oftentimes overemphasized. By this, they do not negate the existence of patriarchy, they merely suggest to examine better the possible, singular contexts. Ratna Kapur, for instance, rejected generalizations on the ground that they are routinely centered around white women’s experiences, and hence are frequently not representative of situations non-white women might have undergone. 

Let me take three of the many examples that demonstrate how disparate these views of feminism are. First, it is undeniable that radical feminists clash, almost by essence, with liberal feminists. When the latter are in favor of formal equality, the former are in favor of affirmative action. When liberal feminists are in favor of maintaining a strong distinction between public and private sphere for the sake of rights and liberties, radical feminists are in favor of reconsidering that same distinction to better encompass, in legal terms, the private subordination that women face. 

Second, radical feminists collide with cultural feminists in the nature of the distinction between men and women. When cultural feminists try to argue that there is a biological difference that we should acknowledge and celebrate, radical feminists tend to think that the difference is rather social and political, rooted in the notion of power rather than biological determinism. 

Finally, postmodern feminists disagree with cultural feminists (and frankly speaking, with the other two as well) in what generalizations represent. For cultural feminism, they represent a way to reach equality through the acknowledgement of difference. For postmodern feminism, they represent a danger that leads to essentialism and ethnocentrism. 

It is conspicuous that feminists disagree on the means we should use to reach their theoretically common goal – equal treatment, affirmative action, intersectional analyses, … There are potentially, as many means as there are feminists. But by understanding the feminist divides even a tiny bit better, one can easily realize that feminists do not even agree on the end they are trying to advocate. Is it formal equality, i.e. equality in legal and theoretical terms ? Is it substantive equality, i.e. equality in real and applied terms ? Is it social cohesion, justice or freedom more than sole equality ? And yet, the abyss of feminist disagreements stretches even further down : what is the nature of the problem feminism tries to fight ? Is it patriarchy itself ? Is it a matter of biological rhetoric ? Is it a matter of socially constructed realities ? Is it the reciprocal and continuous influence between biology and sociology ? 

I will not try to explain my position, nor will I answer these questions, as countless feminists have already built and reflected on much better answers than the limited ones I could provide. Instead, my interest here is to explain how we can get as efficient and cohesive as the ants creating their anthill. 

One interesting aspect of such a diversity and such a divergence of opinions is that we still manage to find one common objective among all feminists : reversing the situation and implementing a matriarchal society that would enable women to take their revenge against evil men. Just kidding. If you thought for even a second that this was feminism’s goal, then I highly suggest you try to learn more about it. 

It remains unclear what our exact objective is, and so does the source of the problem, as well as the means we should use to solve it. Subsequently, here comes the disappointing part of the “clickbait” title : feminist unison does not exist and probably never will. 

That being said, all feminists are trying to face the problems caused by or related to patriarchy, and all of them are attempting to reason and move forward. Hilary Charlesworth pointed out in a UN Lecture, that in her view, “anything that is interested in women’s lives and which has, as an interest, the equality of women, […] is feminist scholarship”. I think that quote has much relevance regarding our modern feminist divides.

Here is the answer I would provide to my initial question. To me, the entire point of feminism is to consider human beings in their diversity and in the magnificence that stems from the latter, while still putting everyone on an equal footing, both in theory and in practice, on all accounts. If we aim at acknowledging this diversity and embracing it, I claim that the best tool we have at hand to get there – yet I can surely recognize it, not a flawless one –, is to acknowledge and embrace the diversity among us feminists in the first place. 

Knowing the flaws and critiques of the standpoint we take during feminist debates is fundamental in order to be able to defend it. To the extent that no feminist solution can be flawless, and insofar no one can ever come to be fully certain of their rationale’s excellence, I consider that witnessing conflicting feminist doctrines is both painfully unavoidable and extremely constructive. 

What distinguishes the ants from the feminists is the idea of a common project in identical terms. Ants, on the one hand, contribute individually and mechanically to something that does not “make sense”, but instead, that merely “exists”. Feminists on the other hand, are trying to figure out how to terminate the existence of something that continues to “make sense”, that is, patriarchy. Each feminist processes patriarchy in their own way, and comes up with their own individual ideas. Discrepancy is hence meant to shape feminism: the feminist project cannot be one, it is by its human essence, several. 

When ants are efficient in unison around a shared project, feminists are so in disharmony. Waiting for everyone to agree on one vision of feminism is vain and counter-productive. Feminist disharmony is what makes it worth a try. Feminist disharmony can be as fruitful as we hope it to be, so long as we acknowledge, understand, and embrace it. 

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