Feminism is one of those things everybody has an opinion about. Women, because it affects them; men, because they think it doesn’t affect them. The belief that we all know how to do feminism, however, is rooted in deep and probably completely unacknowledged and unwelcome misogyny: it must be simple, it’s only something that women do. “How complicated can it be? I’ve read a few CiF columns and even maybe a book or two on the subject, of course I totally get it. Plus some of my best friends are women”. Applied to any other area of life, such an approach would be absurd. Can you imagine a senior Guardian columnist barging into a football supporters’ forum & haranguing them about the offside rule? Or a journalist marching into a mechanic’s workshop & lecturing him at length about how it’s the clutch he should be looking at because obviously tires are of only minor importance in the grand scheme of things? (Disclosure: I know next to nothing about either football or cars. Not because I’m a woman, but because they’re both pretty boring subjects. Then again, the men who lecture feminists about doing feminism know close to nothing about feminism, so I reckon we’re even).
When women attack feminism, they tend to go for the how (this is one of those enormous rhetorical generalisations to which there are many exceptions that I haven’t got the energy to fight with you about below the line, dear reader: just work with me here): you need to do more of this, less of that, you need to listen more to marginalised voices, you need to be more inclusive. These criticisms can be intemperate, even hurtful, and they can side-track the conversation for a while, but they accept the basic premise of “doing feminism right now is quite an important thing”.
Men on the other hand have a tendency to concentrate on the what: don’t campaign for inclusion, campaign against rape. Don’t you know there are women who have no access to education? Haven’t you heard of FGM? And did you hear the government are instituting cuts that mostly hurt women?! (Nah, I haven’t heard; do tell me about it, oh wise man, because being but a weak and feeble woman, I don’t actually read the news or know how it affects me. It’s this crazy thing we little ladies do).
The difference between the two approaches, which is obvious when you look at them side by side like this, is that the first approach is designed to make feminism better; the second is designed to make feminism impossible. We can’t not-campaign for anything because we are currently not campaigning for everything. The enormity of the systemic discrimination and oppression of women makes it a priori impossible to tackle it all in one big go; we have to break it down into smaller chunks and deal with each of those at a time – not just as individual campaigners, but also as a movement overall. Hence waves, in case you wondered. Mind you, I don’t really think the men telling us to go and campaign about FGM when we’re talking about sexual harassment in the workplace actually care about FGM (I’d like to see their campaign on it, for a start): it’s just become a kind of Godwin’s Law of feminist-bashing, a shortcut to the moral high ground for people who are more interested in shutting you up, because you’re making them feel uncomfortable, than in mutilated vulvas.
This feminism related Dunning-Kruger effect serves not only to embarrass otherwise intelligent men by temporarily reducing them to the level of analysis & insight of Daily Mail commenters; it’s also pretty damn draining on the limited and already embattled resources of the still-too-small cadre of brave women tackling systemic discrimination, male sexual violence, economic injustice and cultural femicide head-on. We know pretty damn well what we’re fighting for and why, and, actually, much as it might astonish the Dan Hodgeses & Michael Whites of this world, we have a pretty solid understanding of what’s important to us and how it fits into the big picture of ending sexism. We, unlike you, get it. Now be a love and let the big girls get on with it while you sit quietly on the side-lines and maybe learn a thing or two.