Feminism and Humanism and Progressivism - Oh My!

BlogHer Original Post

After I wrote the story about the woman in Qatif who was gang raped and sentenced to be beaten for it on Sunday, I was depressed and frustrated. My husband asked me what was wrong, and somehow this led us into a discussion the difference between feminism and humanism. If feminism is, at root, a belief that women and men deserve equal human rights (which is how I define feminism), how is that different from humanism, which is essentially that all people have basic human rights? Husband felt that because feminism (by necessity) primarily focuses on the rights of women, it is easily manipulated by conservatives and right-wing lunatics into a movement that tries to put women above men. Thus we get a lot of bad publicity and all manner of people saying things like, "I'm not a feminist, but I believe that women and men are equal."

For example, a humanist will point out that domestic violence is wrong. A feminist will note that, according to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, 85% of victims of intimate partner violence are women and 15% of victims are men. As a result, feminists focus on women first and demand that the resources proportionally go to women victims. It's not that we dismiss violence against men, it's just that we look at the history of violence against partners and statistics and demand that women get help in proportion to the situation. Some (like my Husband the Humanist) would say that because there are not enough resources to go around, insisting that women get priority denies male victims, who are even further stigmatized by partner violence than women because they fail to meet masculine stereotypes of being strong, the resources they need, and thus does not treat men and women equally. Yet given that the history of inequality primarily harmed women, how can one achieve equality without focusing on those who were most denied equal rights? It is quite the conundrum.

In an interview with Susan Sackett, a humanist and leader in the sci-fi world, on The Eloquent Atheist Marilyn Westfall posted the following Q & A:

MW: I’m curious about any ideas you might have to share regarding conflicts between feminism and humanism. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, two authors of the recent book Manifesta (a reevaluation of feminism), claim: “Using humanism as a replacement for feminism is also a misuse of the term–theologically, humanism is a rejection of supernaturalism, not an embrace of equality between men and women.” What is your opinion about their analysis or of opinions similar to theirs? I recall that Gloria Steinem once suggested that when we’re discussing feminism, we’re really talking about humanism.

[SS:] This seems to be a logic problem – all Humanists are feminists, but not all feminists are Humanists. I don’t really see the two as being equal. Support of rights for women is a value that is part of Humanist ethics. However, one can be a feminist and still be very religious. So I don’t see how the two can be equal.

The current election season take the whole tension between feminism and general progressivism to a new place. For many feminists, this is the first time that there is a female presidential candidate who shares many core feminist values. (Sorry, Libby Dole.) The same day my essay about the Qatif woman appeared, The New York Times ran a front page story about the struggle many feminists are going through when deciding how to vote in the Democratic primary. Robin Toner wrote:

Some of the women supporting Mr. Obama — politically active Democrats, women who pay attention to the glass ceiling in politics — admitted that they had to overcome a few pangs to close the deal. “As a strong feminist most of my life, the question always is, How can you not support the woman candidate?” said Jean Lloyd-Jones, a longtime Democratic activist in Iowa. “And I frankly have been torn by that.”

In the end, Ms. Lloyd-Jones said she finally decided that Mr. Obama was the more progressive candidate, and her progressive instincts trumped her feminist instincts.

What?!?! Are progressive and feminist instincts in conflict? It strikes me as the ultimate feminist move to vote for a candidate not based on sex, as we are trying to move to a world where people are selected for a job (or school or whatever) based on their qualifications alone. Yet we aren't quite at that point, so its hard not to consider whether to vote for a woman because it is exciting that there finally is a woman who we think can do the job. (Again, sorry Libby Dole – that presidential candidate was not you.)

Others are thinking about how feminism fits in with supporting a female candidate because she's female, which seems contradictory but isn't because stereotypes and double standards are alive and well. Robin Gerber wrote on her blog that:

This week, Senator Barack Obama started an aggressive bid for women’s votes. His argument is that he’s a feminist, a believer that women should have equal rights and opportunities to those of men. So voting for him would give you, woman voter, the same advantage in your life as voting for a woman, namely his rival, Senator Hillary Clinton.

Nice try, but Obama’s words don’t support his argument. Instead they reveal that he doesn’t understand the forces that stand in the way of women fully realizing their potential in this country.

There is a double standard for leadership and it is heavily weighted in favor of men. Research on business leadership reveals that the traits that are viewed as desirable in leaders: being decisive, having a take-charge approach, being a problem-solver, are associated with men. Women are considered superior at “take care” type traits like supporting and rewarding others, which are not associated with being strong leaders. These stereotypes have no basis in reality and are pernicious because people, evidently including Obama, don’t see or aren’t willing to acknowledge their existence. These deeply internalized feelings about others, despite lacking objective proof, seem real because they are often long-held and validated by the culture. In this way, stereotypes are perpetuated and continue to hold people back.

Twentyfourways sums up the humanism/progressivism/feminism debate:

We need feminism because as thing stand, women do not yet have the same rights and privileges as men. We need a word that conveys that the inequality in question is gender inequality, which disadvantages women, and 'feminism' is as good as any at serving this purpose.

When this is no longer the case I will get back to you about changing the name of my position to something like “humanism” or “egalitariasm”.

Are you convinced? Is humanism different from feminism and can feminism be in conflict with progressivism? While I am a committed feminist and humanist whose goal is to advance a progressive agenda around the world, I'm going to be mulling this over for some time (if not forever).

Suzanne also blogs about the hilarity of her hairy (feminist) life at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants

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