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The Problem with the Feminists

January 9, 2013

The problem with the feminists is not the problem with feminism per se. Of course, since there are so many different schools of thought that end up being classified as feminism, it is both hard and foolish to offer a blanket condemnation of something that contains everything from the Virgin Mary to Simone de Beauvoir. My purpose here is not to criticize or oppose feminism in toto–many feminists have been good at pointing out the role of women in history and opposing injustice done to women. Rather, I have a more specific problem with feminism or the feminists. I will restrict myself to the field of literary criticism because it is the area that I have the most expertise in, and also because it is an area where feminism still has an important influence.

I first became cognizant of this problem when I was reading a scholarly critical work on the life and works of William Butler Yeats. Throughout the book, the author (whom I believe was a man) would offer feminist readings and criticism of Yeats’ portrayal of women throughout his body of work. For example, at one point, Yeats was criticized for portraying Maude Gonne in his poetry as a timid, hyperfeminine “damsel-in-distress” who was overly passive. In another work, the feminists criticized Yeats for recasting Maude Gonne as an almost masculine warrior, a savior for the Irish people who had no concern for her own welfare, a self-effacing, self-sacrificing heroine. The problem, as I came to see it, is that even though the feminist critics could tell us what Maude Gonne shouldn’t be, they never told us what she should be. There was no image of an “ideal woman,” or a “liberated woman,” or even a “liberated gender-neutral being” that Gonne or any other woman in Yeats’ poetry should measure up to. It was if Yeats had failed a test that there was no apparent way of succeeding at.

This begins to be a problem in feminist criticism. Feminists criticize stereotypical or marginalizing pictures of women. And they are right to do so. But they do not offer an alternative. They could offer up the feminist as a picture of what women should be. But the problem is that very few women are feminists, and the small minority of feminists can hardly speak for all women everywhere all the time. Another problem is that there are so many different kinds of feminists who offer up different ideals or non-ideals. Is a woman supposed to be like Simone de Beauvoir? Betty Friedan? Elizabeth Fox-Genovese? Yet another problem is that an ideal that a woman should hold to (or at least a list of things that she should not be) needs to be broad enough to encompass enough personality types. Feminists may decry Yeats for portraying women in such-and-such poem as being passive, but there are passive women, as there are passive men. Not all women have the feminist bent of mind. There may be women who agree with different parts of the feminist agenda, but simply don’t feel motivated to become out-and-out feminists.

So this is the problem with feminism: in trying to rescue women from the stereotyping and marginalization that they had suffered through history, (some) feminists  did away with the idea that there is any essence called “woman” entirely, that everything called “woman” is a social construct, and a particularly nasty one at that. This leaves them in a bind. If they say that there is some sort of ideal or set of ideals that it would be better for women to hold to, it would constrict women’s freedom and autonomy, and force them back into the molds created by the patriarchy. If, on the other hand, they say there are no ideals for women, then what grounds do they have to say that one behavior for women is better than another? How can they criticize Yeats or any other writer of the patriarchy for failing to live up to a standard that either doesn’t exist or that no one can know? Harvey Mansfield writes “Feminism has no understanding of womanhood; it leaves women without a guide and even tries to convince them that they need no guide.” (Manliness). The feminists have done a good job of portraying the evils that have been done to women through history. But without a clear picture of the good, their criticisms have a limited value. It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.

Current Listenings: MTV  Unplugged by 10,000 Maniacs, Blunderbuss by Jack White

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2013 7:19 pm

    You hit the nail on the head. How can you judge something when there is no standard?

  2. January 11, 2013 1:50 am

    You should write for the Record (the voices editor is always looking for interesting perspectives on campus). And submit to the Pub (I was an essay editor last semester, and your voice is a strong one).


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