On “Equity Feminism” and “Gender Feminism”

On “Equity Feminism” and “Gender Feminism” January 9, 2013

You may or may not have been following all the hoopla over feminism in the online atheist community in the last two years. While I have never addressed it directly on my blog, I’ve definitely kept up with it. Blogger vjack of Atheist Revolution has written about it quite a bit, and recently put up a post in which he suggests that the conflict stems from competing definitions of feminism: “equity feminism” and “gender feminism.” Here is how he describes them:

In a nutshell, equity feminism refers to a focus on the goal of social and legal equality. That is, equity feminists believe that women and men should have the same rights, be paid the same for the same work, have access to the same opportunities, etc. They are advocates of equality, and I wholeheartedly embrace this form of feminism. Women deserve equality, and none of us should settle for anything less.

Gender feminism is very different. It looks far less egalitarian, involves sharp criticism of gender roles, and seems to emphasize victimhood. There are aspects of gender feminism with which I agree (e.g., the manner in which patriarchy can be harmful to both women and men, the critique of traditional gender roles), but I do not support the entirety of gender feminism.

I’m going to overlook some of the problems with the way vjack frames these two categories – such as the assertion that “gender feminism” “looks far less egalitarian” – and instead take a moment to explore further what is meant by “equity feminism” and “gender feminism.” Though I had never heard of them before, Vjack did not make these terms up. In order to gain more insight into what is meant by these terms, I followed some of the links vjack provided in his post. Here is an excerpt from one of them, by a professor named Barry X. Kuhle:

What is feminism other than the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes? Regrettably to feminists like myself, far too many other feminists believe that being one means believing in far more than equality for women. These “gender feminists” cling to an ideologically driven, theoretically unsound, and empirically unsupported perspective on the origin and development of sex differences (Kuhle, 2012). To paraphrase New Jersey philosopher J. B. Jovi, they give feminism a bad name. In so doing, they have discouraged women and men who support sexual equality from self-identifying as feminists. … The reluctance most women and men have to embrace the feminist label in the absence of a definitional nudge is due in no small part to gender feminists’ untenable position on sex differences.

As an evolutionary psychologist, I believe that much light can be shed on psychology by considering how the information-processing mechanisms underlying our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affected our ancestors’ abilities to survive and reproduce. As an “equity feminist” (Sommers, 1994), I believe that women should have the full civil and social equalities that are afforded men. Equity feminism has no a priori stance on the origin or existence of differences between the sexes; it is solely a sociopolitical desire for men’s and women’s legal and social equality. Defined in these ways, there is no rational reason why one cannot be both an evolutionary psychologist and a feminist.

Gender feminism is an alternative version of feminism and is the dominant feminist voice in academia (Sommers, 1994) and online (e.g., Jezebel.com). And boy (er, I mean girl, er, I mean womyn) do they take issue with feminism being compatible with evolutionary psychology. They ardently argue that psychological differences between the sexes have little or nothing to do with evolution, but instead are largely or solely socially constructed (Pinker, 2002; Sommers, 1994). Whereas equity feminism “makes no commitment regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology… gender feminism is an empirical doctrine” committed to several unsubstantiated claims about human nature, especially that of the psychological blank slate where sex differences are concerned (Pinker, 2002, p. 341).

In other words, Kuhle argues that there are significant natural and inherent differences between men and women, so while we should support equality of opportunity, we shouldn’t wonder when men and women make different life choices, pursue different careers paths, act in different ways, or value different things. Thus Kuhle appears to be arguing that men and women can be equal even if they, as a result of their evolutionary background, carry out vastly different roles in life.

Defining Feminism

Now that we have a better understanding of the distinction between “equity feminism” and “gender feminism,” I think we need to take a step back and discuss what feminism is. First and foremost, feminism is “a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.” Both vjack and Kuhle agree with me on that part of the definition and argue that women should have political, economic, and social equality. So far so good.

The thing is, while that simple formulation may work well as a shorthand definition, there’s a bit more to feminism than that. Feminism, quite simply, is also about dismantling patriarchy, and challenging gender roles is a key part of that. Feminism is about making sure that children grow up knowing that it’s okay for a boy to be nurturing and it’s okay for a girl to be entrepreneurial. It’s about allowing children to develop as individuals rather than pushing them into prescribed gender roles. It’s about enabling women to have careers alongside men without facing allegations that doing so means they are neglecting their children, and about encouraging men to be just as much a part of their children’s lives as women are. It’s about seeing people as people first, rather than first typing them by their genders.

Feminists are not in the practice of using labels like “equity feminism” and “gender feminism.” I honestly think that a large part of that is because the two really go hand in hand. What do I mean by that? Well, according to both vjack and Kuhle’s definitions, equity feminism includes social equality. According to Wikipedia, social equality is

a social state of affairs in which all people within a specific society or isolated group have the same status in certain respects. At the very least, social equality includes equal rights under the law, such as security, voting rights, freedom of speech and assembly, property rights, and equal access to social goods and services. However, it also includes concepts of economic equity, i.e. access to education, health care and other social securities. It also includes equal opportunities and obligations, and so involves the whole of society.

I think that last sentence is key – equal opportunities and equal obligations. Last summer a post on Feministe asked readers to define equality, and I found this comment especially insightful:

Well, in an equal world, the expectations that society has for me as a female person named Kara would be exactly the same as for a male person named Karl who is otherwise completely identical.

Equal opportunities, equal obligations, and equal expectations – that is social equality. And guess what? You can’t achieve that without challenging gender roles. In fact, there is essentially no way to achieve any sort of equality between men and women, be it political, legal, economic, or social, without challenging gender roles, and that’s exactly what feminism has been doing at least since the 1960s. This divide between “equity feminism” and “gender feminism” is trumped up. Social, political, and economic equality is the goal, and challenging gender roles and dismantling patriarchy is the method to achieve that goal. We really don’t use words like “equity feminist” or “gender feminist.” We’re just, well, feminists.

Men and Women Are Just Different

I’ve noticed something as I’ve watched the conflict over feminism play out in the atheist blogosphere. Rather than “equity feminism” I would call it “difference feminism” or maybe “libertarian feminism.” I don’t really have a good label for exactly what’s going on, but vjack is right that there are some people in the skeptic community who reject the feminist focus on questioning and challenging gender roles. Here is an example from prominent skeptic Harriet Hall:

I think it is unreasonable to expect that equal numbers of men and women will be attracted to every sphere of human endeavor. Science has shown that real differences exist. We should level the playing field and ensure there are no preventable obstacles, then let the chips fall where they may.

Kuhle made this same argument in his article when he argued that there are natural differences between men and women and derided the idea that gender roles are socially constructed. Kuhle’s line of reasoning is why some people argue that it’s only natural that the vast majority of engineers are men and that the the fast majority of stay at home parents are women. Men are just better at spacial reasoning, after all, and women are perfectly evolved to care for children! Based on this same sort of argument, Michael Shermer responded to a question last summer about why speakers at atheist conferences generally tilt male by saying that

it’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, go to conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it, you know, it’s more of a guy thing.

It’s hard to tell when going of fairly short statements made in blog posts or comments, but the idea seems to be that if you ensure that there is equality before the law, it shouldn’t matter that men dominate in STEM fields and in leadership positions, or that that women find themselves doing the majority of the childcare. We shouldn’t bat an eye or ask why – instead, we should just accept this situation as natural and inevitable because men and women are different. And I’ve seen this same idea elsewhere, too, in arguments that feminists need to just stop “whining” and get “off their asses” and just work their way to the top, or arguments that we’ve already achieved equality, and that feminism is no longer needed and has resorted to creating victimhood complexes to keep its followers, made up of a band of whiny, bitchy, selfish women who don’t want to have to work for what they get.

In other words, it appears that there are some within the skeptic community who believe that in order to achieve full equality we must talk about the pervasive effects of patriarchy and work to break down gender roles, and there are some who believe that equality consists only of ensuring equality before the law and then letting “the chips fall where they may.” Thus some atheists are interested in talking about dismantling patriarchy and about the problems with the gendered messages men and women receive in our society, especially as children, while other atheists assert everything has already been more or less fixed and that any gendered differences today are simply innate and natural. It’s no wonder, then, that there have been disagreements across the blogosphere.

Some Words on Gender Roles and Social Construction

The trouble is, regardless of what Kuhle and others like him would have you think, we know that gender roles are socially constructed, whether in part or in total. Let me give you an example. The idea that girls are simply not as good at math as boys was accepted as settled fact for generations. Well guess what? Feminists challenged that idea and encouraged girls to go into the maths and sciences, and what do you know, we have learned that the idea that boys are just naturally better at math than girls are is a myth. What would have happened if someone hadn’t challenged the assumption that girls are just not as good at math as boys are? Why, then, should we just sit back and argue that it’s only “natural” that more women would want to be nurses or more men would want to be engineers?

Now let me talk from my own experience for a moment. I was raised in a conservative evangelical family and religious community, and was taught that men and women had roles that were “different” but “equal in value.” I was taught that this was just how God made people – men were designed to lead and their wives were designed to submit, girls were designed to be homemakers and boys were designed to have careers. I was sent to ballet glass because I wasn’t graceful enough. My brothers, in contrast, were enrolled in robotics club. I was encouraged to think about others’ feelings. My brothers were encouraged to roughhouse and be competitive. The focus of my home life was on raising me to fulfill a particular gender role. And you know what? I didn’t exactly fit that role. It was awkward. I was too competitive. I wasn’t good enough at following while someone else led. I was a tomboy. My mother fretted over all of this. Knowing what was expected of me, I worked to force myself to learn to be nurturing (something I was not good at), to be a good cook and house cleaner, and to learn proper female standards of dress and behavior.

At one point when I was a teen someone suggested to me that I could be an engineer. I had the mind, he told me. I laughed at the suggestion. Me, an engineer? That’s a guy thing! Why in the world would I ever even consider being an engineer? I wasn’t laughing at the suggestion because I was somehow naturally not engineer material. I was laughing at the suggestion because I had been taught that careers are for boys and homemaking is for girls, and even more than that, that engineering was a male career while careers like nursing or teaching were female careers. Of course, there was no legal barrier preventing me from being an engineer. According to “equity feminism,” there was nothing wrong with the fact that I had no desire at all to be an engineer, and indeed, found the idea silly. It was simply natural gender differences. Except that it wasn’t. It was the cultural and social construct of gender I had been painstakingly taught over years that led me to laugh at the idea of being an engineer. And there’s nothing natural about that.

So don’t tell me gender roles aren’t socially constructed. Don’t tell me that there’s nothing amiss with the fact that the vast majority of engineers are men. Don’t tell me that it’s only “natural” that many women should want to be homemakers. Don’t tell me all of that when those things have been been true for as long as they have because people have been socialized as children into filling particular gender roles. Don’t tell me that, because I’ve lived it. I know. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I’m so through with it.

Now I know my experience was extreme. In many ways, my experience was the norm several generations ago, when middle class girls were expected to land a husband and raise children and middle class boys were expected to lead high powered careers. Times have changed, and the gender roles children are socialized into have softened – but not disappeared. I feel it every moment people emphasize how “pretty” my daughter is rather than how clever or dedicated or strong she is. I felt it last month when someone saw a bruise on my son’s head and said “that’s just how boys are, always getting into something” even though my daughter gets knocks and bruises just as frequently and no one has ever said the same about her. I feel it when I see advertisements that with taglines like “show them off” by the girls’ shoes and “keep them active” by the boys’ shoes. I feel it when I read articles like this one. I feel it when I walk through the girls’ aisle full of pink and purple packaging displaying makeup and barbie dolls and then walk down the boys’ aisle to find green and grey packaging displaying nerf guns and legos. Yes, we’re making progress, but we’re not done.

I think it’s also important to remember why gender roles are such a problem for equality. For one thing, if you want to see people as individuals, rather than first typing them by gender, you have to see gender roles as a problem. Gender roles are boxes that people are asked to fit themselves into, and anyone interested in equality should see the problem with that.

There’s something else, too. I grew up in a conservative evangelical home where I learned that men were meant to be the protectors and providers while women were meant to be the nurturers and homemakers – and yet, I was told that these two roles were equal, just different. That’s clearly absurd. In the same way, it’s nonsense to look at the gender gap in society today and insist that we have achieved “equality.” Women make less than men, advance more slowly in their careers than men, hold fewer leadership positions, and are drastically underrepresented in government. There’s a lot more to equality than just equality before the law.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Are there physical and hormonal differences between men and women? Sure. But then, there is also gender fluidity and the existence of genderqueer and transgender people to consider, so the picture is far from simple. And besides that, even the existence of completely clear cut physical or hormonal differences between men and women would not mean that modern gender roles were natural rather than socially constructed. [This section was edited for clarity.] And how would we even know what differences were natural and which were not if we are constantly sending boys and girls such gendered messages? And besides that, what about the fact that children’s brains are still developing, influenced by the gendered messages they are receiving? And more than all that, if there are these natural and universal gender differences, why do we work so hard to send children gendered messages? Why not just treat boys and girls both alike – as people, as individuals – and then let any differences that might develop develop naturally? And besides all of that, it seems to me that there is such variation within each gender as to almost dwarf the differences between the two genders.

I have one more thought, and this isn’t directed so much at any specific figure or group of people as it is simply a general observation. Namely, arguing that there are innate gender differences that make women want to stay at home or make men more interested in science and math allows current hierarchies to stay in place and privilege to go unchecked. It allows men to pat themselves on the backs and fend off accusations of sexism while doing nothing to address all of the little ways in which women are held back. If the disparity between men and women in leadership positions can be safely chalked up to innate differences between the sexes, there’s no need to fix anything or disturb the current hierarchy. It allows privilege to go unchecked, under the cloak of being “natural.”

In the end, vjack is right that we need to define our terms. And while I don’t think the two categories he offered for feminism are ultimately all that helpful – both because you can’t achieve social equality without challenging gender roles and because his description of “gender feminism” was part straw man – I think his post serves as a good discussion starter. After all, it’s critically important to find ways to communicate with those who may not fully agree with us, and listening to each other and trying to understand each other’s perspectives is crucial.

Furthermore, I do think we need to be careful when we accuse those who disagree with us of being sexists and misogynists. This is partly because we risk applying these labels unfairly (and in doing so watering them down) and partly because doing so risks closing down conversation rather than opening it up. I know it can be hard, but I’d like to think that we can have a discussion about ideas even on issues that are very personal without automatically resorting to escalation. I think we need to be smart about calling out misogynist and sexist attitudes, behavior, and ideas in ways that actually get people to listen rather than alienate them.

Finally, while I may disagree strongly with those who call themselves “equity feminists,” whom I might also call “difference feminists” or “libertarian feminists,” I would like to hope that a shared profession of belief in equality could have the potential to serve as a starting point for discussions about just what that equality should look like and how to achieve it. And even more particularly, I would like to hope that through discussion we might be able to bring those who think that we’ve already achieved equality to consider the part played by gendered messaging and the constraining effects of socially constructed gender roles, and that they might then be willing to take a more positive view of our desire to challenge gender norms and allow people to be individuals first.

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