Feminism: Not a zero-sum game

By now most of us have either articulated for ourselves or read any number of critiques about the trouble with Naomi Wolf’s Vagina. It’s fair to say that, to many feminists, Wolf has lost the plot. So when I read this post, wherein the author argues that she has been abandoned by feminism because “feminism…cares about the state of Naomi Wolf’s vagina” I was a little baffled. As far as I can tell, Naomi Wolf’s vagina is not a priority for the feminist movement at large.

Laurie Penny writes this about Wolf’s new book:

Barely two chapters in, it dawns on you by dreadful stages that the author’s self-delusion is such that she really does believe her personal problems in achieving mind-blowing orgasms to have universal application to the future of womankind.

Jill Filipovic writes:

And that’s where Wolf goes off the rails. She likes a particular kind of sex, and so she decides that she must like it because it’s how the cavemen did it. It’s embedded in her DNA. It’s not a preference, perhaps shaped by romance novels and Laura Ashley bedroom sets; it’s evolutionary. It’s “real.” An evolutionary explanation allows Wolf to understand her sexual experience as authentic in a way that other sexual preferences, ostensibly materialized out of thin air by pornographers, are not, and that authenticity makes it better. “It’s evolution” is a significantly more satisfying answer than “it’s complicated.”

And Suzanne Moore at The Guardian writes:

My problem with Wolf is longstanding and is not about how she looks or climaxes – but it is about how she thinks, or rather doesn’t. She comes in a package that is marketed as feminism but is actually breathlessly written self-help. Her oeuvre, if I can use this word, is basically memoir, in which she struggles to tell some heroic truth that many others have already told us. The great trick is to present this material as new, and to somehow speak on behalf of all women when she is infinitely privileged and sheltered.

It seems to me that feminism, at large, is saying that Wolf’s feminism no longer represents them (if it ever did). Many of us who read and were impacted and maybe even politicized by The Beauty Myth just aren’t feelin’ it anymore. But just because one woman’s feminism doesn’t represent you, is it fair to conclude that feminism, as a whole, is just the worst? Because a couple of mainstream, liberal feminists want to make the vagina into the new!hot!thing! does that mean we need to write off the movement as a whole?

Flavia Dzodan writes:

… all I hear is how womanhood is defined by the vagina! At the moment, nothing seems more important for mainstream feminism than abortion rights and vaginas. And I am sorry for this (no, I am not), I am fucking fed up hearing about the rights of white, cisgender women to have access to whatever it is they need when people that are born in places similar to mine are massively ignored by the same “feminism”. Oh you want your abortion rights? How about I would like women like me to be able to stay alive and not be raped or beaten or abused while in detention camps or drowned while trying to cross the sea or their babies corpses found floating by rescue missions days after the fact?

This isn’t a zero-sum game. Women’s reproductive rights are not to blame for the deaths of refugees. Attacking abortion rights isn’t going to end violence against women. That women who, whether you like it or not, HAVE VAGINAS and sometimes become pregnant when they would like not to be pregnant, are fighting for the right to decide when they would or would not like to expel a human being from their bodies is not something to be angry about. It isn’t fair to say that the most important things in feminism are abortions and vaginas. It simply isn’t true.

The feminists I know are working their asses off trying stop violence against women, to end the objectification and exploitation of women, to end rape and abuse. Yet those women also support and fight for reproductive rights and access to abortion. We can do more than one thing at once! And, at the same time, we actually can’t do everything. There is A LOT of work to be done within this movement. Some of us are bound to focus more heavily on certain issues in order to effect change in that particular arena.

Advocating for reproductive rights is not the same as abandoning refugees. And statements like these:

Oh you want your abortion rights? How about I would like women like me to be able to stay alive and not be raped or beaten or abused while in detention camps or drowned while trying to cross the sea or their babies corpses found floating by rescue missions days after the fact?

are not useful in any way. Yes I want my fucking abortion rights. No I don’t want women to be beaten or raped or abused. What the hell kind of sick argument is that?? That feminists who support and fight for reproductive rights are somehow supporting the abuse of refugee women??

Feminism is not a one-issue deal. This movement is (supposed to be) about all women, in particular it should be about supporting the most marginalized women and no, mainstream, American feminism really hasn’t always done a good job of that. In fact, mainstream, American everything really hasn’t really ever done a good job of covering marginalized issues or of radical movements. Generally mainstream media prefers stupid, frivolous, sexy, individualist feminism. They like stories of personal empowerment. They think that sex sells (because it does sell…). They don’t like the parts of the feminist movement that challenge systems of oppression or capitalism or male power. They don’t like movements or ideas that challenge their worldview. If they ever bother to address the feminist movement, it’s to pretend as though white, middle class women’s ‘choices’ epitomize liberation. Is it surprising that mainstream media would be into the kind of feminism that says that, actually, all feminism really wants is more orgasms? It’s simple, it’s easy, it’s non-threatening. But it isn’t representative of feminism’s priorities or goals.

All that said, you know, I have a vagina and I have a uterus. And that’s had an impact on my life. That I was born with a vagina does have meaning, whether I like it or not. It has had meaning for billions of other women. It isn’t just “a fucking piece of flesh between our legs” (really, it’s not. That would be the vulva.). The fact that I was born with a vagina meant that I was socialized and treated in a certain way throughout my life. It shaped my experiences. To acknowledge that is not essentialist and the thing is that we as women and as feminists didn’t decide to “define ourselves through a fucking piece of flesh between our legs”. Rather we were and continue to be defined by our bodies and because we were born biologically female. In a patriarchy… And that means something, yeah.

So why the attack on feminism? Naomi Wolf writes a shitty, self-indulgent book ergo feminism is the worst?

It is not fucking acceptable to attack women’s reproductive rights under the guise that those rights were traded in order to allow refugee women to die. That’s bullshit. It’s also not acceptable to say that we need to shut up about ‘vaginas’ (and all that having a vagina/uterus/female body entails) because that’s a woman thing. Feminism is a ‘woman thing’. So inevitably women’s bodies are going to matter. Not in the my-vagina-is-the-key-to-my-being/sacred-feminine-woo-woo kind of way, but in the way that women are the ones who are impregnated (against their will or otherwise) and in the way that being born with a vagina impacts your status in the world for the rest of your life. Because, as I mentioned earlier, patriarchy.

Dzodan writes:

Every time I see reports about reproductive justice in the Western world, I am painfully reminded of the women who have been deprived of their children, of their lives, of any future whatsoever because they were born in the “wrong” countries.

Ok. There is an important point in there. The West, in large part, is obsessed with itself and is generally an exploitative, ignorant, shit. BUT is the answer: stop reporting about reproductive justice in the Western world? Reproductive rights are under attack. In a big way. And that IS important. FOR WOMEN. It is not the only thing that matters. Not by a long shot. There are other issues that matter tremendously. Women are disappearing and dying and being raped and beaten and assaulted and abused every day (in the West and abroad) AND THAT MATTERS. It matters to feminism. But abortions matter too. My right NOT to be impregnated matters. And not because other women don’t matter. Feminism doesn’t work like that.

Feminism isn’t raping women. Feminism isn’t abusing women. Feminism isn’t murdering women. Stop this shit.

The people who are benefiting from and have benefited from capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy are, by and large, men. Men with power. Not feminists. Feminism needs to and does address the ways in which these systems interact to oppress women. And yes, it’s likely that that version of feminism isn’t beloved or represented in pop culture. But who gives a shit what the pop culture likes? Any version of feminism that is popularized by mainstream media is likely going to be pretty shallow. Much of what I do on this blog is talk about the ways in which feminism is misrepresented, sexified, and co-opted by the mainstream. That version of feminism doesn’t define the movement.

Attacking women’s rights in order to advocate for women’s rights is counterproductive and misguided. Pretending that by advocating for one issue we are necessarily trading that issue for another is manipulative. Attacking the fight for or coverage of reproductive justice will help absolutely no one and will hurt women everywhere, moving feminism and women back, oh about  forty years.

We need reproductive rights and access to abortions. Those things are EXTREMELY important. For women. For feminism. We also need to work to end violence against women and rape and abuse. Not just for women in the West but for women everywhere. That is extremely important. Naomi Wolf’s vagina? Less important. But let’s be real. Feminism is not the enemy of women. Even when sometimes we feel like parts of feminism really don’t fly with us.

You’re sick of hearing about abortion rights and vaginas? Ok. Then you’re sick of hearing about women and women’s rights. This isn’t all there is but it is absolutely central to this struggle. YES, among other things (case in point: I have written about reproductive rights maybe once on this blog).

If you don’t care about abortion is the most thoughtful, productive reponse: “EVERYBODY SHUT UP ABOUT ABORTIONS”? Really?

If you don’t care about reproductive rights then go do something else. If you want to pretend that women’s bodies don’t matter in the context of female subordination then I don’t know what to tell you. There are a lot of things worth fighting against and I just don’t think feminism is one of them.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.