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It seems to me that feminism, at large, is saying that Wolf’s feminism no longer represents them (if it ever did).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
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • (applause)

  • Spot ON Meghan!

  • Lafaye

    Nailed it!! I was getting really tired of the lack of critical thinking on this. “Naomi Wolf blah blahs about her vagina? Feminism sucks!” and the serious wtf on that Dzodan comment.

    • hovercraft lovechild

      Flavia Dzodan has truly gone of the rails.

  • Nashi

    I’ll never forget opening Jessica Valenti’s Purity Myth book to the first page and reading (paraphrased), “After I had sex for the first time, I slipped my freshly fucked pussy off my boyfriend’s penis and thought about feminism.”

    I closed the book and walked away from Fucked Fanny Feminism. I did not walk away from feminism because no one or three or five women own what belongs to all of us.

  • CM

    This is an excellent post, something I have tried to articulate many times and couldn’t. I’m grateful that in my experience this manipulative “you care about birth control too much” bullshit is limited to the internet.

  • Rachel

    I think that an underlying motivation of Dzodan’s post might be to point out how pernicious agenda-setting can be. If we take at face value the argument that the prominence of certain voices, and the sheer volume of responses to them, is reflective of how we spend our finite time and attention, then yeah. It seems that we have been spending a LOT of time talking about one woman’s vagina. That may well be inappropriate, and a perspective that points this out is well and rightly legit. To that effect I think we can learn something from Dzodan’s piece.

    BUT. There’s a fallacy in Dzodan’s piece, and you nailed it right on the head, Meghan. It’s not either-or. Just like caring about the fact that Pussy Riot was imprisoned doesn’t mean we stop thinking about the disproportionate incarceration of indigenous women. It doesn’t mean we stop paying attention to the fact that the Canadian government is persecuting women/queer refugees and denying them healthcare, or putting them in harm’s way of abusive sponsors.*

    At the end of the day, feminism is about freedom projects. So many of these are oriented around women’s bodily integrity, their autonomy, their safety, their ability to have lives where they have the final say. Such freedom projects mean the right to safe abortions… AND safe housing. AND reliable medical care. AND the resources that enable women choose to have children, not to have them taken away arbitrarily, or to be harmed by the political and social circumstances into which they have been born.

    Dzodan’s piece made me think — about my priorities, about how I spend my time, and what I spend my time reading. THAT was helpful. Regardless of her inflammatory language, it’s not a bad lesson to keep in mind. Your point underscores this, and I’m glad you made it — feminism isn’t either-or. It’s not. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not. It’s all these things and more, and we make choices to engage in whatever capacity we can — hopefully, with the kind of reflexivity that makes it possible for us to look at more than one issue at once.

    *Canadian context. Too much short-hand. Always there is more to say… Thanks for giving me the space to chime in.

  • kobella

    Thank you! I care deeply about trans women and justice for all women, but attacking feminists who focus on abortion and birth control rights is bullshit.

  • Chris

    I agree that the reproductive rights of all women, including those in the west, is important and should never be dismissed. You’re right that the suffering of women around the world, even though often caused or facilitated by western powers, can never be a justification for ignoring or belittling the denial of reproductive rights in the west or any other aspect of patriarchy.

    Nevertheless, I must disagree with some of your statements.

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

    Some who call themselves feminists in the west are indeed responsible for some of the above. Some have used the feminist banner to defend or justify wars of aggression (i.e. Afghanistan). To be fair, some of these people may have been exploited opportunistically by the US government, but people are still responsible for what they say. Several years ago when war with Iran appeared likely, some so-called “feminists” gave cover to the war agenda, and had events gone differently, they may have tipped the balance towards war. (Watch out for that to happen again.)

    Some who call themselves feminists have promoted or legitimated positions and policies that led to an increase in human trafficking and sex slavery (especially from eastern Europe), and some even directly benefitted from this trade. In the name of reproductive rights, some feminists have contributed to, and benefitted from, the treatment of third world women as human guinea pigs. Their bodies were experimented on for our benefit.

    Of course, I would argue that this isn’t really feminism, it’s a perversion of the idea. But what many consider “mainstream” feminism, is indeed complicit in many of the crimes you mention.

    “The people who are benefiting from and have benefited from capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy are, by and large, men. Men with power.”

    The average western woman benefits less from these things than the average man, but she still benefits. She is, granted, an unequal partner, not getting her fair share of the spoils. This is what pisses so many people off around the world, and often causes them to dismiss “feminism” or even view it as the enemy. But that’s not what feminism is supposed to be about. Feminism mean abolishing patriarchy, and all the privilege that goes along with it. And that means all of *our* privilege too, man or woman.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Yes well, Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist so of course there will always be some who co-opt the identity/movement in order to further/reinforce exploitative systems of power and defend anti-feminist behaviour and actions. But no, feminism is NOT raping women. Men are. Place the blame where it belongs. Obviously some women in this world have more power than others and some women participate in the exploitation and marginalization of other women. OBVIOUSLY. That said, these systems, these institutions, colonialism, etc were created by and are beneficial primarily to men. Those who came to what is now known as Canada, from Europe, to take the land and culture of Indigenous peoples, were men. Women weren’t even allowed to come over from Europe for the first 100 years of colonization. That isn’t to say that women are never complicit. Women are not innately better people than men. But these systems are patriarchal systems and have always existed specifically to benefit men with power (primarily white men) – not women.

  • Aims

    “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?”

    And the best way to achieve this liberation is to attack feminists like me. GOOD ONE FLAVIA.

    • yellowmarigold

      Given that Flavia did not place her “women like me” comments in any real context, I read her bio on Tiger Beatdown to learn more about her. I expected to read about her living in a refugee camp or some war-torn region, but was instead stunned to read this:

      “Flavia is a marketeer (and she sees no shame in it!) and media analyst with a penchant for pop culture and endless discussions on the merits of TV shows and bad advertising practices. She is half Hispanic, half Eastern European and lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, by way of her home town of Buenos Aires (where she was born and raised).”

      So apparently Naomi Wolf and other feminists are evil for not devoting their lives to helping disadvantaged women. Meanwhile, Flavia has the decidedly middle-class career of “marketeer” and loves pop culture. Got it.

  • Katy

    “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 is strangely reniniscent of my mothers “eat your pease because there are people starving in Africa” argument. Or the oft mentioned “stop whingeing, theres always someone worse off”

    Caring about what could be classified as a smaller problem doesn’t detract fron the really big issues. By the same token these bigger issues don’t make womens rights to their own bodies any less significant.

  • yellowmarigold

    I’m glad you responded to Flavia Dzodan’s post. That was one of the worst things I’ve ever read in the liberal feminist blogosphere (and the bar is pretty low). More than 60 years ago, Simone de Beauvior wrote in great depth about how women having vaginas and having the ability to give birth is a cornerstone of women’s oppression under patriarchy. IT MATTERS. But apparently, thanks to post-modernism/post-structuralism and idiocy on the internet perpetuated by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, this fundamental idea that is integral to feminism has been lost. Now we cannot talk about vaginas BECAUSE THAT’S ESSENTIALISM!!! [Nevermind that essentialism and biological determinism are not the same thing.] We’re supposed to believe that there is no such thing as women anymore, it’s just a construction. And talk of vaginas is “transphobic.”

    Naomi Wolf’s book on the vagina was bound to set off a firestorm. It didn’t matter what the content of the book was. The fact that Naomi Wolf actually thought she could write a book about the vagina and not be destroyed by other prominent feminists just proves that she has completely lost touch with contemporary feminism.

  • marv

    Extremely well articulated Meghan: the whole of feminism is greater than the sum of its parts but each of its parts has inestimable value too. You have a deep well of thought and perception.

  • BK

    I hadn’t heard of this book until now! I am blown away by her anti-vagina, anti-reproductive rights approach…what the hell is she trying to achieve?

  • genderspinster

    Oh yes.
    So, so good, Meghan!!
    I, too, have been struggling to articulate this very thing. Thank you.

  • This comparing of one horror to another within a movement is classic in-fighting rather than directing our collective focus towards the real power that causes both (and many other) issues. When we fight amongst ourselves for scraps we ignore the Master who tosses them down watching, and chuckles to himself.

    Thanks for bringing our focus back where it belongs…again.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Indeed. I’ve always liked this quote by Will Miller: “A ruling minority depends on a divided minority for its security and continued privilege.”

      That said, it’s not as though I think/believe that we all need to agree on everything or that we won’t have different priorities, but attacking women’s rights and the feminist movement under the guise of liberation is counterproductive.

  • KittyBarber

    As soon as I saw the term “cisgender,”I knew exactly what sort of person was writing this bile and the reason behind it.

    I am a female. I am not “cis-ANYTHING.”

    That prefix is hateful and misogynistic, and the trans* community knows very well that many feminists–and virtually ALL radical feminists–hold the same position.

    Women–females–face a different reality than do others. To refuse recognition of that simple fact is the worst kind of sexism; it seems intent upon erasing women. It is typical of the trans* attitude, and it is a dangerous concept for the future of my sex.

    Kitty Barber

  • Omvan

    She ‘lost the plot’ way back when she started defending Assange’s rape charges, at least in my book.

  • Hypatia

    Thank you for writing this! That post left an awful taste in my mouth, especially after reading all the approving comments. Anyone in possession of a functioning female reproductive system should understand exactly how crucial reproductive rights are for women’s liberation. Having them is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for ending women’s oppression. All women. Just because it’s not the ONLY issue doesn’t make it any less essential.

    • Meghan Murphy

      From what I understand, the vast majority of comments left were *not* ‘approving’. Flavia only published the positive comments…

  • Christine Smith

    The Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) has been working in countries around the world for decades to ensure women everywhere have access to safe, legal abortion. When abortion is illegal, women die, and mostly they die in poor countries where abortions are the most unsafe. Over 50,000,000 abortions take place globally EVERY YEAR.

    Upwards of 50,000 women a year die outright, and millions more are permanently damaged through infection, fistula and other results of unsafe abortion (see WHO and Guttmacher). Most of THOSE women live in poor and developing countries too.

    Anyone who thinks abortion and reproductive rights is about wealthy white American women like Naomi Wolfe is missing something very, very important. The rest of the world has a history in this essential issue, too.

    If you are interested in supporting the action and initiatives of women who don’t have the amazing privileges our foremothers have won for us in the west, visit http://www.september28.org and see what the world is doing about abortion rights ~ and where they are doing it.

  • EEB

    I just saw this, so sorry for the late comment.

    I really appriciate this post. I have been frustrated with what I call “facebook feminism” talking nonstop about abortion, as though reproductive rights are just about abortion and contraception. I’ve tried to point out that it’s also about the right to have children, an issue that’s very important to me, as a lesbian, as a disabled woman. Those same “consience laws” that allow pharmacists to deny contraception or medical personel to let women die if saving their life would endanger a fetus also allow doctors to refuse to treat a lesbian who wants to become pregnant. And cuts to government assistance are a form of financial coersion forcing women to abort pregnancies they would otherwise want to keep.

    But, like you, I don’t see this as a zero-sum game. Feminists can work on both, are working on both. I thinnk it’s more that there are a whole bunch of girls and women waking up to the fact that men hate them, that their rights are not set in stone but can be taken away with the stroke of a pen. They are getting involved in this facebook feminist activism, probably the first time most of them have ever identified as a feminist publically (which, again, is awesome; if there’s any good coming out of the constant attacks on women right now, it’s that women who never would have gotten involved in feminist activism are waking up), but they don’t have the background in feminist theory or understand the extent of patriarchal oppression that exists, which goes far beyond “OMG they are taking away my birth control and my right to have an abortion!” I think in the past women who publically ID’d as “feminist” and were involved in activism were generally more educated about women’s issues, because it was a lot more costly and socially unnatractive to be a feminist. Now, the movement is being flooded with a lot of women at the Feminism 101 level.

    Which is not a bad thing! It’s great that there are so many girls and women getting involved, as I said. It does mean that they need to be willing to listen and be educated on a range of issues (which do include things that affect primarily poor women, or women of color, or women outside of developed countries, or disabled women, etc. etc. etc.). But why that means we can’t also focus a lot of our energy and attention on abortion/contraceptioin, or why some women can’t focus most of their time and attention on, say, forced pregnancy, while other women focus their energy fighting for the rights of all women to be mothers if they choose, I truly don’t understand. Normally, I do enjoy Flavia Dzodan’s writing (and I do believe intersectionality is important), but I find that post incredibly short-sighted and offensive. I appriciate you pointing this out.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling on, this got longer than I thought. I’ve just been thinking a lot about this, recently, and you brought into focus a lot of thoughts that have been flitting around my head. Thanks.

    • KittyBarber

      I am also a Lesbian, and I, too, am disabled. I don’t understand your statement about the “right to have children.” Where in any constitution or statute are we guaranteed the right to have children?

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