Heterodox women: feminism needs independent thinkers, or we lose

Marie Shear coined the phrase “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” in her review of A Feminist Dictionary in New Directions for Women in 1986.

Feminism has a problem. And it’s getting worse. To be fair, it could be argued feminism has many problems. I’m going to talk about the one I see as most destructive, if indeed our goal is movement-building. This is what we keep telling each other, yes?

We have been lying to ourselves for too long, and it’s time to start being honest. Actually, this is the main problem I have with feminism: the lies. And by that I don’t necessarily mean literal lies (although there are those, too) — I mean a lack of authenticity. A refusal to allow women to be themselves — to accept that we are all flawed, imperfect, regular humans, just like everyone else. We are not better, more pure, more holy beings, because we are feminist. We have inner lives. We are diverse — in thought, in politic, in behaviour, and in desire. And the more we deny this, the more we deny the humanity of women. Remember them? Women? The humans?

This movement is made up of people. Which means that the movement is only those within it. It is (or should not be) a theory — it is (or should be) about real women.

We need to stop pretending this movement is inherently more ethical, more accepting, more kind, and more righteous than others. It is not. This movement, while perhaps the most successful of any in history, is fallible, like all movements. It is up to the women within it to decide what they would like it to become. Whether they would like it to be a movement that grows, that supports women, that makes a difference in terms of women’s lives and liberation, or whether they would like this to be a purely ideological war. A battle for political purity. A never-ending argument, about theories none of us live up to, fought out on social media, while nothing is organized, nothing gets done, those who do try to do something or to organize are torn down, having failed to do it “right,” to meet incredibly high ideological and political standards, unrealistic for the average woman.

The movement has fallen prey to internet activism — which is not real, and which centers around appearances and pontification. You can be anybody you like online. You can just be an avatar. We cannot have a movement of avatars. And while the internet and social media is incredibly useful, those whose “feminism” only exists online seem particularly prone to creating a toxic, dehumanizing environment — one lacking in accountability and integrity.

We need to remember what this movement is about: women’s liberation. It should not be a rigid battle for control, ensuring only a tiny cadre of ideologues remain, tweeting within an echo chamber, publishing dramatic posts in private Facebook groups, admonishing other women for failing to live up to their theoretical standards. (Standards even they cannot live up to themselves, were they honest.) This movement is about real lives. That is what matters. The real lives of women.

With so much won, thanks to thousands of incredibly courageous women who came before us, we face unexpected challenges today. We are fighting for basics, once again. Basics that, if lost, mean we lose it all. Women’s rights cannot exist without women — that thing that has become unsayable, undefinable, a vague category of people no one can describe, lest a non-woman be left out.

But instead of organizing, reaching out, taking action, and building a broader movement, too many have come to believe their role, as feminists, is only theoretical. That the politics matter more than the people. That the ideas, slogans, and rigid boundaries, repeated and shared and policed, often anonymously, matter more than the truth.

Politics exist for people. Without the people, the politics don’t matter. Get it?

Too many have taken up the tactics of those who seek to destroy and silence us — reciting mantras without question, using jargon to avoid honest conversation. Too many have come to believe this movement is not for the liberation of all women, but for their own sense of power or self-satisfaction. To comfort oneself. To project politics all over the internet, without actually consulting with those being projected at. Has it occurred to you that those you are fighting for may not want your fight? That the “marginalized” you use to support your tweets may not share your views? That your faux-politicking may not be for the people, after all, but just for you?

I suspect this might all sound a little vague. Or that maybe you are starting to feel a little defensive. Am I talking about you?

If you are wondering, I am. You may be the problem. I have also been the problem.

In the past, I have policed the boundaries of feminism, imagining that my mantras were the truth. But as I advanced towards a stronger commitment to authenticity and honest conversation — towards real critical thought — I began to step outside my own boundaries. Only to learn this wasn’t allowed.

Embarrassingly, all that I had said about feminists being the real critical thinkers — the bold, brave, honest purveyors of truth, turned out not to be entirely true. I have been disappointed by some of you. Too many, I’ve realized, do not want truth — they wanted comfort, control, and allegiance.

I get it. Questioning things you have built your life around is scary. But it’s worth it. It is more important to be real than to be comfortable. Or is this something we only say to others? Are our radical mantras applicable to our own lives and politics? If women are human, can we accept humans that aren’t just like us?

Feminism is not a club. There is no president. It is not a test to be passed. There are no course requirements. You should not have to learn a complex new language in order to join this movement. You should not have to pretend to be someone you are not, constantly auditioning for approval from your sorority sisters. The only qualification one should need to be a part of this movement is that you are a woman, and you want to fight for women’s rights, and freedom from discrimination, violence, and oppression. We are fighting for women’s lives, not for ideological dominion.

Is liberation won when everyone is too scared to question? To be themselves? When we are so afraid of our “sisters” we can’t speak our mind? I don’t want that “liberation.”

In this movement, actually, all women are welcome. Or should be. Even the ones you don’t like, even the ones who don’t share all of your opinions or political positions, even the ones who don’t speak like you, and don’t understand your jargon. Feminism should not be owned by the elite — by educated Westerners, schooled in the theory, prepared to repeat RightThink. And yet, rather than welcoming women in — the flawed, the uneducated, the ones who don’t know all the “rules,” the ones who have not yet been initiated into Pure Politics, the ones who have not adopted your favoured discourse and strategies, who have not read all the same books as you — they are being pushed out.

Who would want to be part of a club that asks them to abandon themselves, to shrivel, to self-censor?

No one wants to give up themselves in order to be “liberated.” Playing pretend feels oppressive.

Feminism arose as a grassroots movement. Regular women got together, shared their stories, got angry, and changed the world. They did not get together and plot to take down other women, hidden, projecting perfection onto others without accountability — too afraid to show their faces or reveal their names lest they experience some negative consequences. Lest people find out they too are human. Women did not win the vote by sitting around on their couches, alone, trashing other women from behind a screen name. Women did not successfully organize around workplace rights by demanding working class women pass purity tests before joining the fight. This movement did not achieve all that it has by bullying every woman who speaks out or tries to organize because they are “doing it wrong.” It certainly did not achieve success by silencing women.

For a long time, I thought there were two different movements: the third wave — the mainstream faux-feminists who fought not for women, but for the Instagrammable, superficial status quo; and the real, radical, grassroots women’s movement, fighting against actual oppression and violence, fighting for real women’s lives. I still think this is true to a certain extent. The women I know and work with in the real world are doing just that. But I now think there is a third faction: the internet feminists. The ones who profess radical politics, while refusing to go public, who refuse to speak out under their own names and faces, whose feminism only exists on social media, and who guard feminism from outsiders. It is a “feminism” that speaks about women’s lives, but fails to understand women’s lives. It supports diversity in concept, but not in practice. It is puritanical, judgemental, and not only ineffective, but destructive. It offers the illusion of action, minus the action. It tricks the individual into believing she is working at something — that she is part of an (in) group and community that is doing something important. But what is accomplished, most often, is a never ending series of internet wars and drawing of lines: good/bad, right/wrong, black/white. The world is grey. Women are nuanced. We are human. If I cannot be nuanced, honest, and human, I do not want this movement. Does this movement want me? Or does it want an illusion of perfection?

One would think that, during a global pandemic, the social media-led witch hunts so popular online these days would die off, but the opposite is true. Instead, we are at each other’s throats more than ever. And I hate it. The squabbling and rumour-mongering and trashing is exhausting. Yet it is consistently excused as somehow being important political work.

It is not.

Hating and slandering and gossiping about women is not political work. It is not feminism. Tweeting screen shots to “call out” public feminists from behind an avatar is not political work. I don’t care who you like or dislike, and I don’t care to read your endless Twitter essays. Not if you are not doing the work and taking the risks.

But there are always excuses: I can’t take action until you pay me. I can’t speak out because I might experience negative repercussions at work. If my friends and family found out about my feminist beliefs, they might reject me.

These are the repercussions we all face. Every single one of us. We all suffer consequences for the work we do in this movement, for speaking out, and for publicly standing in support of our cancelled sisters. It is insulting and untrue to claim you are more at risk than other women. You are not. If you wish or feel you need to stay anonymous, you may. But do not offer these excuses. It is insulting and ignorant of what women have suffered over centuries, throughout the world, to fight for basic rights. Most women in this world are far more vulnerable than the middle class, university educated, employed, housed women I hear these excuses from in the West. And I will not tolerate it. You have more than most. In fact, it is your duty to speak out.

To be clear, I support those doing anonymous work. We do not all need to be on a soapbox. What I do not support is those who remain anonymous — who limit their “feminism” to private Facebook groups or anonymous Twitter accounts, and have the gall to attack and police other women in this movement — to engage in mob-style take downs and bullying. You can contribute or you can sit down.

There is a lie that the anonymous, inactive, and toxic tell themselves, which is that only the “privileged” speak out. It seems to me that the opposite is true. And, in any case, as Magdalen Berns said, “You might be worried about your job or your friends, but your rights are more important than anything else.”

It is hard to speak out. It is hard for all of us. Not one of us spoke out because it was easy to do so. And we have all suffered for doing so.

When I started doing this, I did it for free, for years. While I was in university, while I was working three jobs. I had no financial support, I had no career, no secure housing, and no job security. Early on, I barely knew a single woman in this movement. I started speaking my mind because I felt I had to.

I began to connect with movement women through my work, and they taught me more than I ever learned at school. These women were brave, smart, tough women who had been punished endlessly for standing up and speaking out. I knew I had to stand up for them. I did not agree with everything they said, I did not share all of their politics, and I did not like them all.

I try my best to work with everyone. Trust that there are many I stand alongside whose politics are not mine, whose strategies I wouldn’t choose, and who may use different language than I. I am trying to reach as many people as possible, and I feel the best way to do this is to spread our wings — to talk to and with everyone we possibly can. Not to create rigid lines defining who is Good and who is Bad — who deserves to be treated with respect, to be listened to, to be understood, based on how well they fit within our tiny, comfortable, box. Not to recreate the witch hunts that destroyed and silenced our foremothers — targeted and tortured for being found guilty of wrong think, or standing next to someone charged with heresy, or for failing to express hate for the ousted.

I am not here for bandwagons, I am here for bravery. I am not here for purity politics. I am not here for elitism. I am not here to push people out, I am here to bring people in. I will never be pure. I do not want to be. I am not your puppet. You do not own me. You may not control my thoughts and words. You may not prevent me from thinking and speaking independently. You may not stop me from standing up for what I think is right. You may not stop me from speaking out. You may not do this to any woman. Feminism is, actually, for everyone. Whether you like it or not.

Standing in solidarity with women should not mean saying things one does not believe, repeating mantras unthinkingly, taking positions that feel wrong, or adopting ideologies one does not entirely agree with. It does not mean, “Repeat after me, or else.” Feminism is not a dictatorship. It should not be an authoritarian movement. It is about independence. Remember that word? It is about liberation.  Remember that one? You say it a lot. Do you know what this means? It means encouraging independence, free speech, and critical thought.

Walk the talk.

What I am seeing in internet feminism is the opposite: silencing, a deep hatred of independent thinkers, and the discouraging of critical thought. I see demands that women take up mantras, jargon, and positions they do not support, lest they be ousted. I see women who try to organize and take action shot down and attacked, because they have failed at perfection, as defined by someone else. I see public women being bullied and torn to shreds by anonymous accounts, and from within online groups. I see malicious gossip and witch hunts. I see women demanding purity under threat of ostracization. I see phonies, who virtue signal and tut tut, while declining to put themselves out there to be subjected to the same scrutiny the very women they scrutinize and trash are.

Is this movement building? Is this solidarity? Is this women’s liberation? No. It is not. It is power mongering and control. It is destructive. It actively destroys our chances at achieving something. We are losing a fight for our movement — to save all that has been built. And your contribution is to push women out.

That this internal squabbling and online policing is a massive waste of time is, on some level, intentional. I believe there are people who are so scared of actually doing something that they have made online politicking a full time job. No time for action! There are thoughts to police! Politics to purify! Virtues to signal! There is a feminist doing a thing I don’t quite like! Stop her!

If you work hard enough, maybe you will stop everyone. And then you will have won. You and your 20 friends in your Facebook group can rest at last, having changed the world into a perfect bubble, free of real, human women.

But I am committed to being human and real, whether or not this makes you uncomfortable. I will always be me. I will never shut up, I will never sit down, and I will not say something I don’t believe. Authenticity will always matter more to me than popularity. These qualities have gotten me where I am today: in a whole lot of trouble, but also with a platform — one I built and have fought for every step of the way.

If you need me to fit inside a very small box, built and guarded by you, lest I poke a toe out, triggering the guards to punish me, I don’t want in. No free thinker would. No revolutionary, no warrior, no radical, no leader wishes to stay within the confines of a box built by authoritarians, even if those authoritarians call themselves liberators.

Women want independence. They want liberation. They want freedom — like anyone. But if you want them to join this movement, you have to offer them that.

Do you want us? The real women of the world? Or do you want your comfort zone — a space you can police, reinforcing the lies your tell yourself: that liberation only speaks your language, and freedom looks just like your timeline?

Wrest yourself from your pedantic prison; let heterodoxy set you free.

Join us on Friday, for #GIDYVR’s online panel, Heterodoxx: Women on Cancel Culture.

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.