What Is Feminism Anyway?

Over at the Aqueduct Press blog there have been some interesting developments on the “women in SF” debate that has been rumbling away for a while. Last week Timmi Duchamp posted expressing some confusion as to what Gwyneth Jones meant by “feminist SF”. Today Gwyneth responded, and it seems to me that the differences in definition still remain.

Before I go into this, I should note that Gwyneth explains, as I had rather expected, that the Guardian people had rather caught her off guard on the podcast. I’m not surprised. As I’ve said before, the Guardian people seem more interested in generating controversy than in reasoned debate. My sympathies, Gwyneth.

Meanwhile, back with the question in hand. In her post Gwyneth says: “I haven’t stopped being a feminist, I haven’t stopped writing like a feminist, but the Battle of the Sexes is no longer my exclusive topic.” I’m no great expert on feminist theory, but to me this sounds very much like a second wave feminism viewpoint. Let me try to explain.

First wave feminism was the Suffragettes. That’s fairly clear. Second wave feminism was the movement that started in the 60s and 70s. In theory it was about equal rights for women in all areas of life. In practice it was sometimes more about equal rights for middle class white women, and occasionally about the rights of middle class white lesbian separatists. Sheila Jeffreys is a good example of how things can go so very badly wrong.

Third wave feminism, as I understand it, grew out of a cross-fertilization between feminism and the civil rights movement. Basically feminists realized that discrimination against women was just a small part of a much wider social problem. They also got the idea that working together with other groups on the bottom of the social ladder: people of color, the poor, LGBT people, the disabled and so on, would strengthen their position, not weaken it.

Third wave feminism, then, is not just about the “Battle of the Sexes”, it is about human rights. I’ll quite happily label a post about the rights of gay men “feminist”. But not everyone would. If you still see feminism as simply a matter of “men v women” then you may well see some of my posts as “seeing sexism where none exists” (as I and others have been accused of recently).

Where it gets interesting is if you consider the possibility that the idea of third wave feminism hasn’t made it very far in the UK. I learned much of my feminism in the USA, and from Australians who had been to Wiscon. In her post Timmi notes that when she first met Niall Harrison he had a very different view of feminist SF to hers. Gwyneth is based in the UK. Farah Mendlesohn, whose approach appears to be closer to mine, has spent a lot of time interacting with US academics at events like ICFA and online.

Suppose, then, that when Gwyneth says that having her work identified as feminist means that it is, “marked as unreadable by large swathes of the general sf reading public”, what she is concerned about is that her work will be seen as incorporating the ideas of second wave feminism. And she thinks that is likely because when you say “feminist” in the UK that’s most people still think you mean. That might explain why women SF writers find it harder to sell over here and, as Gwyneth suggests, by identifying them as feminist we may be doing them a disservice.

On the other hand, as I have noted elsewhere, the UK seems to be less friendly to LGBT rights as well. I suspect it may be a class thing. We Brits tend to be trained from birth that rocking the boat is a Bad Thing, and saying the wrong things may risk your social standing. That’s a gross generalization, of course, and probably unprovable, but I still think we need a good dose of third wave feminism here.

The other aspect of Gwyneth’s post that I feel I should address is where she lays the blame primarily on the shoulders of UK fandom.

The trouble is, I believe that the “problem” the fans are are worrying over is largely of their own making. We get what we celebrate, says Dean Kamon (inventor and science populariser). I don’t know much about the man, but that sounds right. UKSF fandom has not celebrated female writers. Sf’s highly active fanbase says “it’s the publishers” but I don’t believe that. I’m sure genre publishers and editors have an agenda, and they probably favour traditional male-ordered sf, but they’re not fanatics. They follow the money. If the sf community had been getting excited about women writers, if sf novels by women had been anticipated, talked about, discussed, on an enthusiastic scale, the wider sf reading public would have taken notice, the publishers would have been seeing interesting sales figures and they’d have reacted positively.

To some extent I think she’s right. As Farah has pointed out, the BSFA Awards have a particularly woeful record as far as recognizing women writers goes. On the other hand, we all live in the same cultural bubble. British readers may not have bought women SF writers in very large numbers, but equally I suspect that that when it comes down to decisions as to which books to commission, UK publishers are much less willing to take a risk on women writers than on men. If the books are not available, people can’t buy them.

I also note that a lot of the writers people like Timmi and I enjoy are not published by the big, multi-national New York houses, they are published by people like Prime, Night Shade, Small Beer, Tachyon, Subterranean and Aqueduct. Books by the successful American small presses are harder to come by in the UK than they are in the US. And that’s one reason why I am very pleased to be selling some of them. There’s no point in talking up women SF writers if people can’t buy their books easily. As Gwyneth says, if we see more sales, eventually publishers should sit up and take notice.

Update: Something had been nagging away at the back of my mind with regard to Gwyneth’s comments about publishers. Eventually I remembered it. A few days ago Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a great post for Book View Cafe. The first part is all about “literary” fiction and its pretensions, but the second half deals with publishers’ fixed ideas about YA fantasy. It is true that publishers follow the money, but as Le Guin explains they tend to follow it in a rather blinkered fashion. So once they get the idea into their heads that the SF that sells best is SF by men, then that soon mutates in their minds into “SF by women doesn’t sell”, and a consequent unwillingness to even try.

17 thoughts on “What Is Feminism Anyway?

  1. Even in the US it’s very common for people to conflate feminism with Second Wave Only. I can remember being wary of calling myself a feminist as a younger adult woman. I would say, “Of course I want equal rights for women, but I want them for everyone, and I really think I’m more of a humanist…” But humanism is its own thing, and not really what I meant. What I didn’t know that I meant, was that I was more in line with Third Wave Feminism. Someone was kind enough to sit me down and explain it to me when I was in my early twenties, and over the course of the next few years, I started to embrace it, but (and this is important) it actually took a few years! I never stopped wanting the things I wanted, but I was still afraid of the labels. Now I agree with you. I’m happy to consider issues of racial and LGBTQI equality as feminist, too. Not everyone is, though, and I still meet a lot of people who are afraid of the label the same way I was. I’m glad that this dialogue seems to be more open in the US now, and I hope it continues to become more visible all over the world.

  2. There sometimes seems to be a desire to retain control and direction over feminist activities coming from those 2nd Wave feminists who are still active. That’s my perception, at least — it may be an artefact of the fact that many of those women came of age and/or entered feminism in the 1960s and early 70s, and that generation as a whole shows considerable reluctance to share the stage. A lot of the nay-saying about slut-walking has come from members of this generation. One effect of this is the creation of an explicitly ‘feminist’ type of sf — I’m thinking of the late, lamented Women’s Press line — which has itself created a wider perception of ‘what women should write about within sf. One consequence is that there are other women out three writing sf which is deeply feminist (Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity books spring to mind — the best examination of what it means to be female in public I know) but which is being overlooked or mislabelled; women writing books assuming equality and female empowerment as a given but being discounted because of a focus on personal relationships rather than society or technology (Catherine Asaro, Lisanne Norman) and women writing books rooted more in a 3rd Wave sensibility (Laura Anne Gilman, Kate Elliott).

  3. As far as I know, Gwyneth is very involved in intersectional movements. However, second wave feminism came to the UK a lot later than it did to the USA and was never configured quite the same way. There are no big national organisations, few major theorists.

    The clearest “voice” of 1980s feminism in the UK was the magazine Spare Rib which was always inter-sectional and considered ultra radical at the time.

    I’d say that the feminism of that period in the UK had a lot of clearer arguments about class than I see in the US but was often wilfully blind about race (although you might want to look up the Grunwick dispute on wikipedia).

    You note that I look more like a US feminist than some, but I suspect that this has more to do with my position as the daughter of an activist feminist than it does my time in the US: that position is common among my American friends, but a lot less common among my UK friends. Many of the issues that triggered the third wave I saw happen in my mother’s feminist and socialist groups: the arguments over childcare for women who couldn’t afford au pairs; the bringing in of Black people for specific issues, only to drop them like hot potatoes when the group “moved on”; the scheduling of meetings at times and places when marginalised groups wouldn’t be able to attend and then labelling them “uninterested”. By the time I got to uni I was absolutely set up to be at loggerheads with the women’s group, and I remained there for three years, with one brief year at a US college which had two women’s groups, one second wave one more third wave as we now understand it. That was fun.

    1. Interesting, thank you! And apologies for the late posting. For some reason this got caught in the spam trap.

  4. I learned my feminism in the 80s in the UK, and would characterise myself then and now as Third Wave (even if I didn’t use that term back then) — probably because I had the good fortune to meet and learn from an awesome black lesbian woman writer (who was taken from us far too soon last year).

    So I feel more in tune with feminism (and its intersectionality) in the US than the UK — I’ll make the effort to go to Wiscon each year, whereas I’ve no interest in cons in this country (perhaps my perceptions are wrong)

    Equally interesting (at least to me) is that fact that I’ve been buying and reading SFF from (almost exclusively) women writers since I started earning money so I wasn’t reliant on what the library had — let’s say 1974. There was a great bookshop in Birmingham that had an SFF section big enough to include American imports; and then I went on to University and work in London (which had a richness of SF bookshops and a very good friend who bought and loaned me every SFF book by a woman that she could lay her hands on).

    Then my own SF novel was published in 1988/1990 (1 aged female lead character + 2 gay non-white lead characters ) which sank without trace in the UK but did marginally better in the States. And finally Amazon came along… The end result of which is that I still read almost exclusively women, but they’re American women or UK women published in the States. So perhaps I’m part of the problem in the UK, but I’m getting what I need from the US…

  5. I hate the Wave model. Its usefulness as a shortcut tends to contribute to the erasure of all the different issues and ongoing feminist efforts that don’t fit the narrowly-defined “peaks”. The women’s movement at the time of the fight for suffrage in the 19th and early 20th century also counted efforts for women to be able to own their own property, to have access to their own children if their husbands divorced them, etc. For women to be able to go to school and work in jobs other than domestic servants. There were so many more issues in, and between, each of those waves that get swept aside and forgotten in favour of a facile shortcut that mainly describes some of the issues that get more media attention in-between bouts of antifeminist backlash.

  6. Ide, the wave model irritates me, too and for the same reason. On a documentary on BBC 4 last year (I think) a self-proclaimed 3rd wave feminist in her 20s stated happily that she and her contemporaries were picking up all the things the 60s and 70s feminists had started because those in between hadn’t bothered. As a feminist who came of age and became active in the 80s, I was deeply underwhelmed. (I may have muttered imprecations about baby boomers and their now grown babies). It interests me, however, how many women remain invested in these labels — you can see this at work in some of the debate around slut-walking at the moment.

  7. (Cheryl, hi. Deirdre called my attention to this blog item.)

    Here’s how I’d put it: Imagine that all the enemies of feminism got
    togther to hold a conference around 1978, to decide how best to discredit feminism. Suppose that Phyllis Schlafly, speaking from the conference’s podium, for a change had an innovative idea:

    ‘Let’s promote the idea that you’re not a real feminist unless and until you agree that the concept incorporates every other known left-leaning improve-the-world cause. If we can get this notion accepted, then not only will feminism come across as a fringe social-engineering ideology indulged only by true believers, rather than as simple fairness, but also feminism’s natural allies will be largely alienated, as the number of people willing to pledge allegiance to the intersection set of all progressive causes du jour is always tiny. We won’t even have to argue against equal pay for equal worth, elimination of discrimination and sexual harrassment in the workplace, reform of family law, etc. Their constituency will implode without our having to lift a finger.’

    As it turned out, Schlafly and friends didn’t _have_ to hold such a conference, because soi-disant ‘third-wave feminists’ did all that destructive work for them, for free.

    But hey, I’m an old feminist (old enough to have been a rabid fan of Representative Barbara Jordan), plus I’m male, so that’s two excellent reasons to ignore everything I say.

    Rick Moen

    1. Rick:

      I see your point. If you want to build a successful political campaign group, keeping your focus narrow and selfish is a very good recipe. However, from my point of view it is rather nice to have some feminists who are prepared to let me join their movement, rather than having them all out to kill me.

      1. As an environmentalist, I don’t insist that all of my allies must be not only environmentalists, but also feminists, bicycling activists, organic gardeners, non-religious persons, and people interested in scrutiny of fringe-science/fringe-medicine, even though I am all of those other things, and all of those other things have significant importance to me. If environmentalism did that, it would have very few allies and very little chance of getting anything accomplished.

        I suppose that is a narrow and selfish conception of environmentalism. Or is it environmentalism that’s merely not been made into such a goulash with a bunch of other causes that it has very little chance of getting anything accomplished? Difficult to say, isn’t it?

        But suppose a self-described feminist came up to an environmental group and said “I notice you environmentalists accept non-feminists and are failing to be overtly hostile towards them. It’s unfortunate that you won’t let me join your movement, and in fact I’ve sadly been obliged to conclude that environmentalism is out to kill me.’ What would you recommend as that environmentalist group’s most useful reaction to that person’s grievance?

        Best Regards,
        Rick Moen

        1. Rick:

          You may think it is very funny that many old time feminists hated trans people. Personally I don’t. I suspect you can guess why. Maybe you can also guess why you have just got banned from posting here again. I have no time for your sort of vicious snark.


        2. Rick: if your allies included people who advocated compulsory sterilisation of non-white peoples in order to bring down the number of people in the planet then a) I would have a real problem with your choice of allies, and b) I would have to assume that many environmentalists probably are out to do me and mine significant damage.

          I wish the above case was hypothetical but you and I both know that it is not. I broke with one very good friend when I realised what she believed in and I have been very wary of “green” movements ever since I realised that many of them have a bunch of allies/members who I can only call fascist in their attitidudes (see the letters in the London Metro this week advocating compuslory birth control over improving health for children through vaccincations). I will vote for self described environmentalist candidates at local elections, but I wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole at general elections precisely because of this scenario.

          When you try to use a straw man, you might want to check that it is a straw man.

  8. I think Timmi’s original post does a good job at (or at least makes a good start at) complicating the “wave model”: “For a US feminist, at least, this formulation of feminism might apply to 1970s cultural and liberal feminisms, but it never applied to, say, socialist feminism. Granted, for all of the 1970s socialist feminists struggled mightily in their efforts to fit two dualistic systems of political thought together (in what was commonly called ‘the marriage of feminism and socialism’), so that they would not have to choose between socialism and feminism, but by the late 1970s and early 1980s, when black feminists’ theorizations of intersectionality began to gain traction with white feminists like me, the ‘battle of the sexes’ orientation of feminism pretty much went the way of the dodo.” Realize that “socialist feminism” is a strong tradition that informed powerful voices of the era Ide discusses above and indeed goes back at least to Wollstonecraft, and you could see what a short life that “‘battle of the sexes’ orientation” has had.

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