“The Rise of Ideological Feminism” by A Free Left Blog: A Response
Ben Cobley’s original argument “The rise of ideological feminism (Part III on Karl Popper and contemporary ideologies)” can be found here on his Free Left Blog. It is a strong critique, focusing particularly on the views of Laurie Penny and parts of the British Labour Party, but applies to the wider modern feminist movement.
I try not to get involved in internet debates because they’re unwinnable and unrewarding, but in this case Cobley tweeted his essay in response to something I shared about men acting against patriarchy, and I found it so thoughtful and thorough that it deserved measured response.
[Laurie Penny is] a contributing editor at the New Statesman and one of our most prominent feminists, demonstrates this sort of fundamentalist high theory as well as anyone. Her big idea, common in feminism, is that of ‘patriarchy’, which she refers to as a ‘system’, ‘structure’ and a ‘fact’, propagated through slogans like ‘Destroy the Patriarchy’.
His essay largely bounces off Penny’s positions, and he quotes her columns several times. There are a few problems here beyond the reductivity of focusing on selected quotations from one person as representative of a widely held viewpoint.
Penny is not a gender academic, she’s a journalist. She writes for an audience (New Statesman and Guardian) that’s already convinced of premises like ‘patriarchy exists’ so does not defend them in the logically rigorous manner Cobley requires. Her columns are written to be entertaining, frustrating calls to arms, not watertight explanations of theory – so critiquing them as the latter feels unfair.
Institutions upholding patriarchy
Cobley assumes a fair definition of patriarchy, ‘the dominance of social and political institutions by men and the existence of male hegemony in public and private life’, but questions whether it really exists. He concedes that historically, ‘male-only voting franchises, male-only public institutions and other Rights of Man that only applied to men’ may have constituted a patriarchy, but argues that:
‘…with these restrictions gone and women free to do and be pretty much what they choose along with men, the idea there is a system perpetuating male privilege seems strange… There is also little evidence of the moving parts that go into making up and maintaining systems.’
Cobley argues that capitalism is a similar ‘systematic concept’ to patriarchy, and that comparably it has a much greater raft of clear institutions maintaining it:
“World Bank, IMF, WTO, Davos forum, the European Single Market, countless trade agreements between nations and regional blocs, Central Banks. Moving down to national and local levels in Britain we have the Treasury, BIS and other government departments, council licensing regimes, and numerous free market think tanks like the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute – all catering and administering to the capitalist system.”
Such institutions are needed, Cobley argues, to set capitalism apart from what Karl Popper called ‘pseudo-science’, i.e. rubbish, ‘free-standing fact that does not need serious evidential or logical support [which must be] be taken on trust, on account of the “experience”.’
I’m not an academic feminist any more than Penny is, but I can certainly point out some institutions which serve to uphold patriarchy in a similar manner to Cobley’s capitalist list.
Most major readings of the world’s major organised religions contain strong lessons and rules giving patriarchy moral force and social power. Men are explicitly elevated in the Abrahamic religions, privileged in marriage ceremonies, privileged in terms of religious leadership etc. Given the importance of religion to the majority of the world’s population, teachings which internalise male superiority must contribute to societies’ patriarchal praxis.
UK schools are not required to teach consent, or to discuss non-normative gender identities or relationships. They are required to teach the basics of heterosexual penis-in-vagina intercourse, and female reproductive biology. This prioritises and legitimises the one traditional form of gender relation and obscures all others. Children are told that women are biologically designed for sex and childbirth.
Most schools contribute to patriarchy in numerous other ways. Dress codes police female bodies and teach that women are to self-police their appearance lest they tempt male lust. English schools are still required to have Christian assemblies once per week (see above).
Sport in school also contributes, for example rugby and football teaching boys to be violent and physical. This is the start of a path that sees gendered adult roles in the domestic and employment spheres – women are, for example, prohibited from different parts of military service and policing.
Marital rape was only outlawed in England and wales in 1991, 1993 in America, within most readers’ lifetimes. Whilst prostitution is legal, police persecute sex workers using a laws on trafficking and public disorder, controlling women’s choices and driving many into more dangerous situations. Parental leave, although improving, is enshrined in law as favouring the mother’s role and assuming the father is the provider (and that there is a father). Upper body nudity is permitted in men and prohibited in women. The status of marriage and civil partnership is currently changing, but still leaves many LGBTQ people in limbo and in frustration – and the mere fact that ‘equal marriage’ is so novel indicates that patriarchal assumptions dominated until very recently.
Basic readings of biology and evolutionary psychology are often deployed in the media and on the internet to justify existing gender relations as being naturally determined. They are sometimes combined with anthropological kinship studies or sociology. Admittedly, it is not often actual scientists using the arguments.
The film industry has been culturally dominant for the last century across the Western world. It perpetuates numerous patriarchal tropes, from the ‘damsel in distress’ to the ‘fallen woman’ to the basic assumption that women want stable monogamous relationships and to raise families. [I mock these tropes here.] Admittedly, there are modern films with ‘strong women’ in, but because such characters are framed as ‘Exceptional Women’, they too contribute. Hollywood also defines the image of the ideal woman (as below).
Basically as above. See countless essays on, say, Thicke and rape culture, or MTV’s representations of black women.
On the one hand, fashion magazines, ‘girly’ mags and the tabloid media contribute to patriarchy through the cult of celebrity, surreal beauty standards, an obsession with a narrow femininity, moral outrage at promiscuity and non-normativity, and (again) assumptions of gender conformity and heterosexuality.
These are complemented by ‘lads’ mags’ which do roughly the same for men, with tips on how to ‘get girls’, a short list of permitted hyper-masculine traits, as well as featuring objectified women etc etc. Many feminists would argue that lads’ mags are part of a continuum of patriarchal institutions which include pornography, strip clubs, brothels and people trafficking (although other feminists would defend some of the above, in theory.)
Most of Britain’s most prestigious (and most expensive) schools are all-boys, or only recently allowed girls in to VIth form. Many of London’s clubs for the rich and powerful are explicitly ‘Gentlemen’s Clubs’, as are powerful sporting institutions. Women were only allowed in the members’ pavilion at Lords’ (‘the home of cricket’) in 1998. St Andrew’s golf course (‘the home of golf’) has a 260 year ban on women playing – Augusta in America only dropped their own ban in 2012.
Online groups can operate in a semi-organised manner in defence of patriarchal principles. Stella Creasy MP and Caroline Criado-Perez famously experienced sustained harassment over their campaign to get a woman on Britain’s currency, but numerous other prominent women are subjected to harrowing attacks, including Mary Beard, Laura Bates and Laurie Penny herself. Websites for ‘men’s rights activists’, pick-up artists and other explicitly male groups often participate in online attacks, and communities like Anonymous and ‘IsAnyoneUp?’ targeted women for (perceived) promiscuity, unfaithfulness etc.
There are groups set up worldwide to uphold patriarchy explicitly: STOP-ERA and the Eagle Forum; numerous anti-abortion pressure groups, CWA, REAL Women of Canada, the Save Indian Family Foundation.
Cobley’s Scientific Method
Despite having produced a decent top-of-my-head list above, I’d argue that Cobley’s approach to disproving patriarchy is wrong. I’ve seldom read a feminist comparing patriarchy to capitalism (although many explore how the two are linked), they are from different categories. Patriarchy isn’t seen as a mechanical system like, say, the police force is a system, or even the rule of law is a system.
It’s usually described, and I understand it, in terms of a Foucauldian épistème or Nietzschean perspective, in that the patriarchy is a set of beliefs, assumptions, rituals and actions that are (currently) common to everyone in society, a way of understanding the world transmitted through language, childrearing and basic interaction patterns in as straightforward a manner as, say, Christianity was transmitted in the 1500s. Until the rise of feminism (which can roughly be traced to the 1850s but only became a serious force in the 20th century), there was no need for institutions to advance patriarchy, it wasn’t in question. That does not mean patriarchy has ever been homogenous across time or geography – épistèmes are in constant reaction to other cultural pressures – but the basic ‘men over women’ elements remain.
Marxesque Islamic Revolution?
Cobley argues that ideological feminism closely resembles (Bolshevik) Marxism, in its aim of gathering a cadre/vanguard/elect who want to ‘banish men from power’. This is a rather hyperbolic reading of mainstream feminism – most would like to see the institutions mentioned earlier reformed, and think that would lead to more equal political and economic representation, as the Scandinavian states demonstrate progress on. Nobody wants to banish men from power, nor do quotas even begin to achieve that.
The quip that feminism is ‘just like Islamism’ is not really explained except with reference to Popper’s theories, but seems overstretched: feminists mainly try to effect change through reasoned argument and popular pressure, and their goals do not require the conformity of Islamism (or the little Islamism I understand). Cobley implies that feminism is a kind of authoritarianism that has “a basic preference of one identity over another, whether of gender, religious group, ethnicity, racial group, or even social class” that ties ‘goodness’ to membership of that class (here, being female). Again, this seems like a mistake – feminism argues that women are the underprivileged class and seeks to redress the imbalance, not to promote women over men.
Cobley is therefore closer to the mark when he notes that feminist action is related to Gramsci:
“Gramsci’s focus on hegemony …having a significant impact– primarily on left-wing politics and institutions but also increasingly in the wider public sphere.”
Antonio Gramsci, an Italian communist who witnessed the failure of various armed anarchist and communist movements, argued that before or instead of military takeovers, successful revolutionary movements needed to achieve ‘hegemony’ (roughly, socio-political dominance) through a nonviolent ‘war of position’ spreading the revolutionaries’ ideas and culture. His communist examples were trade union marches, proletarian intellectual society, proletarian literature publications, and political agitation within civil society. Essentially, for a communist revolution to be successful, Gramsci wanted his comrades to first convince the target country that communism was desirable.
In this sense, many feminist campaigns are broadly Gramsciite, as they aim to educate or sway the whole public. If they truly operated along ‘cadre’ mentality, a small core of feminists would attempt to stage a coup, operate a Hard Feminist political party, perhaps seize some radio stations. This is not the case. Instead marches like SlutWalk and Boobquake, social media campaigns like Everyday Sexism and Hollaback!, columns and blogs like Vagenda, Lez Miserable, Glosswitch and the Good Men Project, all serve to raise awareness of feminist concerns and viewpoints. Without fighting.
From his reading of ideological feminism, Cobley argues:
“By ascribing sexism to an impersonal and universal social system, this ideology also strips sexist actions of personal responsibility, viewing them not as actions of people doing wrong but as representations of a patriarchal social structure.”
This paints feminism as more relativist and naïve than most of its proponents are. Arguably, it is difficult to judge distant historical figures by current gendered understanding, because they ‘didn’t know any better’. That certainly cannot be said for individuals and institutions in the last century in the West, who are aware of alternatives to the system (i.e. feminism, egalitarianism) and have the freedom to choose. Indeed, Cobley’s reading of ideological feminism would make feminism itself impossible or contradictory, as a representation of patriarchy in itself. It can be understood as a reaction to patriarchy, certainly, but few on either side of the debate would accept that feminists are part of what they aim to undo.
Having rejected ideological feminism, Cobley calls instead for:
“A mode of politics engaging with the details of oppression would attempt to target specific instances of it from institutions, groups and individuals based on clear evidence, and target action on them.
This would be about addressing the ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘When’ and ‘Why?’ rather than sitting back and blaming everything on society.“
Much modern feminism does this. It attacks rapists and child abusers, it attacks universities with practices that do too little to stop gender violence, it attacks publications and advertising bodies that objectify women, it organises marches in support of particular rights such as self expression, marriage and abortion… It does not just sit back and write articles about society, although these too are important for raising awareness of the more targeted actions, and fostering support for the overall project. Campaigns such as those against Page 3 or the ‘Blurred Lines’ song might not to be to everyone’s taste (and are not universally supported by all feminists) but do fall within these categories, both in their specificity and in the way they introduce those engaging with the campaigns to wider issues of patriarchy, intersectionality, freedom of expression &ct.
Changing the highest level institutions in the manner Cobley notes (‘By this way of thinking, incremental changes like the universal right to vote, unemployment insurance, free health services and state pensions, have not changed society fundamentally’) have not changed gender relations fundamentally, in that they haven’t ‘smashed the patriarchy’, but that does not mean they have been useless or are ignored by feminists. In a social situation with a centuries-long, non-static power imbalance, a few institutional changes are not normally sufficient. I wouldn’t resort to discussing race, except that Cobley does, and it provides a good example – it does not follow that in America, enfranchising black people, reversing ‘Separate But Equal’ and passing the Civil Rights Act undid either the unequal material status of black people, or racism in America. Likewise women’s rights and legal privileges have changed greatly in the last century, but this is not necessary or sufficient for having ‘removed patriarchy’.
Cobley finishes with points as to the unhealthiness or corruption of leaders in movements such as Marxism and feminism. These are decentred but make sense, broadly, although comparisons to USSR Politburo corruption are overstated. It is probably true that you need to be a feminist to gain an important position in the feminist movement at present – and that seems fine.