It’s a recurrent theme in feminist writing – particularly online – that a lot of the effort in activism and education ends up being expended on denying people’s pre-existing assumptions about feminists. From the Women’s Studies professor told by a student that “I’m not a feminist because they say you have to sleep with every guy and I don’t believe those values” to the journalist dealing with yet another email informing them that they believe all boy children are sex offenders, there is a range of ways in which feminists find themselves correcting stereotypes. Though on reflection it goes somewhat beyond the way in which other groups with particular beliefs – Christians, say, or ecological activists – have to spend their time explaining what they think and how they act, in the face of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
It seems different with feminists, since so much of this explanation comes in the face of being told what they believe. Not people simply reporting things they have heard about them (as with the college student mentioned above), or the citing of famous feminists’ supposed hyperbole and hate speech. But the attribution of particular views to a person whilst actually in conversation with them. “You feminists all think…” is a common gambit, and one which I’m not sure happens to quite the same extent with other groups. It’s not only that people believe sensationalist and damaging accounts of abstract “feminists” they have never met (in common with Communists, Catholics, Atheists, and so on) but that they will quite happily tell feminists that this is what those feminists themselves do and think, despite their denials. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that feminists might have a sense of what they think, and not need telling.
This is most evident in the sort of shouty threads which occasionally happen on sites like Feministe or Mumsnet, where someone turns up and starts explaining to all and sundry what feminism really means. (Often alongside tropes like “feminism used to mean equality, but it now means female domination”, “women have female privilege” and “if only feminists were reasonable and polite men might listen to them”.) But this is not the only place where this attitude has an effect: as I mentioned at the beginning, there seems to be an impact on activism and political activity beyond the online world. People on campuses and public meetings appear to be convinced that they know what feminism is and what feminists do. Crucially, that they know it better than feminists. And it’s getting in the way of the sort of reforms and activities which feminist groups are trying to implement to improve women’s situation.
After reading a couple of such threads, I was reminded of Lucy Allen’s brilliant piece, which brings together cartoon birds, medieval poetry and gender politics in a typically incisive way. One of the particularly striking lines runs thus:
Women’s speech is always, in some sense, birdspeech, always, by virtue of gender, sub-human, Other. It requires interpretation before we know what it means, and it places us on the margins of the main discourse.
This made me wonder whether the shouting down of feminists by explaining to them what they think is more than the imputation of the worst motives possible to those with whom one disagrees. More, even, than the assumption that particular (less socially powerful) groups all act and think in exactly the same way. I wonder if the exhausting efforts put in by feminists campaigners and activists to deny the attitudes imputed to them – before they can even get to explaining what they think and do – is related to this deep-rooted belief that women’s speech is “birdspeech”, in Lucy’s phrase. That it is inherently in need of interpretation and explanation by someone more rational and objective. That it is somehow unconscious of its own motives and implications, whether as melodious twittering or harpyish nattering. That it literally needs a man to explain back to a woman what she thinks and what her beliefs will cause her to do.
A certain amount of this might be down to the stereotypes of women as dishonest and deceitful. Of course a feminist isn’t going to tell you what she really thinks, or what her true intentions are. But given the stress which is often laid by misogynists on women’s supposedly continual speech and inability to have an unexpressed thought, I think it might have more of a connection to Lucy’s birds. From this point of view, women are entirely likely to hold views which they don’t understand, and make statements whose implications are not clear to them. On meeting a feminist, it actually makes sense to begin by telling her what she thinks. Not because this is a clever way of defining her position in ways which will be easy to rhetorically defeat. But because the statement of her position by someone who is objective and capable of articulating it meanings – in other words, a man – is a precondition of serious discussion on the matter. It’s not that sexists see women as entrapped by false consciousness. It may be just that they see them as possessors of a lesser consciousness.