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.
Read the rest of this piece on quiteirregular, where it first appeared.