Feminism and the Philosophy of Relativity

by anna

Not too long ago I read Katha Pollitt’s “Learning to Drive,” a collection of essays and memoirs by The Nation columnist and prominent feminist.

I was particularly struck by a few lines, something I have consistently mulled over during my past years as a feminist activist, and something I believe worthy of all feminists’ consideration:

“These days anything is feminist as long as you ‘choose’ it … no matter how dangerous or silly or servile or self-destructive it is.”

This was quoted last week in Linda Hirshman’s article for Slate,  “Crazy Love, Crazy Choices.” Hirshman, in her characteristically assertive manner, took the hard-line on how women should act when they find themselves in abusive relationships. She was responding to Leslie Morgan Steiner’s new book Crazy Love, which chronicle’s the author’s experiences with an abusive husband.

To be precise, Hirshman says, “The current love affair with understanding stops feminists from calling victims on taking responsibility for their own well-being.”

I know Hirshman is very controversial and comes across as a tad intolerant (especially when it comes to her commentary on women’s career issues). But what I admire about her is her willingness to take a strong, unequivocal position on certain issues. However, her ideas can sometimes look like Stalinism to feminism’s current “anything goes” policy.

But what both Pollitt and Hirshman have responded to in some form or another is the relativity of popular feminist thought. To rephrase both Hirshman and Pollitt, I think what they are objecting to is the idea that “if a woman makes a choice, it’s right because a woman made that choice.” This idea is intellectually lazy, a tautology, an emptiness at the hole of feminist thought.

Feminism no longer is a united ideology; feminists can hardly agree on common goals, much less a common system of thought that might guide us to a better philosophy. We don’t need angry judgment against women from feminism, but we do need more dramatic guidelines to help us figure out where we’re going. We are becoming an umbrella party for all liberal causes; I would like us to remain potent and strong, with focused, marked criticisms and policy proposals for our society.

As Hirshman’s utterances were pretty much a condemnation and judgment of one woman’s actions in regards to her abusive husband, let me just distance myself and say I still don’t know how to approach that topic. I do think the victim has a responsibility to take care of him/herself, but I also don’t think we can universally declare that the abused party is wrong and stupid when they do not to leave their abusers.

I know feminism has distanced itself from the world of black and white moral thinking, and for good reason. Certain types of old logic are contrary to feminism and women’s progress. But in our efforts to destroy old categories, it seems we have destroyed a lot of other things too, among them the ability to come up with a coherent ideology. More on this later.


2 responses to “Feminism and the Philosophy of Relativity

  1. On the advice of someone, I grabbed Learning to Drive from the library and read the chapter about her dating a member of a Marxist Reading Group. The flash-forward image she had of herself, old, singing nursery rhyme protest songs on the street was quite funny (if not also scary). Great stuff.

    I still like her response to the Washington Post after they published some crap pop-psych editorial about women:


  2. Hi Mike! Thanks for your comment. I read this article just now and was pleased by Pollitt’s characteristic wit and good humor. I laughed out loud when I read this: “[Women] cannot mentally rotate three-dimensional objects in space — and that, as we all know, is the very definition of smarts.” Haha! How true! Spacial reasoning is indeed always toted as a the realm proving men’s superior intelligence… How very silly, indeed. ” Learning to Drive” was a captivating and thoughtful memoir, and it inspired me in many ways.

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