Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: The Crisis of Online Feminism Today

I heard this expression frequently when feminist groups would break down and women would eventually exclaim exasperatingly, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Over the past few months in feminist groups from the US to the UK, I have witnessed a train wreck of conflicting egos, political narratives that are deemed “incorrect” and myriad other scenarios of women being quite cruel and controlling of other women, albeit on social media which is never known for bringing out the best in people. Still, there are serious problems within feminism online activist circles that have revealed serious issues of elitist narratives that seeks to dispossess others from having a seat at the table in the UK to the meeting of feminists at a far-right venue in Washington DC which sparked the outrage on the other side of the pond. While understandably there are different opinions on how best to do political feminist work, rational discussions are few and far between with mass-shaming quickly becoming the default to a calm online discussion.

Then I was tagged on one feminist’s wall where she posted about a new French law which will make filling out paperwork for most parents and guardians less confusing. The discussion focussed upon  France’s National Assembly having passed a law that will remove the labels “mother” and “father” from forms used in the country’s schools. Today, the number of paper and online forms that automatically default to mother and father make having to deal with every followup problem later (when your form is rejected because you “forgot” to fill out the father) a nightmare. Even signing into municipal portals for childcare placement, online applications for passport renewals and providing details that even free software defaults to a two-parent system, this is a law that is welcome to most because it will save parents time. One would think that of all people, feminists might get behind such a gesture given that women still tend to be the parent that does most of the childcare.

Instead, it was opposite day as the article was vastly misrepresented within this person’s thread, as this person claimed this as the “yet another manifestation of the neoliberal road to transhumanism.” Then others claimed that this was the “erasure” of mothers as a category. A double-take doesn’t even explain my reaction to these statements and before long the thread was full of far-right women’s voice who made claims about “Guardian, Master, Lord” and others talking about how being a mother can only ever be biological and various troubling comments about adopted children and parents. Huh?

Now many things immediately strike me about what I call “Mothergate” which demonstrate feminism’s whirlwind of inchoate narratives that seem collectively to add up to “woman as perpetual victim.” There is no shortage of feminist factions which have long had rivalries between each other based on ideas, class, political alliances, and even sexuality. For instance, not infrequent within radical feminist groups are women without children who call out women who have children accusing them of “mother privilege.” Then, another faction of feminists believes that mothers are sacred and that being a mother is not a social construction but instead can only be biological in nature—this despite these women being given ample evidence of foster and adoptive mothers who form the same bonds with their children, or the basic anthropological fact that being a mother is a social construct (as opposed the biological act of procreation).  Third, there is that group of middle-upper class and well-educated feminists who think that they alone should be speaking for women to the chagrin of activists who recognize the elitism of such a proposition. And let’s not forget this group: feminists who maintain that toddler males are predisposed to rape, a topic I covered last year here when Babygate erupted on my Facebook wall. So to briefly recap, you have: highly educated feminists who feel that women of lower classes should run by their ideas by the upper-class elites before doing political work, all in the name of “dismantling the patriarchy”; feminists who say that women have it easy because of a privilege that society grants them because you know, wiping baby bottoms and having no time to go the toilet is a privilege; then feminists who claim that women are the eternal sacred, biologically linked to their children in complete denial about mothers who abandon their child despite much historical and recent evidence to the contrary; and finally you have feminists who believe that males are inherently evil, many predisposed as young as one to rape because, well, you know: DNA.

What strikes me about these four conflicting narratives is how they fundamentally decry the mission of many of these self-nominated “radical feminists” who believe that there is a constant “patriarchy” oppressing them. If anything has evidenced the problems with such a facile theory of power whereby women are perpetual victims and men, perpetual victimizers, these past few months have demonstrated quite clearly the failure of contemporary feminism to advance given the blowback that women give to each other. Who needs men to enact the marginalization or vilification of women? It seems feminists have this entirely in hand. These past few months have also clarified for me why an equally troubling outgrowth, third-wave feminism, came into being.  I mean if women have only two options: to see themselves as victims no matter one’s ethnicity, social class, education or nationality or as autonomous subjects in a world mired by the injustices of class politics and social marginalization (eg. racism and xenophobia) where woman can be conceived as subjects and not objects, I know where I’d want to hitch my theoretical wagon. Still, both options have fundamental flaws where the former views women as uniquely victims and the latter refuses to understand how oppression cannot be pole danced away.

In recent weeks, I have suggested to many a second-wave feminist that she pull out Foucault or Agamben in order to understand why the never-ending chorus of “…but the patriarchy” falls flat in an era where powerful women are denigrating lower-classed and lesser-educated women for having undertaken c or f political action while still other feminists are critical of women for simply being “dumb enough” to have a child or to be involved with men in the first place.  The way these radical feminists conceive of oppression is tautological—it leads to a self-perpetuating narrative which functions like this: I am a victim, see how you just questioned me–it’s because you are a man, or you have mother privilege, or you don’t understand the biological essence of mothering, and on and on.  Yet, many radical feminists today are decrying social structures (ie. the infamous patriarchy) in which we have in the west just as much input as our male counterparts only to then turn around and claim that they are victims as they persist in naturalizing gender (eg. the sacred mother, the witless underclass, etc). These feminists advance a euphoric female essence as they move the female body from the realm of the somatic to a hyper-essentialized social identity which is paradoxically a narrative these feminists patently protest when critiquing gender identity.

Are these the same feminists who don’t want women to be biologically essentialized by men whom they claim see women as unequivocal “reproductive beings”? One of the pitfalls of this brand of radical feminism is that it posits female identity uniquely through the victim-model whereby any theoretical nuances which suggest that power is much more than a simplistic dynamics of one-way oppression based on the fact of biology, is automatically decried as “misogynist.”  So why do women who claim that gender is a social construct when discussing motherhood, then reclaim a re-naturalized biological essence as the social identity for women?  Could it be that feminism needs to develop a language that moves beyond the sacred, innocent victim of [fill in the blank] whereby there can be deeper discussions surrounding the many conflicts within this movement which seeks to liberate women by naturalizing them all over again? Certainly, if anything speaks to the disparity of feminist visions from the 1970s to the present, it is the fact that 2018 was celebrated as the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK when in reality it merely marked 100 years that the most elite women in the UK could vote. It was not until the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act which provided that nobody could be disqualified from performing a public function or from holding a civil or judicial office because of their sex that all women, regardless of ethnicity or class, could vote.

Tired of the homophobic and essentialist rhetoric on this person’s Facebook page, I posted an article about the French law on my wall and some of the same voices from “ground zero” came on over to spread more troubling notions on the purity of biological offspring (versus, you know, the throw-away children). Eventually, it struck me that the comments on the “value” of biological children were an amassment of voices that many feminists of color refer to as “white feminism.”  And it is clear why this scenario could easily be classified as “white feminism”: the wave of feminists ready to protect the biological offspring as better or more authentic than those children conceived with a sperm donor or those who are adopted became the battlefield for these women to prove their own authenticity.

This discussion which bizarrely advanced many homophobic clichés focussed upon the natural body, what Giorgio Agamben calls the “qualified life” whereby the state or society creates competing articulations of “life according to the good.” Examining Aristotle’s Politics, Agamben notes how the simple natural life is excluded from the polis while remaining confined, “as merely reproductive life – to the sphere of the oikos, ‘home’.” What could be a better dream of heterosexual, white purity than this!

And this was the template that these feminists unwittingly used to recreate the primal scene for justifying centuries of the slave trade and several more centuries of colonial conquests by claiming that some bodies are just more naturally “good” and predisposed to certain good and well-deserved rewards. And we all know what this means as the moral implications of goodness and the ability to sustain life has translated to owning the means of production while those other bodies were meant to be owned as they were deemed more suitable for manual labor in the fields. Ideologies of the “natural” born helped to foment hundreds of years of racism in both discourse and political practice. And we see this manifested in how workhouses (poorhouses) were formed around making poor and orphaned children pay, from a very young age, for their survival from the 14th century until 1930 where the workhouse was abolished in the UK. This is a history where the denigration of children without a clear biological lineage were viewed as disposable. Even unions would send these destitute children to other parts of the British domain such as Canada and Australia, these lives were viewed as negligible as these children were forced into hard labor to expand the British empire. The purity of ethnic heritage is what left the Irish denigrated as third-class citizens with many Irish having been kidnapped and brought to the Caribbean to work as indentured servants on British plantations. Ethnic worth is what brought millions of Africans by force to live their lives as slaves. Who worked in the plantation and who owned the plantation was directly linked to social views of ethnicity and national identity. Children without families or means together with the social judgments of these young lives made it abundantly clear that children who were orphaned or whose parents could not or did not wish to raise them were somehow a lesser breed of human.

And throughout Mothergate, I kept thinking about the history of how biology has been perpetually used to enslave the poor, the colonized and children without means or acceptable lineage. These feminists who considered themselves leftist were quickly joined by far-right voices as these women maintained that the only good families are biological ones.

It felt Dickensian to be reading so many comments which decried the “homosexual parent” to the insinuations directed at myself and other single mothers that women just need to be in a same-sex relationship with a man.  From elitism to racism to sexism to homophobia, radical feminism has serious problems of perpetuating the very conditions that these women claim oppress them.  When feminists scream about a  piece of paper which would allow two mothers the ability to enter their names on a form for their child’s field trip rather than having to leave out one parent’s name, you have to wonder if this theoretical undertow of radical feminism is convening a meeting of the right-wing moral majority which cannot decide if it hates homosexuals more than single mothers, or vice versa. It was really hard to tell.

Or, as I thought to myself, “With feminism like this, who needs ‘patriarchy’?”

Many other women expressed distress with the thread on my wall stating that the new French law will simply make it easier to fill in a form for a child who might have two same-sex parents, a guardian, a step-parent, and a single parent. Why, they asked, are people so against this? The response was shrill and adamant: that children only have one mother and that is their biological mother. It was as if I was witnessing an argument of people who hate captioning services clouding up the television screen in order to benefit those in the room who were deaf. And let’s be honest here—France is number three in the world for divorce (55%), coming in two notches above the US (46%). So the divorced family is the norm where step-parents and half-siblings are more common today than the biologically and hermetically-sealed family.

Many women came on to the thread to say that they were also single parents and found the tone of the comments homophobic and even bigoted to the many single women who struggle to fill out forms, especially in countries where incomplete forms without two parental signatures are considered invalid.  Mothergate went so off the rails that there were women who had studied social sciences at university and should have known the clear distinction between a biological parentage (progenitor and offspring) and the social narrative of mothering.  But clearly logic was too much to expect.  And then creeped in the “step-fathers are rapists” comments and that women—not men—have more nurturing affectations towards children and we were amidst a mixture of all four categories of radical feminists in one thread and I couldn’t tell the homophobes from the racists to those who view motherhood as a gift from their literal god. (Amen!)

Aside from the many studies which show that adopted children have the same behavioral issues as their non-adopted counterparts, or that children of gay mothers do better than their peers, or that children adopted by gay fathers also do as well as children in heterosexual non-adoptive families, these women couldn’t have cared less. They cared more about naturalizing their sacred role as the eternal feminine mother who should be revered by all beginning with prescriptive methods for achieving her divine role as “mother”— by setting up house with a man and procreating from her own egg and body…and where is Jesse Helms when you need him!?

Then I read this piece by Ozan Varol, “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds,” wherein he states, “But here’s the problem. When your beliefs are entwined with your identity, changing your mind means changing your identity. That’s a really hard sell.” But today with identity politics we can all be anything, right? “I can tell you about the driving test in Virginia, I did summer internship there!” and “I took a freshman biology course and I can tell you…” as the argument inevitably goes. It is imperative that we separate our personal selves and experiences from the larger political monolith that is quickly polarizing people in order to have frank discussions that do not end up being a battle of which identity is more oppressed.

In the aftermath of Mothergate, I recalled Michele Rosaldo’s “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology: Reflections on Feminism and Cross-Cultural Understanding” wherein she examines social hierarchies within the family structure while emphasizing that it is not a given that men necessarily exert control any more than women. Rosaldo writes:

Thus, much as with domestic/public and related analytic frames, women are conceptualized as biological beings, differentiated from men, instead of as men’s partners and/or competitors in an ongoing and constraining process. My alternative is to insist that sexual asymmetry is a political and social fact, much less concerned with individual resources and skills than with relationships and claims that guide the ways that people act and shape their understandings. Thus it appears to me that if we are to grasp just what it is that women lack or men enjoy—and with what sorts of consequences—what we require are not accounts of how it all began, but theoretical perspectives, like that sketched above, which analyze the relationships of women and men as aspects of a wider social context. If men, in making marriages, appear to be the actors who create the social world, our task is neither to accept this fact as adequate in sociological terms nor to attempt, by stressing female action, to deny it. Instead, we must begin to analyze the social processes that give appearances like these their sense, to ask just how it come about—in a world where people of both sexes make choices that count—that men come to be seen as the creators of collective good and the preeminent force in local politics.

Effectively, Rosaldo confirms that concepts cannot be understood separately from experience as particular and not universal. She also raises the bar for feminist analyses by highlighting how—just as these feminists have performed in plain daylight on social media—woman’s “natural role” as a producer has been re-inscribed and re-naturalised not only as a biological element of the body, but as a social obligation. What separates these feminists from right-wingers who claim that divorce is the byproduct of feminism and lesbianism or that there is a natural biological specimen which is essential to the perfect social/family order is pretty much nothing at all.

The task Rosaldo sets for feminist anthropologists is not to document universal, pervasive sexism or to find more compelling explanations for it, but rather to “provide new ways of linking the particulars of women’s lives, activities, and goals to inequalities wherever they exist.”  If radical feminism is to have the reboot that many of its proponents claim is underway, they ought to start not performing the biological essentialism that “the patriarchy” (according to them) is already undertaking.   

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com