What Does It Mean to be a Feminist: Conservative Feminism vs Progressive Feminism  

The internet has been full of stories on successful and inspiring women because of International Women’s Day, which is great. We truly have gone a long way in breaking down gender norms, even if we still have a long way to go. However, despite the widespread acceptance of IWD among progressives, the Feminist philosophy underlying the support isn’t very homogenous. Therefore, I wanted to take the opportunity to examine the various positions on gender equality, without explicitly taking a position myself.

Feminists often say that to be a Feminist is to believe women are equal to men. While this is true, this statement’s interpretation isn’t as cohesive as it implies. “Equality” doesn’t have a universal social definition, so many groups understand it differently, even in ways that other Feminists may find offensive. The philosophies that underpin these beliefs on gender equality are varied, but a simplified spectrum can be constructed. On one side of the spectrum is the Conservative-Feminist understanding of gender equality, based on a belief in gender complements, and on the other side is the Progressive-Feminist understanding of gender equality, which is based on postmodernist constructivism. Most likely however, most Feminists lie somewhere in the middle as moderates, but it is still useful to look at the extremes.

Conservative-Feminists tend to draw their beliefs partially from an authoritative source that portrays women and men as complements rather than literally equals. Even if they accept that gender is a spectrum, non-binary genders are seen as exceptions rather than the norm that their theory should fully incorporate. Some draw their authority from religion, such as Feminist Muslims. To the religious, the differences between men and women stem from a fundamental difference in their nature, which assigns each sex to a specific set of duties. However, religious Feminists contend that both set of duties have equal moral worth to one another, and so both sexes are strictly “equal.” Other Conservative-Feminists draw their authority from science, in which the biological realities of each sex make them complements. For example, women give birth and men don’t. However, society shouldn’t punish women just because they give birth, and so a Feminist society should accommodate them through programs such as extended maternity leave. Another example is that women are physiologically weaker than men, and so rather than preventing women from playing sports, we should find ways to celebrate their athleticism, such as with women-only sports leagues. Even though both the religious and biological strands of Conservative-Feminism may perceive each other as sexist by virtue of their authority’s invalidity (e.g. religion is not as valid as science, so religious Feminism is just a rationalization for sexism), their differences are in degrees, not absolutes. Both adhere to a separate but equal philosophy.

Progressive-Feminists however, take a much more radical approach. To them, sexism is mainly rooted in the subjectivity of language, especially its arbitrary construction of biological categories. Taking a postmodernist perspective, Progressive-Feminists think the acknowledgement of the groups “women” and “men” itself upholds sexism, since the complexities of real life doesn’t lend itself to neat categories. Because of these views, it wouldn’t be accurate to say extreme Postmodernist Feminists are concerned with “women’s rights.” Instead, they are concerned with dismantling broad “gender norms,” which conveniently happens to coincide with the goals of women’s rights activists. The important distinction however, lies in language; by using the words “patriarchy” and “women’s rights,” postmodernists argue that the oppressive idea of gender is upheld. This consequentially would uphold these very same gender norms that Feminists are trying to dismantle. More importantly, suffering itself should not be subject to comparison and categorization, since its magnitude is subject to the beholder. Therefore, concepts such as the “patriarchy” support a form of “reverse sexism,” since the language implies a male-over-women dynamic, while neglecting the suffering males have when conforming to gender norms (less radical Feminists argue that “patriarchy” includes male suffering, but postmodernists are not convinced due to the power language has independent of its intention).

As such, we ought to only perceive humans as humans with varying traits, rather than generalize those traits into statistical groups. Consider a distribution of physical strength:

Feminist - Fig 1

Most people would fall into the middle category, but there would be a few outliers along the edges For postmodernists, this graph is as far as we should go. However, Conservative-Feminists go a step further into generalizing groups for the distribution:

Feminist - Fig 2

The red represents the constructed category of “women,” the blue represents “men,” and the violet is where both groups intersect. Since both groups overlap, women are not inherently inferior to men in strength. Rather, it is more likely for an individual woman to be weaker than an individual man, and so these categories based on strength are justified. Postmodernists however, consider this sexist, because it oppressively makes women the statistically weaker group.

Conservative-Feminists may contend that they didn’t construct these categories, but instead looked at objective science and reality. However, postmodernists tend to be scientific anti-realists or constructivists, in which the project to realize an “objective” reality is futile; science is not fully objective, and so scientific claims are imbued with its scientist’s biases. This claim itself is not radical, and many prominent scientists accept that science has constructed components; Stephen Hawking for example, doesn’t believe there is such thing as theory-independent science, which is to say that all science relies on a socially-mediated process of theory formation and interpretation (i.e. there are no objective interpretations of observations, and so all of science goes through a subjective filter known as “theory”).

Perhaps the primary evidence of the Conservative-Feminist side is biological features that are easily verifiable, such as genitalia or chromosomes. They see these features represented by a binomial count. Red represents the socially-constructed “female” feature (XX chromosomes, vagina, etc.), and blue represents the “male” feature (XY chromosomes, penis, etc.):

Feminist - Fig 3

However, Progressive-Feminists see it as a multimodal distribution:

Feminist - Fig 4

And for this distribution, postmodernists believe that conservatives once-again draw arbitrary constructions based on statistical likelihood:

Feminist - Fig 5

Reality isn’t so simple. Genitalia, and even chromosomes, always have slight variations that put them on a spectrum rather than a category. It is only because humans perceive the world in terms of patterns that we construct mental categories of observations and a corresponding language in which to express these categories. The Progressive-Feminist’s project then, is to demonstrate the arbitrariness of gender as a concept so that we only perceive humanity as one group.

We can see how postmodernists may see the policy prescriptions of Conservative-Feminists as sexist, in the same way segregated schools were still racist despite the rhetoric of ”equality.” Championing women for certain abilities, such as the “Respected Mother” image, is itself sexist. Providing “women” with their own leagues also becomes sexist, and a better policy would be to create leagues dependent on strength levels (like in boxing).

Practically, the goal of postmodernists is to reduce the spread of the distribution of traits. This is to ensure that those who lie along the top and bottom fringes are there because they want to be there, not because they were forced to be due to social norms. Biologically, this would entail things such as gender-reassignment surgery.

I think it is important to realize these philosophical differences, instead of just pretending all Feminists want the same thing, using buzz-phrases like “Feminism is just believing women are human.” By recognizing the heterogeneity of Feminism, a more cohesive movement can be built that can better address its detractors.