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Report from The York Union: ‘The F Word: Feminism on Campus’

Image: Stanford University
Image: Stanford University
Image: Stanford University

“Lying is a key tactic employed by feminists. Even when exposed publicly as liars – by ourselves, and others – feminists never retract their lies, let alone apologise for having made them.”

Members of the political group Justice for Men & Boys (J4MB) are not fans of feminism, to put it mildly. From October 2013 to April 2016, J4MB gave monthly awards to “lying,” “toxic,” “gormless” and “whiny” feminists. The monthly awards became irregular “ad hoc” gongs in April 2016; J4MB were satisfied that “people now fully understand that feminists are whiny, gormless, toxic liars.”

Largely on the basis of incredulous logic and conspiracy theories, J4MB and others believe that feminism is one of the biggest threats to civilisation today. It’s sad that so many of them mean what they write, whether it’s allegations of inherent deceit to comparisons between feminism and Nazism.

But it’s not just the fringe critics making their scepticism of the women’s rights movement heard. Even in more sophisticated circles than the domains of J4MB, ‘the Red Pill’ etc., feminism is associated with backwardness and irrationality; its proponents are seen as silly users of sloppy thinking in pursuit of ideas with disastrous consequences. Only a few years ago, thousands of women in Europe and America took to social media to tell the world why feminism wasn’t necessary. The Women Against Feminism didn’t want to associate themselves with a movement they perceived to be dehumanising men and finding others to blame for their own failures (or more bluntly, they were not “delusional, disgusting, hypocritical man-haters“).

What about life on campus? Safe spaces, trigger warnings, no-platforming, consent classes: all of these, rightly or wrongly, are associated with modern feminism. Their inventors’ intentions are based on protection: trigger warnings give advance notice of troubling content to students of a nervous disposition and consent classes help women protect themselves from predatory men who have no understanding of the right to consent.

This, contends Ella Whelan, Assistant Editor at spiked, is belittling. Feminism is no longer about empowerment, she told a gathering of students and staff at the York Union’s latest sell-out event. Gone is the spirit of fighting for women’s liberation; instead, feminism today is about telling women how they should behave and encouraging them to shy away from the world rather than challenging it.

Though women’s activism is prominent today, especially in the wake of sexism and cruelty to women in the UK and abroad, contemporary feminists prefer to promote women’s weakness argues Whelan. The Women’s March shortly after the election of Donald Trump saw approximately five million women take to the streets worldwide and signal their opposition to the backward views of the new American President; but, Whelan asks, where were the demands for more rights? Where was the challenge to the status quo? Whelan argues that it was about “framing women as victims” of suffering, in need of more layers of protection from the big, bad world.

Eating disorders, for example, affect 725,000 Britons yearly, with women far more likely to suffer from anorexia than men. Some feminists criticise posters promoting good ‘beach bodies’ and slender appearances. But calling for censorship treats women as infants, Whelan believes: feminists presume that women do not have the intellectual capacity to ignore these adverts.

Contemporary feminists do women a disservice, Whelan argues. It is a vehicle for well-educated, middle-class women to instruct their working-class sisters on how they should live their lives. Women, they say, should not bare their breasts in tabloid depraved men to admire; but removing one’s bra is quite acceptable when fighting to ‘free the nipple’. Middle-class values perpetuate contemporary feminists’ activism and result in harmful ideas about how women should speak, dress, behave and express themselves. The Women’s Equality Party, Whelan believes, embody this.

But just who are these modern-day activists who have thrown women’s liberation aside? Whelan can name one or two published authors, such as Caitlin Moran, the “sneeriest, most anti-working-class feminist” in town. But she admits that most of these activities take place online, across social media platforms such as Tumblr. These people are the ones who have dragged feminism down, though we aren’t sure of just who they are.

Of course we don’t know who they are. Challenging a professor, a famous journalist or a Harry Potter actress makes for hard work; life is simpler when you can refer to the Tumblr feed, the angry YouTube video or the misguided Tweet of a nobody on the other side of the world and attribute it to the decline of a movement to which thousands, if not millions, have contributed in their own ways. Why not go further and consider these individuals to be the leading names of the movement – maybe attend the M. Yiannopoulos School of Anti-feminism, which promotes the binary view of fat, ugly, hairy, sweaty, irrational, malicious, sociopathic feminists versus good, civil society?

But in this case, we don’t need to go so far: simply asking for the definition of “contemporary feminism” throws a spanner in the works. We should not dismiss years of feminist theory and international feminist conferences and campaigns in favour of the antics of young campus radicals.

Feminism stands for equality of the sexes and the liberation of women from subjugation at the hands of men; modern-day, third-wave feminism has gone off track. Will a fourth wave save the day? Whelan hopes that if it does come, it’s nothing like the current wave and will do away with calls for censorship and protection. But the nature of third-wave feminism is not settled.

Whelan’s talk proved to be another thought-provoking event from the York Union and many students, most of them female, sought to challenge her arguments. If contemporary feminism really is all about suppressing ‘harmful’ ideas to safeguard women, it wasn’t working here.