Experience or Ideology?
I joined Emma Watson’s feminist book club. It appeared so simple. I love reading, I am a feminist, I admire her work for the UN, and I am somewhat political.
Here is what I learned.
Most of the participants are women in their 20s. Not all of them are married or have kids. Women from every country. A very diverse mix with very different perspectives and even different understandings of what feminism is. There are some pretty engaged and open men also part of the conversation. From various countries as well.
The mods do a good job organizing, directing the conversations, there are basically hardly any trolls. This makes the exchange of words very pleasant to any other open forum on the net where any feminist reflection gets belittled, negated or even attacked like you would see in this write-up by Melissa Davey. Just reading the comments to a well throught through articles makes me question society as a whole. If this is what women are up against, there is only limited hope that we will ever achieve equality.
So Emma’s forum should be the best basis for a diverse, fruitful, and intriguing environment for any open dialogue around feminism. But is it?
I am not so sure.
It starts by young women with no experience of their own leading conversations based on ideology only. Conversations drift easily to a “this is how it should be” compared to an environment where the complexity of life is appropriately recognized. This becomes very clear when talking about the sexual attacks in Cologne. Generalizations are common on either side of the debate and evaluations are more based on dogmas (you cannot discriminate all men, you cannot discriminate immigrants, all men rape, the general law in Germany is flawed…) instead of talking about the actual issues at hand.
The same applies to the conversations where women compare what countries are more sexist. Comments like “I never experienced sexism” or “women are allowed to go to University here, too” are not helpful to drive a suitable conversation about the actual state of equality across various nations. The worst to me is when these younger forum members discount or belittle other women’s experience of direct sexism or assault as a “this was just a one time incident” or “I am sorry this happened to you, but you cannot draw conclusions based on that”.
Even I in my 20s would have denied the fact that sexism is still alive in Germany. After all, I never experienced anything like that. Some of my best friends were male. I was studying at highly recognized University, I was allowed to study abroad, and I immediately landed a very well paying job in a male dominated industry. Everything looked as bright for me as it did for my male counterparts. I felt my generation had overcome sexism or the need for feminism.
And this is the behavior I am seeing in the younger women in Emma’s forum as well. They are still in a state of their life where inequality has not touched them. Where they were not asked to chose between kids or work. Where they have not been questioned in their choice to pursue a career. Where they did not see their male counterparts pull past them even though these men did not work more or perform better. These women are still at the starting line of the game of life and they have not, yet, been confronted with the obstacles that get thrown into their way.
I think Gloria Steinem captures this quite well, when she states:
Women tend to be conservative in youth and get more radical as they get older because they lose power with age. So if a young woman is not a feminist, I say, ‘Just wait.’
We as a society and as feminists owe it to our predecessors to listen to their experience. To learn from what they have done and seen. Right now the women movement fails too often, because every woman seems to be out there alone. Women organize by generation and neglect prior ones. Yes, the lessons Gloria learned still apply and only if we recognize this will we be able to progress equality in a sustainable way.