You’re a girl. You hear a person make a remark about “radical feminists”. You ask what those are. That person proceeds to tell you about men-hating, baby-killing, bra-burning godless social anarchists who hate motherhood, families and home-building. They’d take your Barbie and your dresses from you and force you to act like a boy.
You are traumatized by this presentation of “radical feminism” and decide you never want to be one of “them”. Years go by, and someone else tells you a bit more about feminism. Now it appears that the feminists had a point. You go back to speak to the first person or someone who thinks like him/her. That person proceeds to tell you, with a wise, knowing gaze, that yes, it’s good for women to have some rights. But these radical feminists push it too far, far beyond the edge of reason.
This person won’t tell you that every square inch of the human rights you have as a woman was always “too far” and “too much”. You take it for granted that you can drive, go to school, vote, testify in court, open a bank account in your own name and do many other things. You can say no to genital mutilation, take contraceptives, choose a life partner and choose a career. You can refuse to be married to whoever charms your father’s socks off.
At one point or another, each of these rights was “too far”, too much, the unthinkable, the destruction of society, the home and motherhood. It was a slap in God’s face, the unsexing of nature and the unsettling of civilization.
What people call “feminism”, I call logic. By calling it, firstly, feminism, patriarchs point out its difference from the status quo. Patriarchs point out that it is a danger to the status quo. The hearer automatically assumes that it is evil. But not every dangerous thing is evil nor every evil thing dangerous. And if the status quo is wrong then it must be threatened.
By calling it, secondly, “radical” feminism, patriarchs calibrate the whole conversation such that their worldview becomes the unquestioned ideal, the middle centre, the reasonable, the norm. This is easy because their worldview is the way things are and the way they’ve been for quite some time. They have history on their side. This makes feminists look like the unreasonable ones. By not pointing out what that radical feminism has achieved in the cross-winds of demonization, patriarchs make it seem as though the rights women do have now are rights they’ve always had and that radical feminists are the new kid on the block overreacting to a problem that doesn’t exist. Patriarchs either don’t know or neglect to admit that in countries where feminism has done its job, just about nobody has abortions because they don’t need to. The best way to combat abortion, if you hate it so much, is, paradoxically, radical feminism. Because when people are informed, empowered, and unencumbered, self-awareness and sanity start settling in. They start making smarter choices. The patriarchs also don’t point out that in countries where feminism has done its job, men don’t feel emasculated but are equally empowered and liberated to make their life choices without additional societal expectations dictating right and wrong where common decency should be sufficient. Because feminism is logic*, it really works for everyone at the end of the day.
But no, the patriarchs say, either ignorant of the truth or ignoring the truth: They’re the crazy ones. They’re “radical”. In movies about the past, we’ll see boys and girls going to school side-by-side when history shudders at such a notion. By saying that men and women have always enjoyed relatively equal rights, patriarchy makes “radical” feminism out to be the unnecessary disturbance; a peace-shattering, hysterical wail in the middle of the restful night. Patriarchy is them able to come across as even more reasonable by saying it supports a relaxing of gender roles (which makes perfect sense until you realize that “relaxing” can’t be quantified. How relaxed is relaxed enough? How much relaxation is too much?) but that the “radical” feminists must let go of this grudge they have, and they must peaceably embrace the roles God has assigned men and women. So much goes unexamined in these statements that it’s easier for the listener to submit to mental euthanasia of emotive persuasion than it is to aggressively kick down all the errors of such rhetoric.
When South Africa was under apartheid, there were many “progressive” people who agreed that black people needed a somewhat better education so they could have better jobs; that they deserved not to be mistreated as harshly as they were being. The status quo had to be “relaxed”. This progressive wasn’t a social outcast in respectable white communities of the time; he was “forward thinking”; he was even grudgingly admired for his idealistic, humane commitment to mercy.
But woe! unto the “radical” progressive who demanded full and equal legal, social and cultural rights for all regardless of race. That was just extreme, they were told. It was too much too soon. Perhaps in another decade, when enough of the dust had settled, things could improve more and more for the hapless native. But this dangerous idea of full, immediate and equal rights just would not do.
See? We’ve been here before.
Why am I a “radical feminist”? There are many reasons. But I remember watching, confused, as one mathematically gifted girl after another dropped maths and science because she wouldn’t need those subjects later in life. Girls who were top of the technical drawing class switched to other subjects like home economics that, as wonderful and needed as they are in life, already have an overrepresentation of girls and an underrepresentation of boys. Disturbed at such imbalance in the environment, I tried taking home economics on as a ninth subject but soon realized that 3 extra subjects was ridiculous. Yes, dropping maths and science was the girls’ choice – but was it really? Or is it possible that despite the appearance of legal equality between men and women, there are still psycho-social programs running in the background and taking us all back? I’d bet good money that those girls enjoyed the sciences but had been told they wouldn’t need them. At the end of the day, I fight for freedom of choice. Those girls made a choice, but I believe it was under social duress and maybe, arguably, not a choice at all.
Some will then point out that if it’s not men’s job to protect women, women will be endangered. This one element of patriarchy is needed, they’ll say. There is such a strong element of self-fulfilling prophecy in they statement I don’t know where to begin unpacking it, but it’s enough to say that the most effective way for a man to protect women is to propagate feminism. Or, as I like to call it, “logic”. This certainly doesn’t mean one never puts one’s life on the line to protect others. It does mean being vigilant about the many faces of subtle and insidious inequality.
Patriarchy can look so, so benevolent; in fact, many patriarchs are genuinely benevolent people. But they subscribe to an evil and dangerous system. To confront it, you need a greater danger. Our past leaders, such as Former President Jacob Zuma and Minister Susan Shabangu, did not seem to grasp what was at stake. “Radical feminism” is the only workable answer.
*I still often call “feminism” by that name, and not just “logic”, because I wouldn’t wish to erase the history, legacy and distinctiveness of this movement. Judith Butler, Michael Foucault and Fred Kinsey had different voices.