Mind the Gap: Criticism and Leadership in Feminism

Warning: this post contains speculative generalisations.

Following up on the allegations recently levelled at us, Zenobia at Mind the Gap has offered some wise words about the importance of open and fair criticism.

Successful debate obviously requires co-operation on both sides and, as well as suggesting the F-word could have been a bit more robust in dealing with what was essentially an unfair accusation, Zenobia points out that critics need to be realistic about what any one blog can be expected to achieve:

I get the feeling that people are expecting the F-Word to represent the entirety of UK feminism, and to provide True Feminist Enlightenment, when they can’t possibly do that, they’re human after all. They’re not there to teach you all about feminism, or to agree with you and make you feel good, or to validate your opinions…

…It’s just as unfair to treat people as infallible goddesses as it is to treat them as subhuman scum. In fact, one often results in the other. So stop it, be open and honest, argue, debate, and don’t be afraid to criticise and take criticism.

That said, I don’t wholly agree with Zenobia’s conclusions about women’s unfortunate history with authority:

The other thing is, we’re used to looking up to authority figures, and waiting for someone else to tell us what to think and do. This doesn’t pan out too well in feminist groups, because (1) we’re supposed to be rejecting patriarchal power structures, and (2) we’re used to looking up to male authority figures, so as soon as the phalli vanish, we’re left milling around aimlessly biting ourselves in the arse…

…I guess what I’m saying is, as women, we’ve forgotten how to engage with each other, because female friendships and female sense of community are very taboo, we’re supposed to interact in family units instead. So instead of engaging with each other, we tend to be looking around for the dad figure to tell us what to do next.

While I certainly agree that we generally expect some “authority” to be just around the corner, I would perceive a somewhat different fall-out from that. If anything, I think the legacy of patriarchy tends to make women –especially the feminists amongst us- extremely touchy about leadership. (Perhaps another good reason for us to try not to dictate to each other or undermine one another when it comes to contentious issues?)

The same applies to other oppressed groups. Anyone can get duped into doing stuff they don’t really agree with, however dissident or conforming they generally are (indeed, I’d say a painful awareness of that fact is often what makes a person dissident in the first place), but -from what I can gather- it doesn’t generally seem to be the white middle class men in our society who resent authority the most passionately.

From my own observations, it seems that plenty of men are happy enough to look to a leader to ask “what’s next?” and that this is precisely because they are comfortable that a slice of the pie could be theirs soon. We women, on the other hand, are not only understandably susceptible to scarcity mentality, but we also tend to be more suspicious of those who have power or attempt to take it. We’re often the ones to say “who the hell does s/he think s/he is?” if someone bursts onto the scene as if they’re in charge of the manor. We’re the ones more likely to see authority as bad, evil or, at the very least, problematic. We’ve already got traditional power structures still bubbling away beneath the surface so the last thing we need is yet more people telling us what to do and what to think. The trouble is that an open and inclusive space is at risk of informally reinforcing the structures we were trying to fight in the first place.

As ever, it seems that, feminist groups and organisations can sometimes experience complications because of an active rejection of party-lines, structures and hierarchies as well as the usual problems one would expect when they formally occur.

I think people have a lot of respect for Jess and Catherine partly because they have both shown that they are not raging authoritarians. They both have a flexible and inclusive style as organisers and I’d say this is necessary due to feminism’s painful awareness of the indignity that hierarchies generally bring. If the F-word suddenly claimed to have all the answers, a lot of people within the feminist movement would quite rightly be sceptical.

I would suggest it’s no coincidence that, as the F-word continues to become more influential, we are experiencing somewhat more flack from the critical and radical resources that problematise power the most. In many ways this is perfectly reasonable and necessary but we need to make sure it doesn’t lead to us being unfairly labelled as the enemy.

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