Virtuous, vulnerable and burdened: how feminism is undermined by making everything ‘a feminist issue’

By Tina Sikka

Language, discourse, and other symbolic forms have real, tangible, material consequences. This is something I tell my students over and over and over (and over) again. It is also something I hope readers keep in mind while reading through this piece. The oft-stated argument that ‘it’s just semantics – why quibble over words?’ just does not hold water. In addition to being empirically false, it also undermines the seriousness with which journalists, novelists, columnists, critics and others go about trying to facilitate social change through their words.

So, to the issue at hand: over the last year or so a flurry of op-eds, columns, academic papers, books, courses and conferences have been organized around the central theme of x, y or z being a ‘feminist issue.’ In the past few weeks even the Brexit vote, fracking, the Panama Papers and high heels have been described by such outlets as, The Guardian, The New York Times, and Salon as ‘feminist issues.’ My argument, in this piece, is that the assumptions and expectations contained in this kind of discourse risks placing even more responsibility, labor, and general onus on women to drive social change, oftentimes as individual actors, in language that is laudatory and venerating.

The most basic definition of something being a ‘feminist issue,’ is that it is of significant cultural, social, political and/or economic concern to women and their interests. More often than not, the subject(s) at hand are also broadly in line with the pursuit of intersectional gender equity, social justice, empowerment, fairness, and recognition. Oftentimes this language of oppression and disproportionality is interlaced with a recognizable liberal feminist rhetoric of personal empowerment and freedom.

What is most significant about this discourse is its foundational logic. For something to be a ‘feminist issue’ it must be grounded in what development and feminist academic Seema Arora-Jonsson has termed the virtue/victimization binary. This is the key characteristic of the ‘feminist issue’ discourse that I find to be most problematic and the characteristic on which I focus. As well, a final characteristic of most of the pieces that deploy this rhetoric is to include a generalized call for society, but particularly women, to cognitively acknowledge the inequity, condemn it as discriminatory and unjust, and to take action to combat the situation (e.g. to work for tax reform, take off those high heels, demand environmental justice and gun control, refuse the normative policing of our bodies etc.).

The most obvious problem with this discourse, and the kind of objection one might hear in an introductory gender studies course, is that it tends to essentialize women and treat them as a monolithic category where, as in the past, women in positions of power and their interests (often upper middle class, white women and from Western countries) come to represent the interests of all women. Yet, on the other hand (I add this in pursuit of symmetry), proponents of perspectives that embrace treating women as a distinct social group point out that calls for feminist action have the capacity to propel a sense of solidarity amongst diverse groups of women and can stimulate both agential and group activism. I am going to put this particular debate to one side and simply point out that, in this context, if something is a ‘feminist issue’ it is usually something that all women who subscribe to the label feminist, of which I include myself, should pay attention to and, most importantly, act on. Note that this is qualitatively different in tone and effect from calling something gendered or in need of a gendered analysis. More on this later.

As stated, my biggest problem with the ‘feminist issue-ization’ of so many socio-political and economic problems is that it risks diluting the culpability of entrenched structural problems and overloads women by suggesting that the way to for them to overcome vulnerability and/or victimization is through a narrow form of self-empowered and self-propelled political engagement. Ironically, this ‘lean-in’ form of participation, while appearing to valorize and recognize women’s unique contributions, really just puts more responsibility on women as a social group to push for socio-political change and structural reform on their own. By repeating this discourse in a variety of spheres, i.e. in academia, policy, the media, it causes the virtue/victim binary to appear as intuitive normative truth.

Arora Jonsson spells out how precisely this binary works her article “Virtue and vulnerability: Discourses on women, gender and climate change.” Her basic argument, which I have adapted for this piece, focuses on how this gendered binary works to discursively frame women as either virtuous, and worthy of praise, veneration and increased responsibility, or vulnerable and in need of protection. While Jonsson’s focus is on the environment and climate change, what I want to demonstrate is how this binary has made its way into a whole host of social and political spheres. Think of it as the ‘feminization of activism’ – that is, the multiplication of women’s responsibilities from a place of reverence which simply adds even more ‘shifts’ to women’s already demanding lives.

My variation of Johnson’s thesis, taking climate change as an example, goes like this: Women of the global South constitute an especially vulnerable social group. As such, they more likely to suffer the worst consequences of, for example, climate change. Some of the reasons in support for what has become somewhat of a truism can be found in the reports of organizations like the UN and a plethora of NGOs, as well as the pages (web and paper) of such varied news outlets as Vice News, The Guardian and The New York Times. They consist of what are often empirically dubious (see Johnsson on this) and generalizing assertions like: women are more likely to suffer from food insecurity and access to land (which is exacerbated during climate crises); resources like water, most often collected by women, becomes more difficult to procure; women are less likely to survive natural disasters since women tend to put the safety of others before themselves and often cannot swim; they are more susceptible to violence and abuse during periods of forced dislocated; and, finally, women are likely to face more physical challenges when trying to secure shelter for their families.  

Johnsson critiques some of the shakiest assumption associated with these assertions including the lack of rigorous statistics, the lack of context, and basic oversimplification and overgeneralizations. She points out that in some cases of natural disasters that involve significant rates of flooding the mortality rates for men outnumber that of women since, as a group, they are more likely to take risks.

Now here is the kicker: at the same time that women are seen as at risk, Johnsson demonstrates how they are also framed as virtuous, as a direct result of their perceived vulnerability, and are fated, or anointed, to be the source of social change. It is at this point that women in the West are incorporated in the debate. Women as a group, it is argued, tend to be more responsive to perceived risk and thus more amenable to adopting behavioral change on a whole host of issues. For instance, they are oftentimes considered to be more environmentally conscious than men (some empirical evidence does bear this out). It is this specific generalization that I think gives epistemological heft to the ‘feminist issue’ phraseology. The logic goes like this: women, as an assemblage are vulnerable and hold less power. Ergo, they are also, as a group but more often as individuals, more likely to push for social justice and political transformation on the ground. Thus we, as a society, should turn to them to take this on.

To be clear, this is distinct, from calling something a gendered issue or ‘gender mainstreaming’ a subject. Analyzing something through a ‘gendered lens,’ as per the academic lingo – which refers to basically the same thing, implies, first, that the subject, structure, policy and/or institution at hand has effects on women that tend to be underrepresented, underreported, or entirely ignored. Second, it also maintains that the way to address what are often violently felt omissions is through structural socio-political, economic and cultural change instigated not just by women but through a kind of coalition politics that is inclusive and burden-sharing.

There is a much less burdening effect from this rhetorical frame – which is to say it calls for concerted action rather than placing the need for mobilization squarely on the shoulder’s of women. A great example of this from can be found in a piece for CityMetric in which Caroline Criado-Perez draws attention to how city-planning decisions can be gendered. She shows how the lack of efficient snow clearing in Sweden, for example, tends to impact women differently since women are more likely to use non-vehicular modes of transportation (e.g. public transit, walking, biking) than men. Another example appears in Quartz’s coverage of the Zika virus in which it criticizes international (WHO) and governmental calls for women to avoid pregnancy and practice safe sex while ignoring both sexual power dynamics and lack of access to contraception – particularly among poor and racialized women.

This is in direct contrast to media examples that draw on the victim/virtue binary. The first, which I feel I have to start with, is on the subject of age and gender wage gap. A recent article in Bustle (“The Gender Wage Gap Gets Worse At Age 32 For Most Women, Proving Once Again That Ageism Is A Feminist Issue”) ties the widely acknowledged phenomenon of entrenched wage discrimination to ageism noting that as women get older, due to systemic sexism, they are less likely to get promotions, thereby exacerbating wage disparities. After fulfilling the victimization portion of the victim/virtue binary (and yes, these are empirical facts), the piece closes with the following statement: “while we’re waiting for things to catch up, we still can — and should — advocate for ourselves. So basically, don’t stop asking for a promotion. You probably deserve one.” Here, women are seen as virtuous instigators of change on an individual level – just lean in!

Another case, from the UK’s arm of The Huffingtonpost (“The Arm’s Trade is a Feminist Issue”), has to do with how to deal with the complicated nexus of arms, war, and women’s rights. In the piece, feminists are encouraged to reclaim the discourse of women’s rights from governments who have used it to justify liberal interventionism in wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. They are also urged to mobilize against the export of arms by states, and the UK government in particular, to authoritarian regimes – particularly those whose commitment to women’s rights are lacking. To be clear, yes to all of this – yes to the critique of war in the name of women who do suffer irreparably in a myriad of ways, yes to the need to confront the legacy of irresponsible arms deals, and the yes to the requisite need to challenge war in all its forms. But to put this responsibility on women, as I have argued, perpetuates a wider tendency to use the language of empowerment to place the responsibility on women to rectify a state of affairs not of their doing.

The feminist call to arms against high heels in Salon’s post, “High Heel’s are a Feminist Issue,” is a cheeky appeal to heel burning, an homage to bra burning, in response to a celebrity instigated social media backlash against the footwear. While the article is somewhat tongue and cheek, it also raises salient points – yet in a manner that is not always helpful. Specifically, women are constructed simultaneously as the victims of workplace policies that mandate ridiculous criteria around ‘appropriate’ heel size (2-4 inches), while also being the sole source of change (via stories about successful online petitions, court cases – filed individually) in abolishing these rules. While it is laudable that individual women have taken it upon themselves to organize petitions and engage in litigation, it must be said that more onus needs to be placed on a society wide engagement in eradicating the legal sexualization of women in the workplace and the attendant serious questioning of a culture that has taken this long to see it as a problem.

A final international example which does not draw on the ‘feminist issue’ phraseology directly but which I feel I had to include because of its textbook use of the virtue/vulnerability binary, can be seen in the way international conflict and negotiation is framed. In a recent piece for the Council on Foreign Relations titled “Women Around the World,” a case is made that including women in conflict prevention and peace building initiatives are substantially more likely to succeed over a timeframe of at least 15 years. The most notable example given is with respect to violent extremism. It is argued, in a manner completely consistent virtue/vulnerable binary, that women can play a significant role in countering terrorism and terrorist action: “Research finds that women frequently the first targets of fundamentalism, are often the first to stand up against it” by de-escalating tensions, reporting violence, and working to foster socio-political stability. It is also notable that the article states that this would go a long way towards “reducing overall U.S. spending abroad.” Interests indeed. A similar argument was made a few years back in a Huffingtonpost article whose title; “Can Mother’s Stop Terrorism?” says it all. Spoiler, yes they can.

Let me be SUPER clear, my problem with this framing is not that it is inaccurate; women have the capacity to be active agents in all of these areas – particularly in circumstances where they are marginalized and systemically discriminated against. Nor is it a call for women to remain passive in the face of such discrimination. My issue is with a discourse that builds on a foundational construct of women as either (or both) victim and virtuous agents in manner that adds even more responsibility on individual women to change the very prejudiced practices, laws, behaviors and social norms that gave rise to such unfair conditions in the first place. Reframing the discourse as CityMetric and Quartz have done, is one way this can be challenged, while another, of which I am a fan, is by intentionally redistributing responsibility for social change to agents involved in these structures as a generalized social practice. A weighty burden to be carried by all…since these are much more than just ‘feminist issues.’

Tina Sikka is a lecturer in Communication at Fraser International College at Simon Fraser University. She tweets at @tsikka

Categories: Mediated Matters, Rethinking The World

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