When is a Feminist Not a Feminist?

This essay was first published as a guest blog on Lee Jussim’s  Psychology Today Rabble Rowser blog here 

Feminism: The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes.”

Egalitarianism: The doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.”

The two quotes above are sourced from the Oxford Dictionary. On the face of it, feminism and egalitarianism appear to converge. Indeed, it is not unusual to hear feminists appeal to this dictionary definition whenever they are challenged. I will call this the “reasonable person” defence, e.g., What reasonable person could possibly disagree? The point being, they can’t. Not if they want to remain reasonable in the eyes of others.

But similarly, what reasonable person could disagree with egalitarianism? Both premises are highly reasonable.  But as numerous studies and surveys have demonstrated, a majority of people support egalitarian values but do not identify as feminists.[1] [2] [3] [4] What’s going on? Are these people confused, ignorant, or both?!


It seems the non-feminist (not anti-feminist) egalitarian majority either know or intuitively suspect a crucial difference between the goals of egalitarianism and feminism. Unfortunately, looking to dictionary definitions does not help us articulate what these differences are.

A visit to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives us a more detailed description of both concepts. The opening preamble to the egalitarian chapter[5] dovetails nicely with the dictionary definition above. The feminist chapter, however, quickly diverges from the dictionary definition, running off into various strands where the key theme is internal disagreement within feminism about what feminism is.  It takes just over 3,000 words before the term patriarchy first appears but when it does, it is neither problematic nor contested.

Feminism, as liberation struggle, must exist apart from and as a part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms. We must understand that patriarchal domination shares an ideological foundation with racism and other forms of group oppression, and that there is no hope that it can be eradicated while these systems remain intact. This knowledge should consistently inform the direction of feminist theory and practice. (hooks 1989, 22)”[6]

Here is the first hint of what differentiates feminism from egalitarianism. You will note there is no mention of equality by hooks; the goal is “liberation” from “patriarchal domination.”

Ask an orthodox (social constructionist) feminist what feminism means and you are likely to get one of two responses. The “reasonable person” defence is one, while the other, is what I will call the “atomistic dodge”. This entails the feminist stating that feminism is not a monolithic movement, its aims being too complex to pin down[7]. This position personifies intersectional feminism. Note how the descriptions contradict one another. It is easy to get lost in this equivocal maze.

So, rather than trying to discern the differences between feminist factions, I asked what they had in common. The results help us see the difference between egalitarianism and feminism.

In 1963, the liberal feminist Betty Friedan published a book about a “problem with no name.” Seven years later, radical feminists named it “patriarchy.” Patriarchy was conceived of as the underlying structure which facilitated men’s oppression of women; “a system characterized by power, dominance, hierarchy and competition, a system that [could not] be reformed but only ripped out root and branch.”[8]

This moment marked a fundamental change in strategy as feminists shifted from a liberal policy of achieving equality through reform, to a radical strategy of trying to dismantle patriarchy. Around this time, Friedan was unceremoniously kicked out of the organisation she had founded because she wasn’t radical enough[9].  Since this time, patriarchy has remained central to all subsequent waves of feminism. While it is true that the different factions of feminisms have slightly different conceptions of patriarchy, they all agree on the following 3 premises: [9a]

  • Patriarchy is a socially constructed phenomenon which enforces notions of sex and gender that equate to male supremacy and female inferiority[10] [11].
  • Patriarchy is the mechanism by which all men institutionally oppress all women[12].
  • All feminisms are united in the fight against patriarchy (if little else)[13].

That these founding premises might be false is never addressed. They are. What is patriarchy? Does it even exist? There is a dearth of research on orthodox feminist premises which values critical thinking over critical theory, though this is starting to change.[14] Both the existence and origin of patriarchy are assumed by orthodox feminists rather than explored, yet the flawed, circular logic of the three premises above represent the ideological bedrock of all orthodox feminisms—from radical to intersectional—and social ‘justice’ activism today.

The orthodox feminist concept of patriarchy is embellished from the anthropological observation that in many cultures men appear to hold more social, economic and political ‘power’ compared to females.  Orthodox feminists assume men grasp for power and resources to dominate women because they hate them (misogyny). My research suggests patriarchy is vastly more complex than orthodox feminists have ever imagined and that women have just as much influence in its structure and maintenance as men. As Mary Wollstonecraft noted;

Ladies are not afraid to drive in their own carriages to the doors of cunning men.”[15]

Patriarchies exist on a continuum from malign to benign. I call these two sides ‘reformed’ and ‘unreformed’ patriarchy. Reformed (Western democratic) patriarchy appears to facilitate female choice; unreformed (of the type which appears in theocracies) appears to suppress it. More crucially, reformed patriarchy also appears to protect against unreformed patriarchy. Were orthodox feminists ever successful in their goal of “smashing” the patriarchy in the West, the unintended consequences could be catastrophic for civilisation as we know it.

Patriarchy is a large adaptive system which can both oppress and liberate, both male and female. It is largely determined by local ecological pressures, which is why we see so many different versions of it. At its centre is the fact that humans are a sexually reproducing species. Men and women have shaped one another, both physically and psychologically, over millions of years, via the process of sexual selection and mutual mate choice. In turn, we create culture as our fitness landscape. 

And here lies the rub for orthodox feminisms today. Heterosexual men and women are attracted to one another precisely because of their stereotypical sexual traits. In fact, they are not stereotypical, they are archetypical.  There is a simple dynamic to this: Men want power and resources because women want men who have power and resources.

This isn’t because (as many MRA’s insist) women are selfish gold diggers or men (as feminists assert) are shallow aesthetes. Sexual dimorphism and the sexual division of labour are not patriarchically imposed tyrannies. They are an elegant and pragmatic solution for a species who have uniquely helpless infants with unprecedentedly long childhoods. This dynamic between the sexes, of team work and strong pair bonds, is one of the foundations of our success as a species. The survival of offspring is at the centre of this—whether we choose to have children or not. The sexes simply cannot be understood except in light of one another and the reason we evolved to cooperate; offspring. It will continue to be so for as long as we remain human. These are our lemons and they make both bitter and sweet lemonade.

The orthodox feminist legacy of social constructionism and patriarchy theory has taken the capricious, delightful and, yes, sometimes cruel battle of the sexes and turned it into a war of attrition. The circular logic also has feminism devouring itself from within.

This year, one of the the most iconic women of the 20th century, the radical feminist and intellectual, Germaine Greer, was denied a platform to speak at a UK university.[16] Her crime? Greer does not reject biology wholesale and, while she respects the egalitarian rights of men who want to identify, live and love as a woman, she insists this doesn’t actually make them biologically women; they remain trans-women. For this she was stripped of the right to speak, verbally abused and labelled a bigot. The middle class, socialist feminist Laurie Penny went so far as to cast Greer in the same light as people who want to murder homosexuals. 

Why should women mind? In 2014 a trans-woman in the US was awarded “working mother of the year” despite neither giving birth or being primary carer to her children.[17]  This year, Caitlyn Jenner, who has been living as a woman for a few months, will be awarded “woman of the year” ahead of countless women of substance who have made extraordinary accomplishments while facing actual selection pressures unique to their biological sex. Trans-activists are lobbying for a change of language by midwives to refer to people giving birth as “pregnant persons” not women.[18] At a time when people debate whether a woman drinking the odd glass of wine in pregnancy is child abuse, a trans-woman took powerful (and certainly not socially constructed) hormones to stimulate lactation[19]. A discussion of the nutritional value of the milk extends to the trans-mother reporting the milk is thick and creamy, which seems to identify it as something other than human breast milk, which is highly dilute and low in fat.

Orthodox feminists frequently claim that we live in a rape culture, even though rape and all violent crime in the West is in steady decline and rape prosecution statistics are on a par with other crimes at over 50%.[20] [21] In the US there is a feminist movement on college campuses to lower the threshold of proof in rape prosecution trials. It is staggering to think these educated people have forgotten terrible lessons within living memory; the bitter crop of strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

To balk at this is not hatred or phobia but healthy scepticism. We are all equal before the law under egalitarianism. This is not the case with orthodox feminism. It places ideology before people.  Individual rights and choices are “problematic”.[22] Women like myself who point out the logical inconsistencies and totalitarian mission creep of feminism are labelled anti-feminist and anti-woman; as if “feminist” and “woman” were synonyms. They aren’t. Orthodox feminists are identified by their politics, not their sex or gender. They do not speak for women or the majority of egalitarians in society; they speak only for themselves. The dictionary definition of feminism is in serious need of a rewrite.

The egalitarian quest for equality is tangential to orthodox feminism. So…which are you?

[1]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/10/feminism-reproductive-rights-la…(link is external)

[2]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/feminism-poll_n_3094917.html(link is external)


[4]https://www.google.co.uk/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&es_t…(link is external)

[5]http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/egalitarianism/(link is external)

[6]http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-topics/(link is external)

[7]https://archive.is/Dv71r(link is external)

[8] Tong, R. (1989). Feminist thought: A more comprehensive introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[9]http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/16142596/the-lavender-menace-…(link is external)

[9a] Kruger, Daniel J.; Fisher, Maryanne L.; Wright, Paula Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, Vol 8(1), Jan 2014, 3-11 Patriarchy, male competition, and excess male mortality http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2014-01458-002

[10] de Beauvoir, S. (1949/1986). The second sex. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

[11]Cudd, A., & Holstrom, N. (2011). Capitalism, for against: A feminist debate. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

[12] Gamble, Sarah (ed). The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfemnism. Routledge: 2001

[13]Gamble, Sarah (ed). The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfemnism. Routledge: 2001

[14]http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=search.displayrecord&uid=2014-01529-004(link is external)

[15] Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. 1792.

[16]http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-27/lehmann-greer-and-the-no-platformi…(link is external)

[17]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/meghan-stabler/transgender-mother-responds…(link is external)

[18]http://www.breitbart.com/london/2015/09/29/transphobic-midwives-must-say…(link is external)

[19]https://archive.is/oEfQg(link is external)

[20]http://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/mar/15/stern-review-rape-less-fo…(link is external)

[21]http://straightstatistics.fullfact.org/article/how-panic-over-rape-was-o…(link is external)



18 thoughts on “When is a Feminist Not a Feminist?

  1. Well, I said back in March that I’d be watching this site – and I am a man of my word – but I didn’t expect it to be so long! Just kidding. Great article. Perhaps next you could tackle why it is that feminism has come about – from the Darwinian perspective. – Rick
    (PS: are you at Durham yet?)

  2. Very inspiring – i didnt know this was something i would be interested in, but now i feel very much up to finding out more about it!

    Im a long time fan of Edward O Wilson, and loved “The moral animal” by Robert Wright, but i hadnt noticed that there was such a field as evoltionary gender studies – will keep an eye on this blog!

  3. Lovely stuff! Im a big fan of Wilson, and loved “The Moral Animal” by Robert Wright, but had completely missed the existence of this exciting (and probably very important) field – hope youll write more soon, and keep your cool in these tempestous waters 🙂

    • Thanks. DGS is actually an attempt to create, what Wilson calls, a consilience between the social and natural sciences. I think The Moral Animal was the first book I read about Darwinism over 10 years ago and set me down this path. I’ve been taping away at this coal face for 10 years now.

  4. When is a feminist not a feminist?

    Usually when a situation requires someone to put their own life or safety in jeopardy to help or save others.

    Where were the female feminists in the Paris shootings, and how many of them placed themselves between the shooters and other potential victims ? None sacrificed their own safety for the safety of others.

  5. Wonderful breath of fresh air Paula, thanks so much for putting this together, and putting it out there. It’s been difficult to even think a true thought with this coercive norm that’s long entrenched. Now, hopefully honest peops will each give a little energy to what you and others have started to form a critical mass that can begin to deconstruct the tortured knot of feminism.

  6. My life and neighborhood (Uptown Chicago) have not been affected by the social turmoil. It is quite diverse in every respect – immigrants from every continent, gay and straight, rich and poor, black, asian and white, gangs, the whole 9 yards so to speak.

    Oh yes, male and female, too. Pretty friendly place. In my building of 6 units the condo owners include Jewish, Muslim, Mexican, Black.

  7. I think it’s fairly clear that feminists don’t really care about “equality” (whatever it means), it’s simply a word that sounds nice and fluffy – they like their movement to be associated with it.

    They like to use the word to get a better deal for women. What happens to men doesn’t concern them. They don’t *care* if more men/boys are committing suicide, living on the streets, unemployed, failing at school etc.

    It should be made clear that to focus exclusively on inequalities affecting women – while ignoring any that affect men – is simply a way of trying to get women a better deal than men, quite the opposite of the honest pursuit of egalitarianism.

    Furthermore the idea of equality is complex. Do we want equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome? They are completely different things. To achieve the latter in business/STEM sciences/politics, many are suggesting extra encouragement/grants/positive discrimination to aid women: so they’ve presumably given up on equal opportunities?

    Or do we think that everyone is equal? So I’m as clever as Einstein and as musical as Mozart? That’s nice. It’s also just childish wishful thinking.

    There is also the matter of equality under the law. I won’t go on – people can do the research.

    The fact is that the word “equality” is more or less meaningless. This is precisely why politicians use it so much, why impressionable young people are swayed by it, and why opportunists use it as a way of furthering their own ends.

  8. I am somebody who is no longer a feminist but still egalitarian. I want to offer my insight into what made me change my mind. I will cut to the chase to say that what made me change my mind was to consciously re-embrace my own Christian and Classical Liberal heritage — the beating heart of which is a very strong belief in the primacy of individual free moral agency. But why and how did I consciously re-embrace this heritage? Because I found God.

    If you find religion distasteful, please at least do yourself the favor of understanding your history in a secular academic way. To accomplish this, it would be hard to beat, reading the book, Inventing the Individual, by Larry Siedentop. He is an old white male Oxford historian, if you’re interested.

    I am not convinced that the things you write about are only a matter of egalitarianism vs feminism. I think feminists do not believe in the same worldview that you believe in. It goes so much deeper. You may not understand the historical origins of the ideas you believe in. Do yourself the favor of understanding those origins, because Greece and Rome had no concept of an individual or of individual free moral agency or of such a thing as a conscience. No concept whatsoever of individual rights.

    • I’m not sure where you get the idea I find religion distasteful. My analysis does not go back to Greek or Roman history. If anything my ideas about egalitarianism come from the Enlightenment – and yes, I am aware that not all enlightenment philosophers thought the same way about democracy and human rights

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