When is a feminist not a feminist?

Intersectional hammer june 2020 PAULA WRIGHT

This essay was first published as “When is a Feminist Not a Feminist” as a guest blog on Lee Jussim’s Psychology Today Rabble Rowser blog here. Updated 13/9/17.

“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 asked to describe feminism. 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 feminist.[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. First we have the “reasonable person” defence (as above) which takes the form of feminism being compared to a vaguely defined concept of equality, while the other, is what I will call the feminist two-step. The two-step is a dance which entails the feminist stating that feminism is not a monolithic movement and that its aims are too complex to pin down [7] then quick as a flash repeating the approved 40+ year old dogma which constitutes the feminist canon.  The two-step is meant to put you off balance. It is easy to get lost in this equivocal maze and indeed, the aim is obfuscation and ennui not illumination and animation.

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

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] (my emphasis)

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 the panchreston known as patriarchy. Around that time, Friedan was unceremoniously kicked out of the organisation she had founded because she wasn’t radical enough[9]. Since that 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 three 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].

Add in postmodern gender theory and you have the four pillars of all feminisms. Even the ones at each other’s throats.

The fact that these founding premises are false is never addressed. They are axiomatic feminist natural laws. Both the existence and origin of patriarchy are assumed by orthodox feminists rather than explored, yet the flawed, circular logic of the these premises 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]

It is my assertion that patriarchies exist on a wide 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” 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, aka ‘patriarchy’, as our fitness landscape. So feminists want to smash culture. That’s a lot easier to understand.

Intersectional hammer june 2020 PAULA WRIGHT

And here lies the rub for orthodox feminisms enamoured with patriarchy and gender theory 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 many feminists assert) are shallow aesthetes. Sexual dimorphism and the sexual division of labour are not patriarchally imposed tyrannies. They are an elegant and pragmatic solution for a species who give birth to altricial offspring with unprecedentedly long childhoods. This dynamic between the sexes, of teamwork and strong pair bonds, is one of the foundations of our success as a species. The survival of offspring is central to 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.

The orthodox feminisms legacy is one of taking 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.

Last 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 is what intersectional feminists call a TERF, meaning 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 champagne 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 — or men for that matter — 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] Recently, Caitlyn Jenner, who has been living as a woman for a few months, was 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. Men too have their own just as intense, yet unique, selection pressures. Trans-people have their own unique ones too.

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 pregnancyischild abuse, a trans-woman took powerful (but funnily enough 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 ‘progressive’ 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 classical liberalism and egalitarianism. This is not the case with orthodox feminism. It places ideology and tenuous group identities before individual 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. 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.

For more reading on reformed and unreformed ‘patriarchy’ see this short essay 


[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)


Originally published at porlawright.com on December 18, 2015.


28 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.

    • I really hate what feminism is doing to boys and men. I have sons and I know my boys are decent. I don’t want them being judged for being male. This is prejudice.

      Keep going guys.

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  13. 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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  15. “The sexes simply cannot be understood except in light of one another and the reason we evolved to cooperate; offspring.”

    I wonder if there are new lights we can see each other in though. Certainly evolution is ongoing, and maybe the whole idea of feminism is in response to this; we no longer need to ‘cooperate’ for the survival of our offspring. What was once a necessity is no longer, and the female half of the species is itching to for their equal share.

    I find nothing wrong with this.

  16. There may be mra’s who think so, but I challenge you to name any leading MRAs who aren’t more intetested in the lopsided experiences when seeking equality in the family courts, civil services, genital integrity, etc, etc. These serious issues can hardly be boiled down to such a venal characterization.

    • I think we all have a responsibility to have consistent principles. For any humanitarian movement the goal of ameliorating suffering must be higher than the goal of weaponising suffering. If not we are no better than feminists.

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  19. I would like to see the Egalitarian concept of equality itself put to skepticism. And not just equality of outcome but the so called equality of opportunity. What I’m getting at is equality as a political goal is corrupt and dangerous. It’s hard even to define. or enforce outside a narrow arena.

    Take equality of opportunity in the work force. seems benign enough. But, since we are a not only a sexually reproductive, but a reproductively specialized, species, we must take into account the partnering of the sexes.

    We can’t legislate that women give men an equal opportunity to stay home and play with the kids while the woman works.

    Women in high status jobs create a double problem. There’s no place to go for the men they displaced. And there are fewer ‘qualified’ partners for women. There are further unintended consequences, that being higher wealth inequity in society. High status women insist upon marrying high or higher status men. This further reduces the pool of ‘eligible’ males for women to consume.

    We also need to examine why women control +80% of purchases while earning substantially less than men. Certainly this should be a problem for Egalitarians but when confronted with it they find a way to blame patriarchy and paint women as a victim still.

    The demand for equality seems unequal in its application. Determinedly and deliberately so.

    Further, beyond it’s difficult definition, difficulty to actually implement, and deliberate debasement, if it were to actually succeed it would be a horror of Harrison Bergeron proportions.

    “The doctrine of equality! There exists no more poisonous poison: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, while it is the end of justice.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

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