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False Confidence: A Response to the Right on Modern and Classic Feminism

Feminism has become a buzzword among those on the political right, a means of  stigmatizing women who speak up on behalf of their own rights and humanity as well as the rights of others. No true feminist fights solely for the least oppressed among women. No true feminist attains some rights for any class of woman—usually white, heterosexual, affluent women whose gender has never been challenged or at odds with a societal classification—and abandons all other women while labeling those who have yet to reap the benefits of previous waves of social progress as unsavory or unworthy of aid.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a pair of earnest, wealthy, white women, kickstarted the feminist movement in the cloistered spaces of nineteenth-century America. They accomplished a great deal, especially for the autonomy of wealthy women. Yet if they had failed, they could have returned to the comfortable homes of their parents or, in Stanton’s case, her supportive husband. Alternatively, if their male guardians had been cruel or opposed to their mission, Anthony and Stanton could have incarcerated at home or in an asylum, which is what many scandalized male guardians at the time did to their problematic female relatives.

To say that formal or informal incarceration for the crime of speaking up for one’s humanity ended in 1900, however, would be to obfuscate entirely the long history, in the United States and abroad, of women being confined to their homes or other constrained spheres by abusive family members or partners, ensnared by debt, institutionalized for nonviolent and often ridiculous offenses, or legally and/or illegally enslaved. Systems or individuals with power target women with mild to severe mental health problems for silencing and dehumanization. Such actions do not simply occur in propagandistic narratives. They occur every day, to women of all races and sexual orientations, but especially to women of color and to women who love women.

This short overview of the many insults and injuries perpetuated against women does not even take into account problems faced most acutely by women who face cross-oppressions, including racism, cissexism and transphobia, heterosexism and homophobia, ableism, classism, and ageism. The reader should not expect an article of this length to enumerate all the distinctive and pernicious ways that various sociopolitical systems oppress women of various identities and social conditions. For further reading, please seek out the fictional and nonfictional works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Lucille Clifton, Leslie Feinberg, Julia Serano, bell hooks, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Margaret Atwood, in particular—though their works comprise only a small fraction of material on this subject worth exploring.

If the reader of this article still feels entitled to spout nonsense about simply not “allowing themselves to be victimized” to women misdiagnosed by doctors in thrall to widespread cultural prejudices about the hysterical disposition of women, or to women who have survived the most degrading and dehumanizing forms of violence, or to women whose sense of self-preservation denies them opportunities and experiences men regularly enjoy uninhibitedly (including career opportunities in hazardous locales), the author cannot stop the reader. Only the reader’s conscience—or, at least, the last remaining shreds of respect for the dignity of women who are simply thinking for themselves—may bar such conduct.

- Sam St. John '18