The Difference between Feminism and Identity Politics

And now a little rant in celebration of Women’s History Month:

What I’m about to say here may seem blindingly obvious to a lot of people, but I feel like someone has to log this point in print. I’ve been talking to a lot of colleagues who agree with what I have to say here, and yet I feel like, in spite of apparent consensus among the smart academics I count as my friends, there’s a fundamental disconnect going on in wider academic circles. So, here goes:

The point of feminism isn’t to promote certain identity groups over other groups. The point is to critique and to try to end unjust oppression.

Groups that have been historically marginalized are more likely to include people now suffering from oppression. But being in a group that has been historically marginalized doesn’t mean you’re being oppressed.

Sometimes, even though you belong to such a historically-oppressed group, you become the oppressor. And sometimes you oppress someone who is a member of a group that has not been historically marginalized. And if that oppression is unjust, no matter how oppressed you or your people have been, that’s wrong.

If you use your group’s history of oppression as a shield to hide behind while you oppress someone else, or worse, as a sword to stab them with, that’s just plain disgusting.

It makes perfect sense to me that feminists would be utilitarian in their approach, i.e., that they would seek to work on the kind of oppression that affects large numbers of people, particularly large numbers of people who have been historically oppressed, e.g., women and native peoples and queer people.

But, if a feminist comes across oppression of, say, a white, able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual man by someone of a historically-marginalized group, then I think that, if she wants to think of herself as a person of moral integrity, she has to recognize that oppression and name it, and, if possible, call on the oppressor to quit it.

What gives feminism or any other political movement its moral power is integrity. Lose the moral integrity, lose the power.

So, as a concrete example to ground this discussion, while I’ve spent most of my time on historically marginalized groups like people born with socially-challenging bodies and queer people, on occasion I’ve found myself having to defend normal-bodied boys against genital cutting and to tell the unpopular truth about what happened to a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class guy when he ticked off a trio of extremist transgender activists by supporting a politically-incorrect theory.

You know what? Lately pretty often when I’m giving grand rounds on the treatment of children born with atypical genitalia, a male medical student will ask me, “Why don’t you argue against routine neonatal male circumcision?” It sure helps feminism when I can legitimately say to them, “I do! I care about boys’ rights to genital integrity, too!” I am convinced it’s good for feminism when we take those occasional opportunities to extend our work beyond the historically oppressed.

Listen, I’m going to say something funny for an historian to say, especially for a feminist historian in the month of March:

Forget history sometimes. It makes no sense to simply defend one group against another because of history without careful consideration of the details of the power relations today. What we must do is point to today’s oppression, to be always open to the possibility that sometimes today’s power imbalances will not be in the direction we would expect, given history.

Sisters! (And brothers….) Keep your glasses clean, and call it as you see it now, even as you remember how it was. That’s what our foremothers did, and that’s how we got this far.

This, in a nutshell, is why I’m for Obama. I would love to have a woman president, sure, but what I want first and foremost is someone who seems to really get the ideas spelled out above. Listen to the way Obama talks about race–including about how white people can feel and be oppressed–and you know he gets it. Listen to how he talks about LBGT people and their rights. Obama is what we need to create true justice in America, not the pseudo-justice of John McCain wherein whether or not you deserve to be tortured depends on your ethnic heritage. Obama is a real feminist.