Is Margaret Atwood A Feminist? Are You?

Illustration for article titled Is Margaret Atwood A Feminist? Are You?

The Guardian is worried that "if Margaret Atwood isn't sure she is a feminist anymore," feminists might be "an endangered species." But Atwood's take on the f-word is more complicated than the Guardian implies — and so is ours.


The Guardian piece, by Homa Khaleeli, Martha Gill and Hazelann Williams, says that Atwood "caused consternation when she admitted, 'I don't know if I am a feminist.'" The authors seem to be referring to a September 4 interview with the Independent, in which Atwood has a lot more to say. She thinks women are hardwired to tidy up things like socks, "because we were the gatherers; [men] were the hunters." Of her most famous novel, The Handmaid's Tale, often read as a polemic in favor of women's reproductive rights, she says,

You could tell The Handmaid's Tale from a male point of view. People have mistakenly felt that the women are oppressed, but power tends to organise itself in a pyramid. I could pick a male narrator from somewhere in that pyramid. It would interesting.

And on feminism specifically, she tells the Independent,

It's not picking up socks that's the issue. Who is the 'we' that we are talking about [in feminism]? Are we talking about the children who are involved in sex trafficking, or the women in Bangladesh? Are we talking about the Eastern European women who are promised a place in the West and end up as sex slaves? Feminism is a big term. If we are asking 'Are women human beings?' we don't need to vote on that. But where do we go from there? Are women better than men? No. Are they different? Yes. How are they different? We're still trying to figure that out.

It's interesting that she brings up the issue of sex differences, because I've come to see that as something of a red herring. Just this weekend, a friend asked me what it meant that I considered myself a feminist. He wanted to know if I thought men and women were "the same." I don't. Sex and gender aren't as binary as we sometimes assume, but most women do have different bodies from most men. Does that matter?

It's not the job of feminism to figure out "how men and women are different" — or to assert that they are not. Feminism should be about making sure men and women have the same opportunities, and combating the institutional sexism that sometimes keeps women from taking advantage of these opportunities. It may be interesting to debate whether women are hardwired to pick up socks (I'm skeptical), but the real task of feminism is to make sure we're not forced to pick them up. The confusion comes because a lot of the rhetoric of sex difference is aimed at convincing us we're meant for sock duty. But the enemy of feminism is that rhetoric — not sex difference itself. That's for science to figure out.


Of course, Atwood's words are far too complicated to constitute the death knell of feminism. But they are an interesting jumping-off point for Khaleeli, Gill, and Williams to ask a variety of women the question, "Are you a feminist?"

Shami Chakrabarti tackles the "humorless feminist" archetype:

I am more than happy to call myself a feminist; I am a woman and I'm not on my knees. I passionately, profoundly believe in gender equality as much as I do race equality. Feminism has come to be seen as uncool and unfunny. But you can laugh at yourself, be a feminist and have broad horizons.


But Deborah Meaden offers what may, unfortunately, be a more common position:

I'm not a feminist. I consider my position in the business world not as a woman but as a person. And don't think, "Did that happen because I'm a woman?" Feminism doesn't have a particularly constructive image, although I think there was time when it was relevant. But I think we are more sophisticated now and we no longer have to batter people over the head with it.


I hear this argument a lot — that there was a time for feminism, and now that time has passed. So after I finished telling my friend that I didn't necessarily think men and women were the same, I told him that to me, being a feminist means believing that women today still face obstacles to total equality. And it means working to remove those obstacles. Both of which I can do regardless of whether my foremothers were gatherers.

Are You A Feminist? [Guardian]
Margaret Atwood: 'People Should Live Joyfully' [Independent]



I don't know Meaden personally, but I find it interesting that she bases whether or not she's a feminist on this one area of her life. Being at a high level in the business world doesn't mean feminism is now irrelevant. I find this kind of thinking to be the height of self-centered. If it doesn't effect me personally, it effects no one else. No, sorry, that's not how it works.

And the rest of her statement just seems to be a version of the "feminists just tear everything down and are shrill" trope which isn't the case. Pointing out inequality, and figuring out the how and why of it, is the only way we can effectively address it. You can't just ignore it and hope it'll go away.

This is my issue with the way most things like this are discussed, though. People rarely ever look at how each issue influences the other. Including Atwood, it seems. She's focusing on the "how are we different" meme...and the "women elsewhere have bigger issues" meme. Which I get, perspective is important.

But I don't really care how women are different than men other than the obvious physical characteristics. We could argue about biology all day, and mostly what we'd come to is that we still don't know how much is hardwired and how much is socialized. And I've always found the hardwired argument difficult...mostly because science and interpretation of results can be subject to the same sexism as anything else. It also takes science quite a while sometimes to get over it's own conclusions. Science, after all, thought our wombs literally wandered around our bodies and made us crazy at one time.

I do think many women around the world have it much worse than I do as a white, suburban, middle class person. And it's important to keep that in mind. But it's not a comparison. I can no more help the fact that my issues with sexism are related to my station than someone else can help theirs.