Feminist infighting only takes our eyes off the real struggle

There are so many terrific, beautifully observed details in Andrew O’Hagan’s just-published article in the London Review of Books about his attempts to ghost Julian Assange’s autobiography that it feels churlish to pick out just one. But for now, I’m going to have to be churlish. One of Assange’s many contradictory traits nailed by O’Hagan is his obsessive antagonism with those on his side, and his apparent uninterest in his actual opponents: “Julian’s relationship with the Guardian … appeared to obsess him … The Guardian was an enemy because they hadn’t toed the line, whereas the Daily Mail was almost respected for finding him entirely abominable,” O’Hagan writes.

This tendency – to turn on your own side rather than spending energy fighting the opposition – is by no means limited to deluded wannabe cult leaders with a messiah complex and bad table manners. You can see it on a daily basis in political parties. But the manifestation that I have been musing on much of late, currently all too clearly on display, is within the feminist movement.

The phrase “feminist infighting” is by now so smoothed-down through overuse that it is almost like a single word itself. Plenty of brilliant writers have written about how infighting destroyed feminism’s powerful second wave in the 70s, including Nora Ephron in her painful and funny essay Miami about the fight between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and, at the more radical end of the spectrum, Susan Faludi’s beautiful essay about Shulamith Firestone, published in the New Yorker last year. The question is whether feminism is trapped in its own Groundhog Day (RIP Harold Ramis) and undoing itself again in its fourth wave.

Judging from much of the recent coverage of modern feminism, the answer does seem to be yes. In a recent article in the Spectator, Julie Burchill, with her characteristic bluntness and dismayingly characteristic transphobia, denounced intersectionality – a major tenet of fourth-wave feminism – after her brief experience with it on Twitter last year, describing it as a “hissy-fitting hothouse”. In the US, Michelle Goldberg recently wrote in the Nation about Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars, detailing how bitter online battles among feminists scuppered various initiatives, and descended into bullying and – to use a term coined by second wave feminist Jo Freeman about precisely this problem – “trashing”. “If there’s something inherent about the way women work within movements that makes us assholes to each other, that’s very sad,” feminist activist Courtney Martin said to Goldberg.

That would be very sad. It is also, I firmly believe, not true – what would be the point in fighting for feminism otherwise? – but this is exactly why talking about feminist infighting is so difficult: it makes women sound like the bitchy babies that sexists have always suggested we are, incapable of being given any position of authority without throwing tampons at one another, and therefore best left in the kitchen. But, as anyone who writes about feminism now knows, there is no criticism more virulent than the criticism that comes from your own side, online.

In many ways, the web has been great for feminism – just imagine how much easier it would have been for the National Organisation of Women in the 60s, let alone the suffragettes, to get organised if they’d had the web. It has also been a great learning device for me, personally. When I started writing about feminism, I had a vague (admittedly, very vague) awareness that the needs of black women and poor women differed from my own, thanks to writers such as bell hooks, Alice Walker and Barbara Ehrenreich, and that’s still an ongoing learning process for me. But I had no awareness – none – of issues facing trans women or disabled women. Online critics were, with occasionally more sarcasm than patience, quick to awaken me to the gaps in my knowledge, and that was a good thing.

But the internet, for whatever reason, is to hysteria what damp rooms are to mould. Cries of privilege-checking and intersectionality – both, objectively, good things – too often become tic-like terms of abuse and a means of shutting down conversation as opposed to opening it up. They have become feminism’s version of Godwin’s Law. Tellingly, it is feminist writers and editors who work for leftwing publications who attract the bitterest abuse on social media from fellow feminists, as opposed to the sexists and misogynists on rightwing publications. This is because the flaws or even failures of those nearby are so much more egregious than those far away. Critiquing and educating is one thing, publicly slamming leftwing feminist writers as “low-level media whores”, as one prominent blogger did this weekend, is, I think we can all agree, another.

But here’s the thing: the web – and Twitter especially – is not the whole of feminism. It’s easy to forget that fact, because journalists who write about feminism, such as myself, spend too much time on the web (and on Twitter) and therefore have a tendency to focus too much on it. Feminism is doing just fine, in its stumbling, fallible way, and one of its strengths is that it is making real efforts to include women who were overlooked by its earlier incarnations. To reduce feminism to the screaming fights among the few as opposed to the actions of the brave is to do the work of the other side – the real other side – for them. – By Hadley Freeman © Guardian News and Media 2014

Image – AFP