Self-proclaimed anti-feminist Suzanne Venker was scheduled to give a speech, titled “One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails,” at Williams College as part of its “Uncomfortable Learning” Speaker Series. Ironically, students at the college were so uncomfortable with the prospect (one student accused the student who invited her of “dipping [his] hands in the blood” of marginalized people) that the event was canceled. However, Venker later made the speech she planned to give available online. Curious, I looked into it, and, as absurd as it may seem, I think there is a lot that we self-proclaimed feminists have to learn from her.
What I learned was surprising. While Venker refuses to align herself with feminists and has been highly critical of feminist movements, there is nothing she says that is inherently “anti-feminist.” As such notable people as Aziz Ansari, Hillary Clinton, and Emma Watson have all reminded us, feminism, by definition, is the belief that women and men ought to have equal rights and opportunities. Therefore, as Watson says, “If you stand for equality, you are a feminist.” Interestingly, Venker’s opinions do not violate that definition.
Asked why she is not a feminist, Venker explained that she does not subscribe to the notions that (a) women in America are oppressed or (b) the only difference between men and women are their genitals. She may be wrong about whether women are oppressed, and we can argue about whether women and men are by their natures different, but—by our very own definition of feminism—those positions are not inconsistent with what feminism is.
Far be it for me to force someone into a movement they openly disavow, but it is worth pointing out that Venker does not disavow what equality feminists so desperately desire. Rather, she (harshly) criticizes the feminist movement for failing to truly obtain it. And if her accusations carry any weight, then they are accusations that any true feminist might want to take seriously.
The Lady Has a Point
The foundation of the speech she intended to give is the assertion that feminism, as a “social experiment,” ought to be assessed on its results rather than its intentions. By her estimation, many of the feminist experiment’s results undermine, rather than encourage, equality. And I think she is on to something.
For instance, Venker insists that the feminist movement is responsible for telling women that “motherhood wasn’t important, or shouldn’t be important, to an educated woman.” According to her, such a message has not liberated marginalized women but merely changed the nature of their marginalization. “It is also true there was a time when women who did not want to live conventional lives felt marginalized,” she said. “But it is equally true that women today who do want to live conventional lives feel just as marginalized . . .”
Regardless of who is sending this message to women, Venker is not making this up. She is addressing a very real problem, about which I have written before. I’ve said it before, and I stand by it: “We have come far from the days when to be a housewife was one of a woman’s few options—we now excel in so many fields heretofore unavailable to us. But if women are now made to feel that career ambitions are the only acceptable source of fulfillment within our life narratives, then one form of oppression has been replaced with another.”
Venker also laments that feminism has led women to buy in to the false notion that in order to be empowered, they must work and behave like men. “Women believed it when they were told that to be considered a man’s equal, they should reject their feminine nature and adopt male traits.” Once again, this a commonly held belief and a very problematic one. Indeed, the goal of gender equality is not to make men and women indistinguishable but for everyone to have the freedom to develop their personal talents and strengths without hitting arbitrarily constructed walls. To insist that there is something inferior about traditional femininity is the utter opposite of true equality.
While she may be wrong about what all feminists think (I am a feminist, and I certainly don’t want “to make men and women interchangeable” as she claims), she is absolutely right that many mainstream beliefs about female empowerment fly in the face of true equality. And if the definition of feminism is the belief that women and men ought to have equal rights and opportunities, then feminists ought to care about the eradication of these ideas more than anyone.
Suzanne Venker may not be right about everything, but I am here to tell you that if her claims hold water, true feminists ought to take them seriously. To do less might be, well, anti-feminist.