Defining “Real” Feminism: A response to Natasha Devon

It is fair to say I had a number of concerns about Natasha Devon’s article in Feminist Times on why feminism must learn to compromise. I wrote a response for the Feminist Times here about why feminism can never compromise on its goals. Natasha has since written a response for her blog  responding to some of the criticism. I don’t normally engage in discussions of this sort but I want to address two issues that Devon raises.

Firstly, I am very uncomfortable with the trope  of ‘militant feminists” being used to denigrate the activism of other women. I don’t think it’s helpful or appropriate to create hierarchies of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminists. And, I don’t think it’s ever acceptable to say that anger is bad or that women shouldn’t be angry. I am angry at the oppression of women and I do refuse to compromise my goals in order to placate the very men who (re)create the political, social and cultural structures which privilege them at the expense of women. I’m okay with being angry at women being raped and murdered daily and then blamed for being victims. I’m okay with refusing to believe that women’s only worth is in their physical appearance and that we must be super-duper nice to the men just in case we hurt their feelings. Labelling anger as ‘bad’ in women is a silencing tactic. It also ignores everything women have accomplished because of their righteous anger:

  • the right to have a career
  • to have her own bank account without requiring the signature of her husband or father
  • to rent or own a home without the permission of her father or husband
  • Equal pay legislation
  • rape crisis centres
  • refuges
  • domestic violence legislation
  • education
  • child maintenance
  • healthcare
  • the right to abortion
  • the right to prenatal and postnatal care
  • maternity leave
  • the right to serve as a politician
  • the right to vote
  • the right to be classed as a person

All of these are rights women have because of “militant feminists”; women who were angry at women’s oppression and stood up and fought back. The dismissal of “militant feminists” is to erase the entire history of our movement. It is to erase the work of generations of women.

And, really, could we not class Devon as a “militant feminist” because of her belief that pornography is not harmful to women as a class? What makes one woman a “bad (militant)” feminist and another a “good” feminist.  Why are the women Devon disagrees with automatically “militants”. Using words like “militant” pejoratively is a silencing tactic. It’s a way of dismissing valid concerns of other women and this isn’t feminism. We may not agree on these issues but classing every single woman who disagrees with you as “bad” helps no woman. It just reinforces the very patriarchal structures in which women live.

I also want to respond to one paragraph in that post which demonstrates the fundamental difference between Devon’s feminism and my own:


Devon’s feminism is contextualised within capitalism as a positive force whilst I believe that capitalism is inherently harmful and toxic for women and that women’s liberation will not come through materialism, pornification or political structures created by men for men. Suggesting that “REAL feminism is strutting into a boardroom in 4 inch stilettos, cleavage boldly on display” erases the vast majority of women from the feminist movement. Capitalism requires a hierarchy which subordinates 99% of the population for the benefit for 1%; most of whom are male.

Suggesting that women are only “real” feminists if they leave men thinking how “witty and intelligent” they are is just requiring women to preform for men. It requires women to meet a very narrow definition of “woman” – one which is based on a harmful and reductive gender construction. This is inherently unkind and one that I find antithetical to a campaign for “body confidence”. Confidence, nor feminism, can come from stilettos and lipstick; nor can it come from an audience finding you witty or intelligent. It comes from within.

This definition of “real” feminism ignores the double bind of oppression faced by women of colour who very rarely see the inside of a boardroom (unless as a cleaner). Does this make them less of a feminist because they are victims of institutionalised and systemic misogyny AND racism?

What about women with disabilities? Women who can’t stride anywhere in 4 inch stilettos. Are they not feminists?

What about the women living in inhumane conditions, working in factories with no safety net who earn a $1 a day to make those 4 inch stilettos. Are they not feminists? Should we not care about them because they can’t meet this narrow-definition?

My feminism is anti-capitalist because I don’t believe women’s liberation can be found in a boardroom or via the very political structures which oppress us. I don’t believe our liberation can be found through our appearance or our performance of acceptable gendered norms. A feminism which ignores the fact that the vast majority of women in the world are living in abject poverty with inadequate access to sanitation and clean water is not a feminist movement I want to be part of. I want to dismantle our political structures which are based on the unpaid labour of women. I also respect the work of women who are fighting within the system for change – for equal representation in politics, the workplace and a welfare state to protect the most vulnerable (most of whom are women).

Devon and I have very different understandings of feminism but I am very uncomfortable with the idea that only one of us is a “real” feminist.


9 thoughts on “Defining “Real” Feminism: A response to Natasha Devon”

  1. I adore that blog post! You sum up beautifully what has annoyed be so deeply about Devon’s article in FT: that she attempts to silence so many feminists by classing them as ‘bad’. Worse, this is the argument I have heard again and again from men who oppose equal rights, that ‘militant’ feminists are somehow too freakish to take seriously. Devon needs to take a serious look at what she is insinuating and how easily she dismisses the anger of strong, independent, determined women as troublemaking. We’ve heard the dismissal a thousand times before. It’s a staggering shame that this time around it has come from another woman and one who calls herself a feminist too.

    1. “Men who oppose equal rights”. Seriously? Does such a beast even exist any more? Outside the extremes of religion I’ve not run across a man who thinks men and women are not equal since the 90s

      1. Well, there’s the obvious men who oppose reproductive rights, those who voted for “austerity” which disproportionately harms women,and Birmingham city council which would rather spend tens of millions fighting the equal pay act that actually paying women an equal wage. What about all the men who commit domestic violence, rape and murder? That isn’t an insignificant number of men. Or, the men who leave all the childcare and housework to their wives to the detriment of their wives physical and emotional health? Those are hardly men who believe in “equal rights”

        1. Opposing reproductive rights is not a gendered thing: Nicky Morgan’s views on abortion are an obvious case in point. Likewise there were plenty of women councillors on Birmingham City Council too, and even there it wasn’t a straightforward argument, there were nuances. And I don’t see how pulling in DV and the like has anything to do with equality per se, unless you’re purposely trying to abuse the definition of equality to show men don’t believe in it.

          Frankly also I find your idea that we’ve got to overthrow capitalism laughable too. I’ve thought this many times before, but the brand of ‘feminism’ you expound reminds me nothing so much as the arguments in the 19th C left between those who wanted complete revolution and those who decided to work within the system. Depending upon your viewpoint the first either failed miserably without helping anyone in the working class at all. or ended up in the tragic 80 year dead end of soviet and maoist communism. Meanwhile those who worked with the system to reform it actually helped tens of millions of working class women and men live better lives.

          Take Deep Green Resistance and Lierre Keith for instance – who describes herself as a radical feminist. DGR want to restore us back to a pre-agriculture society and a planetary carrying capacity of maybe 5 million. It’s just horrific to think what regime could reduce a peak world population of 10 billion to that.

          Revolutions are to be avoided at all cost, overthrowing anything is not a good idea because somewhere along the line people end up dying. The good thing about the British is we understand this as a county. Capitalism has served us well for three hundred years now, maybe in another hundred if advances in technology continue to reduce the costs of material goods towards zero it will evolve into something different. But not yet.

          1. You think men who abuse their wives support equality for women?

            Really? Because, I’m pretty sure that’s a basic part of the definition. You rape or abuse women in any way and you don’t support women’s equality. Frankly, it’s utterly asinine to think that men who abuse their partners believe in equality.

      2. Then you are lucky. I’ve met a few. I had a boss who honestly believed women didn’t need to be paid equally. So many who believe that women in traditionally male roles should be discouraged. Men who think that they should have more say on whether their partner has an abortion than the partner does.. and so on.

  2. No, it’s completely asinine to confuse a crime with a philosophical position. I can believe stealing is wrong, but still steal. Plenty of people do things they believe to be wrong every day, in fact it’s pretty much part of the human condition. Why else do you think guilt is such a powerful and culturally consistent emotion?

    Obviously you can beat up your wife and support equality. There’s plenty of domestic violence recorded in lesbian relationships and it’s only a matter of time now before there’s women in refugees escaping their violent wives. Conflating not believing in equality and committing domestic violence is simply confused thinking.

    1. Equality isn’t a philosophical position. It’s a legal term. You cannot support equality of women in the law if you abuse women.

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