Should I call myself a feminist?

This is not exactly a burning question for America. Nonetheless, it raises some interesting issues that are worth exploring, so heck, I'll explore them.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a group dinner with Kenji Yoshino, a gay law professor who wrote a fascinating book called Covering. The book talks about the way that pressure to conform to group norms prevents people from fully participating in society. Moving from "Don't have sex with men because we'll kill you" to "don't have sex with men because we'll arrest you" to "don't tell anyone you have sex with men because they'll shun you" to "it's okay to tell people to have sex with men, but don't force anyone to acknowledge that fact by acting different or flaunting your relationship with your partner" are all improvements over the previous--but at the end of the day, being forced to act the way the majority does is profoundly limiting. In some trivial sense, everyone has to do this, of course, but most people don't have to hide the dominant relationship in their lives because it makes other people uncomfortable.

He talked at length about the phenomenon of "reverse covering"--the way in which members of non-dominant groups are forced to reinforce their identity as members of those groups, even when they don't want to. This can come from either inside the group, as in the case of black teenagers who are punished by their peers for "acting white", or from members of the dominant culture. Women, for example, are pressured to both cover and reverse-cover; as he says, "to be 'masculine' enough to be respected as workers, but also 'feminine' enough to be respected as women."

What I asked him, after the dinner, is how far you can reasonably press a dislike of reverse covering. For a group to be a group, it must be able to say, not only "this is what we do", but "this is what we don't do"--you can't call yourself a Christian if you worship the risen Christ, and also Moloch.

His answer, the right one, I think, was "that's a hard question". You can't call yourself gay if you aren't sexually attracted to members of your own sex--well, I mean, you can, but you shouldn't, not that I think this is a real problem. But gay culture has defined any number of other characteristics that it views as central enough to a gay identity that it punishes defectors pretty severely. Is being liberal an important component of gayness? On most dimensions, it doesn't seem like it should be--yet the gay conservatives among my friends and loved ones, particularly the lesbians, are often punished for their views by the community.

Which brings us to feminism. I view myself as feminist(ish) because I believe the following:

1) Society is set up in ways that limit women's choices and opportunities--men's too (it's awful hard to make the choice to stay home with kids, or become a nurse), but women more. Men are not, for example, socially punished for monogamy the way that women are socially punished for promiscuity.

2) Privilege exists, and is in many unfortunate ways invisible to those who possess it.

3) We should try to change those things.

I differ from the feminist mainstream on many of the questions of how we should change this. I don't think that subsidized childcare should be a civil right, I think comparable worth is a very bad idea, and I don't view abortion rights as fundamentally a question of female equality, but rather as an incredibly complicated attempt to trade off two important and incommensurable values that has no overwhelmingly obvious answer. I'm probably more willing than most feminists to give credence to the possibility that, say, women have lower IQ variance than men and are therefore less likely to show up in the tails of the cognitive/income distribution--though I also think that people often see what they want and expect to see, which makes those kinds of arguments rather more tenuous than their advocates allow.

But the basic thing, to me, is that I endorse the project of changing social values to increase the scope of human possibility.

But for many feminists, that's too basic. For many, to be a feminist, you have to want to make radical state-sponsored change to the economic system in order to promote equality. You have to grant rape accusers extraordinary presumption of truth-telling. You must endorse a hard line on abortion rights. If you do not agree with these propositions, you are a non-feminist, or an anti-feminist.

And maybe this is fair, at least the "non-feminist" part. I think increasing the equality of women is a very important project--but I think society has a lot of important projects. I also think that when you're trying to orchestrate these kinds of social and political change, you should think hard about whether you're actually increasing the scope of human freedom, or restricting it. Radically coercive social or economic regimes may increase women's equality in part by decreasing everyone's freedom, and given my values, I don't think that's a win. So if you define being a feminist as someone for whom fuller equality is the most important consideration, rather than simply something that we should all work pretty hard for, then you should probably exclude me from the list.

Personally, I'd like to see feminism take on as expansionist a definition as possible without rendering the concept meaningless--something closer to my list than whatever, exactly in the head of people who label me an "antifeminist". Not because it particularly matters whether I get to wear the proud Scarlet F, but because bringing more people into the tent would make feminism less of a dirty word in many quarters. It would give what I view as the movement's most important work--that of exposing and trying to change the structural problems in society that limit women's choices--more reach, albeit at the expense of driving many radical solutions to those problems.

But it's not something I'm going to have a fight about. The feminist movement has a right to define what constitutes being a member, and I'm not going to appropriate their label if it bothers them, any more than I'm going to start calling myself a Catholic who just doesn't happen recognize the authority of the Church. If you read any feminist blogs, you'll know that they spend an enormous amount of time trying to define the core values of feminism, and while I may disagree with the definitions they end up with, if they dislike my opinions on the matter, well, it's their movement.

But that does leave women (and I suppose men) like me with a bothersome question: what do we call ourselves? I share a lot of opinions on structural cultural issues with feminists, even when we disagree on the solutions these imply; I think we've come a long way, baby, but I don't think we're quite there yet. If I am to leave feminists in peace, I need my own word. Suggestions are welcome.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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