I was asked to explain why I believe that ‘modern’ or ‘third-wave’ feminism benefits men. This was the result. It’s a sketch, or a brain-dump, imperfect and opinionated.
Known as ‘third wave’ or ‘choice’ feminism, the contemporary popular feminist movement is based on the concepts of equality, intersectionality and personal choice. In these three respects it differs from the ‘second wave’ feminist movement which began in the 1960s.
The emphasis on ‘equality’ is a fundamental departure from the liberationist philosophy of second-wave feminism. Liberation indicates freedom, whereas equality is a relative term (‘everyone in a prison is equal, but not free’). The benefits (even to males) of liberating females from male oppression is not a new idea, see JS Mill’s ‘The Subjection of Women’ from 1858. Equality thus shifts the goal from addressing a structural problem (oppression) to addressing discrimination. As the latter relates to specifics rather than generality and also may be positive as well as negative, there is no benefit conferred to women and they can only maintain the status quo or become worse off; women have control only over those rights they wish to surrender. Second-wave feminism attributes the root of female oppression in female biology; women’s biological sex is instrumentised for the oppression of woman. A distinction is drawn between biological sex (reproductive role) and gender (cultural expectations based on sex) and gender is the tool that males use to oppress women based on their reproductive potential.
The concept of intersectionality was introduced by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 to show that oppression functions on more than one axis, for example black women are subject to oppression based on both race and sex. As a concept, intersectionality is valuable as it allows us to analyse several vectors of oppression. Intersectional feminism itself may be viewed as an evolution of second-wave feminism and when applied to females introduces no conflict. Third-wave feminism does, however, introduce the idea that males can be oppressed by females on the basis of gender and conceptualises transgender males as suffering oppression on the axis of gender (interpreted as personal identity rather than hierarchy), this privileges females over males and creates a feminist movement that centres and prioritises males; women do not suffer material oppression per se, rather the social category ‘woman’ is subject to oppression, the corollary of this is that oppression is something one may identify themselves into or out of.
Second-wave feminism is foundational upon a Marxist analysis of class, and is fundamentally anti-capitalist. It recognises that focussing on an individual’s choices can ignore the structural problems that lead to inequalities. The ‘choice’ in ‘choice feminism’ as a synonym for third wave feminism originates with its neoliberal canonisation of the sanctity of personal choice, ‘choice feminism’ is inherently neoliberal. Whereas second-wave feminism will see prostitution as being the dominance of men over women through entitlement to women’s bodies, albeit at a price, ‘choice feminism’ makes this a decision of the prostituted woman. In a world of economic imbalance and criminal gangs trafficking females for money, the structural oppressions of economic disadvantage and sexual dominance are disregarded in favour of elevating this ‘personal choice’.
The effect of these three differences is to extend feminism beyond females to include and even centre males; attention is focussed on relaxing claims to rights that women may have, making these accessible to males. The prostitution of women and other ‘sex work’ is seen as a personal choice rather than exploitation, justifying an economic basis for access to women’s bodies rather than freely given mutual consent. This framework has the perverse effect of integrating female oppression into a politic that reinforces male domination over women under the guise of fairness and equality. Rather than being a movement to campaign for the equality of women with men, the end result is a women’s movement that reinforces the oppression of women. With women oppressing women.
You could not make it up.
The following was added as a comment but the author wishes remain anonymous:
Although Kimberlé Crenshaw gave a brilliant legal argument and a name to the concept of intersectionality, the idea that women could face discrimination for more than one aspect of their identity was not new to many women.
Unfortunately, the concept is often used for only two aspects: race and gender. But if it’s universalizing to talk about gender discrimination as if every woman faced the same kind of oppression, then it’s universalizing to say that about black women, or disabled black women, or disabled black transwomen, etc. We need to find commonalities so that we can work together without so much hate for our differences.
You used an excellent example of women and transwomen working together against male violence. Intersectionality has also led to the idea that feminists must fight all injustices equally because all injustices affect at least some women. This requirement isn’t applied to other movements with the same force. Also related is the hatred of white women. As you may know, “white feminist” is now a pejorative. Not only is this universalizing, but it also suggests that gender oppression isn’t enough.
A woman has to belong to another oppressed class to be considered oppressed. That’s why a lot of white feminists, myself included, scramble to say we are poor, disabled, etc. Of course, this benefits conservative men who don’t believe in gender oppression anyway, but it also benefits a lot of progressive white men who don’t have to examine the way they treat white women in their lives.