Demystifying Feminism

17/06/2016 15:45 | Updated 17 June 2016

Despite the narratives of mainstream culture, the feminist movement is not so much intended to argue against sex, or love, as much as it aspires to eliminate the prejudice in gender relations that makes equal sex and love impossible.

In sum, feminism fights to rebalance the relationship between genders which has been skewed in favour of husbands, fathers and brothers, a relationship in which men have had legal sanction and economic power to victimise women - and have historically been wont to do.

Feminism argues there can only be true love where partners are equal. Whereas relationships between men and women have historically been characterised by subordination, a feminist society would level out the playing field, and each sexual revolution gives us hope for a positive, permanent change in existential relations between the sexes.

The political theorist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the most notorious radical writers of the eighteenth century, a passionate evangelist for women's equality who rankled with the social mores of her era. Her dreams for women's emancipation provided the foundations of the modern feminist movement and illuminate its' aims.

Wollstonecraft argued that society is deeply distorted because women and the poor are oppressed and denied their full potential in system in which rich men have legal sanction and political power to be tyrants.

Mary Wollstonecraft didn't like being a woman in a male's world. She, liked many feminists, didn't like being vilified constantly in her own culture. Her insights in to the parlous state of a civilization founded on male dominance were extraordinary and provocative.

Until Wollstonecraft's era most political theory was directed towards the ideas of men. Theories were valued because they were created by men; they could effectively exclude or ignore women's concerns and patriarchal society could convince everyone that its' chosen ways and values were objectively necessary.

Wollstonecraft identified in A Vindication of the Rights of Women that women's education, far from being objectively necessary, was indoctrinating them to become weak, submissive and subordinate by instructing them purely in domestic labour and cosmetic concerns, whereas men's education trained them to take positions of wealth and power and become competitors in prestigious fields.

Mary realized women internalize this submissiveness and base our sense of personal identity upon it. We experience ourselves, above all, as inferiors. We begin life defining ourselves in terms of men. We learn at an early age to need validation from men. We come to believe we need to comply with everything that is required to make them happy. We don't even ask ourselves if we really need a marriage. Our sense of individual identity is largely shaped by gender roles. This civilization transforms woman in to an extension of man's control, an addition to his story, far removed from the action.

Wollstonecraft's analysis raises serious questions about our way of life. Her main question is: Why do we continue to accept and value traditional gender roles, if they based on injustice? In 1790, reflecting on the seismic uprising of workers in France which had threatened the aristocratic morality of the powerful Edmund Burke, and against the backdrop of uprising in America, Wollstonecraft evaluated the Conservative's arguments against reason and revolution in society, which she believed were central to womens' interests.

Burke would remind us that tradition provides satisfaction simply because the alternative may be anarchy. We feel secure with a familiar, traditional order in our lives. We take the civil order for granted and are scared to imagine any alternative to it. Burke accepts tradition over revolution because tradition gives us the basic tenets of civilization. We are afraid that if we reject the system, we will lose all we have ever known; we are all afraid of anomie. We have been taught it is wiser to let the experts make the decisions for us. These factors have probably been dissuading people from radical politics for centuries.

While Burke viewed change with suspicion and liberty with caution, arguing that civil society should depend on traditions, on "precedent, authority, example," Wollstonecraft's work achieved great influence because it argued, originally, that all customs must be applied to rational assessment, amended or discarded as they can be disproved as superstitious, oppressive or ignorant. Mores towards women and the poor, Wollstonecraft argued in a later treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, fell in to all three categories. The purpose of her political work was to liberate herself and others from the restrictions that governed class and sexuality, dispensing with traditions that many believed were crucial to civilization.

Against oppressive traditions, she advocated for revolution, reform and equality. All of these elements coalesced in to a vibrant and original politics of emancipation that was decidedly ahead of its' time.

Wollstonecraft spoke for a new movement that had justice, equality and freedom at its' heart. Freedom to be who we are, to love who we choose, to invent our own lives and speak out critically and intelligently against those who would try and deprive us of those rights. She was a woman who gave the silenced a voice - a voice that speaks of raw and urgent problems.

There are increasing numbers of people who want something different. Beyond the limits of containment of the present society, there is the spaced for building freedom; liberation from exploitation - a liberation which is a prerequisite to an equal society, one which requires a rupture from the historical order.

The fact that more radical utopians can envision a future where sexuality is more than a commodity or vector for violence is an embodiment of hope. They confront feminist critique with the task of reevaluating prospects for rebellion against the abhorrent order, and the emergence of a feminist society qualitatively different from contemporary oppressive society, the task of redefining feminism and its' preconditions.