Laura II: feminism anthropologically

Yesterday’s post drew a comment that got me thinking.

It’s true that feminism deserves the credit for Laura’s liberty. But there is a weird little contradiction in how this works.

Some feminist innovators make their case in the strongest terms possible. The extreme quality of the case has a curious dual effect. First, it will draw antagonism from the center which will sometimes react by refusing the feminist case and the feminist champion. But the extremists do extraordinarily valuable work, despite their talent for antagonism. By sitting up on the far margin of debate, they have the effect, second, of “opening up the middle.”

The further feminists go, the easier it is for less radical creatures to adopt feminist principals and behaviors with relative impunity. We could think of this in a Venn diagram. The further feminists push the margin outwards, the more space they open up in the middle. Principals and behaviors that used to be marginal are now, relative speaking, mainstream. What used to be exceptional now begins to fall within the ambit of the ordinary (or at least non-kooks-ville).

There are several things to say here:

The extreme feminists are effectively sacrificial creatures. The more extreme they make themselves, and the more space they open up, the more they are likely to be vilified as “kooks.”

When this sacrifice is offered as self sacrifice, there is something pretty noble going on. That is to say, when feminists are extreme in order to open up the middle, they must know that their gesture will be antagonizing and effective in equal parts, that it must, more exactly, be antagonizing in order to be effective.

The trouble is that the social actor in this case may or may not have an inkling of their role as innovators, no sense, that is to say, of the effect for which they are responsible. Often, the extreme feminist takes up his or her position with the idea that the world should “just snap out of it” and embrace with the innovation and the innovator. When this does not happen, as it rarely will, the innovator is left with a sense of injustice. That their brand of feminism has been refused seems to say to them that no version of feminism is accepted.

The extremist does not see always see the social dynamic they have set in train. So they do not see that their disappointment is the very nature of the bargain, the very price required of them. But that’s still pretty horrible. At the end of the day, the extreme feminist is punished twice. Once for being extreme, and again when they find their best ideas taken from them.

This problem is exacerbated by some extreme feminists (and innovators in any camp.) These people insist that it isn’t feminism unless its extreme, and its not feminism unless you call it so. The mainstreamers are always going to refuse the strong form for the weak one, and they are never going to call the innovation feminism. This is another way of saying that the innovator guarantees her tragic status. Nothing but full adoption and acknowledgement counts as success. Everything else is failure.

The radical feminist finds perhaps to her horror that the mainstream is prepared to adopt the weak form of the innovation, and then, as wonky thanks, they insist on killing the messenger. This means that when Laura embraces feminist liberties, it is highly unlikely that anyone will give “props” to the originators and disseminator of these ideas. Still more abstractly, we might say here that social construction and self destruction work hand and hand.

3 thoughts on “Laura II: feminism anthropologically

  1. Keelay

    Excellent insight, Grant. I was commenting about this phenomenon recently though not nearly so well articulated.

    I have wondered about the similar self-sacrifice of entrepeneurs who seem to illogically throw them selves into the market machinery as sacrifices to the cycle of mutation and reproduction.

    Sure – in the case of Miss Anthony and certain of our most revered innovators, the reward is pretty enticing. But I think it takes something more than this. A systematic bias in the minds of innovators that obscures the likelihood (or inevitability) of failing.

    Now – as a baby experimental economist, I wouldn’t mind isolating this bias in the lab. I know its not your bag specifically, but if you have suggestions, I am always be eager to hear.

  2. 'burb mom

    My take for raising a daughter, Laura, would be that she could do what she wants in life regardless of gender but with hard work and ingenuity, much like I was raised. I never looked at life as being limited because of my gender. Yet, I do have a gender specific job now – stay-at-home Mom. (Again, it was my choice.)

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