Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Feminism - radical versus liberal

Having done sciences at university I was never terribly politically "enlightened", so although I have grown increasingly sympathetic to feminism over the years (largely due to a growing awareness of the shortcomings of many men, including myself!), I'd never had any terribly coherent framework for understanding these beliefs on a more organised basis. One of the "blessings" of the book The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series) - and there were many! It is another book I'd recommend - was a brief introduction to radical and liberal feminism in an essay by Anne Collins Smith, on the fact that the Harry Potter books "resonate with the values of radical feminism".

Liberal feminism, she explains, is grounded in the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill. This holds that women are people, and should be treated as such. This draws inspiration from the Enlightenment philosophy, emphasising individual rights and responsibilities. As a reformed Christian, of course, I'd point out that individual rights and responsibilities are something that flow out of a recovery of a biblical view of humanity, and in actual fact whilst the Enlightenment might have popularised this perspective, it had neatly severed it from its epistemological foundation - as demonstrated by the impact of the French Revolution. But put that to one side for now ....

The liberal feminist view turns out to be "surprisingly problematic". When we say that "women are people too", we are in fact expecting women to conform to a pattern of behaviour established in a world where intellectual life has been dominated by male values. Liberal feminism then, argues Smith, leads to the possibility that women are expected to become "just like men".

Radical feminism approaches the issue differently. It holds that the
root cause of women's oppression is the 'sex/gender system,' a set of social expectations that force identities onto people in such a way that a person's physical sexual identification necessarily determines that person's personality, permissible social roles, and acceptable economic occupations. In a patriarchal society, these expectations will tend to privilege men and disempower women.

"The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy," p.84
Some radical feminists argue that our society would be better if people felt freely able to mix and match "male" characteristics (control, independence, competition)and "female" characteristics (interdependence, community, sharing). The greater adoption of "female" characteristics would benefit society as a whole.

Smith then argues that, although there are relatively few strong female role-models in the Potter books, the values that lead to Harry's victory over Voldemort - love, interdependence, self-sacrifice - are actually "female" values - and that the agenda which is presented in Rowling's books is in fact consistent with a radical feminist agenda.

Again, I'd point out that love and self-sacrifice are, in fact, Christian values, as much as female ones - and community is something that the church should offer. In other words, a radical feminist should look at a church being "done properly", and find much about it which is consonant with his or her own values....

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