dr ngo on feminism, part 1

dr ngo has kindly agreed to act as a guest blogger on this site, to provide an alternative take on feminism (in terms of age, sex and nationality). dr ngo is an American historian, recently-retired, specialising in South-East Asian history, particularly the social and economic history of the Philippines

The Making of a (Male) Feminist: I: The Parameters

By dr ngo

I regard myself as a feminist, but before I start reflecting on the road that brought me here, I should probably make a few things clear.

There are many definitions of feminism, but for these purposes, I’ll stick to the simplest. A feminist is a person who answers “yes” to the question, “Are women human?” (This particular formulation is from “Rabbit’s Feminist Support Pages” at http://members.iinet.com.au/~rabbit/femsup.htm) I believe that women are essentially equal (in talent, etc.) to men, and should be equal in rights and opportunities as well. That’s basically it; the rest is all complication and elaboration of/on this premise.

I do not, however, believe that women are superior to men, or that there are special women’s ways of thinking/feeling that are beyond the powers of men to comprehend or replicate. When academic feminism gets into a critique not just of “dead white men” (fair enough) but of all systems of thought they have created, including history, philosophy, and the scientific method, it’s not for me. If “phallogocentrism” is a plot against the Goddess, count me among the plotters.

At least three further caveats should be entered before I begin my narrative:

1) I have no particular wish to dispute those who say that only women can be feminists, since feminism is grounded in the female experience. For those who define feminism this way, I’m perfectly willing to call myself a “feminist sympathizer” or “fellow traveller.” Definitions aren’t true or false; they’re tools, more or less helpful to our understanding. So if my calling myself a feminist is unhelpful, let it go.

2) I make no claim whatsoever to be a good feminist, however the term may be defined. I differ from orthodox feminist thinking on various points, particularly in areas related to sex and sexuality. My life – including my married life with my wife of 37 years – still reflects some of the gendered role models we grew up with, and I would not for a moment suggest it is an ideal feminist marriage. (My wife does say that I’ve improved over the years and am not nearly as much of a male chauvinist as I once was, for whatever that’s worth.) I am not an activist, on this or any other issue, and so I don’t really participate in the struggle for women’s rights that some see as the heart of feminism, which is as much (or more) a movement as an abstract ideology.

But since I, like most historians, regard a bad Christian (who doesn’t believe in the Virgin Birth or attend church regularly, who eats meat on Friday and plays golf on Sunday, &c.) as a Christian, so I believe that a bad feminist is also a feminist. Those who are fierce and narrow in their criteria for membership in the movement – as fierce and narrow as the fundamentalist Christian sects I grew up among – may remonstrate with or even excommunicate me. I can live with that. In my own mind, I’m still a feminist.

3) One critique sometimes heard in male circles is that men only pretend to be feminist in order to impress women – to get laid, in fact. It’s hard to honestly assess one’s own motives for anything, but I know that everything I write is at least partly an effort to impress someone – professional colleagues, potential employers, students, unknown reviewers, members of my club or choir, and, of course, women. That’s why we (humans) communicate: to have some impact on others. (As I tell my students: “This table is flat, as we can all see, but no one ever says ‘This table is flat’ simply because it is true. We only say something – true or not – because we are hoping to achieve something by doing so.”)

So doubtless professing feminism (which is likelier to appeal more to women than, say the demographic history of the 19th-century Philippines) is at some level an effort to impress women. And at some even deeper level, I probably am dreaming of inspiring some kind of sexual attraction; men do this kind of thing automatically. (Do women? I’m not sure.) But among the women I’m hoping to impress are my sister and my daughter, who definitely do not feature in any such dreams, so that’s obviously not the whole story. And in a more mundane, intellectual sense, I actually do believe in the basic principles of feminism, and could no more easily revert to believing in a simple version of male supremacy than I could believe in God. Which I don’t.

(To be continued.)

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