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Posted by on Aug 17, 2012 in Drama, Feminism, Freethought Blogs, Skepticism | 21 comments

When Feminism And Skepticism Got Married

I’m not sure when it happened. It must’ve been a secret ceremony; perhaps an elopement, but before I knew it, a strain of virulent feminist thought largely advocated on sites such as was deeply intertwined with the skeptic/atheist movement. Since apparently I missed both the wedding invite and the memo, I promptly put my foot in it by saying that adopting a particular branch of feminist theory without questioning it or looking for supporting evidence is not skeptical. After all, 3rd wave feminism is largely about validating the subjective experiences of women in our seemingly male-dominated culture, while skepticism is about evaluating claims based on empirical evidence. See the potential for a ginormous problem here? 

Frankly, I have not met a skeptic, atheist, progressive, liberal, or libertarian — in fact, I’ve not met anyone in this community — who disagrees with the basic notion that women are people who deserve equal rights and opportunities.  The more difficult questions; however, are how to address the problems of systemic sexism against both men and women, and how to effectuate positive social change without hostility and backlash. Another key question is whether women require special treatment in order to put them on the same footing as men. My opinion on this matter is no.  No, they don’t because they’re capable individuals, they’re tough, they’re smart, and they’re resourceful. But guess what? This is only my personal opinion. It’s an opinion based on my politics, and in this case, on my agreement with certain liberal/libertarian equity feminist principles.

Can I use skepticism (meaning critical thought, evidence-based studies, and the like) to prove that I’m right? Absolutely not. Because my politics stem from personal value judgments at least as much as they stem from my knowledge about the world we live in.  And that’s why skepticism and feminism don’t make good bedfellows. Because skepticism is always questioning feminist ideology, and in the end, feminism is rarely satisfied.


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  • AngelaOne

    Excellent post, I have watched with dismay how the rationalist movement has been hijacked by ideologically driven pseudoscientific pseudo feminism, much like humanism was infiltrated by Marxists. I am a feminist. No one who considers him or her self a skeptic doesn’t also believe in equal rights. But what others describe as feminism isn’t feminism, it is far left (Marxist) ideology and has no place in the atheist and skeptic movements as something the thought police enforce!

    Also pseudo feminism articulated by this bunch of ideologues basically argues that women are helpless and shouldn’t be treated equally but instead be coddled, given special treatment, and is actually rather insulting to women.

  • Mika’il

    @Angelaone, great post! Speaking of Marxism, I would say that certain ares/circles of “freethought” have been hijacked by cultural marxism, which includes the radical feminist agenda of which Maria speaks.

  • It is rare that I thoroughly applaud anyone for anything, but this is perhaps one of the first doses of sense, on this subject matter, I have encountered yet.

    For my own part, there is little about feminism (that I know of) that I disagree with, although Maria is right to point out that “empirical verification” and “experiential validation” are oft times difficult to reconcile. Indeed, it was feminists who convinced me that the word “feminism” is itself harmful.

    Maria does a fine job of covering lot of ground in a few very well-chosen words and shows a deftness of clarity. The distinction between facts and values is of critical importance here.

    Well done, Maria.

  • Since apparently I missed both the wedding invite and the memo, I promptly put my foot in it by saying that adopting a particular branch of feminist theory without questioning it or looking for supporting evidence is not skeptical.

    Contrariwise to your assumption, perhaps many of the skeptics embracing this feminist theory are doing so because they have investigated the evidence. I agree with much (not all) of third-wave feminism because, well, the science supports it. (The general feminist stance against sexist humor, for example, is based on a strong consensus of research in the field.)

    • Please see my reply to TB below. I think it addresses most of your points as well.

  • TB

    Not to disagree all out with what’s been stated here, but there are several tracks of feminist thought that can actually be backed up by qualitative research to lend weight to those arguments. Prominent examples that come to mind include wage discrimination (income disparity or the old adage that a woman makes $0.71 to an equivalent man’s $1.00) and variability in violent crimes (domestic abuse issues for instance). Anyways, I’m not trying to say you don’t have some valid points, but there are definitely strains of feminism that can be taken on in the same manner in which you exercise skepticism.

    • I’m not making an assumption, since I have done more reading and studying in this area over the last year than I can put into a thousand blog posts.

      And I am not against feminism, and not against gender equality. But you can’t have gender equality when it’s convenient and male protection when it isn’t. As for legal remedies against discrimination, that’s what equity feminism is about. The freedom to choose your path in life? That’s what liberal feminism is about. The belief that women are strong? That’s what libertarian feminism is about. So how did a few people that shall remain nameless determine what *type* of feminism must be adopted by all secular women? And how is believing in your own oppression and victimization (which my life experiences do not support) going to help things?

      I also favor affirmative action as far as it goes. But don’t forget that those oft-cited wage gap numbers are both disputed and tempered by the fact that women work less hours and take time off to have children, leaving them behind in terms of promotions and the like. Single women without children are actually reported to make more than men (although there’s one study involving trans-people that contradicts that). There’s no real solace in that data, either, because women with children usually end up working two jobs: homemaker and professional. In general, I think some of these issues could be addressed through a mixed socialist economy, which I also support. But I don’t think they can be addressed with skepticism. All that skepticism can do is analyze the extent of the problem, and as soon as you start doing that and disputing various sets of numbers, you become a gender traitor or sister-shamer because you’re not “listening to the women,” whatever that means. The latest term I heard was “chill girl,” which sounds kinda cool, I guess. Not to mention a slew of horrid and rude names thrown at me that I refuse to bring up on my own blog — often in reference to my lack of intelligence and my mental and/or emotional health — traditionally sexist insults, some of which you can see if you look at my public Twitter or Facebook accounts, for example. Attacks by powerful men against me for standing my ground (including lies and emailed threats targeting my career); now that doesn’t sound very feminist, does it?

      What I’m really talking about here is feminist theory and not women’s rights, the latter of which I fully support. On the other hand, provide me with scientific evidence for privilege, patriarchy, and mansplaining as appropriate rebuttals to logical online arguments, and I’ll give you the internet. Also, I’d like to know of the correct punishment for thought crimes such as objectification and sexualization (the latter of which can mean merely noticing someone’s sex, according to the non-feminist dictionary). And finally, I’d like to know why I’m supposed to believe something that is completely contradictory to my own, real life experience and to that of most other women I know.

      Oh, and as a final thought, I don’t appreciate sexist jokes either, and have seen the studies indicating that they may be harmful. But the concepts I’m questioning have no evidence behind them because they are abstract, subjective, and in some cases flat-out wrong.

      • Right, Ed. Moreover, this is actually a significant issue in feminism/equal rights, and one that I believe deserves research and time (unlike propositions in elevators while going up *one* floor in a crowded hotel). For me, the problem is twofold: first, fields that are typically considered women’s work are undervalued, while fields that are typically male-dominated are overvalued. Think of male basketball players, for instance. Or high paying positions where women are barely represented at all — film directors, orchestra conductors, CEOs, and similar. Second, as I mentioned below, married women often end up working two jobs; they still end up doing the housework and childcare, which is work that doesn’t pay at all.

        Of course you can offset this by simply stating that women do most of the spending, which studies show is also true.

        These issues are complicated and far from black and white. And men aren’t to blame just because things are the way they are. To me the simple solution, as I’ve mentioned above, is a partially socialized economy with wage caps for extremely high earners. I think that at the moment, money is the best equalizer we have. But again, that goes to my left-leaning politics and not my skepticism, no matter how passionately I believe it to be true.

    • Edward Clint

      Actually, the citation of a wage gap has been harmful both to the understanding of sexism, and to the goals of feminism.

      1. The significance of a wage gap only establishes societal sexism under the premise that the cash value of a person’s work is the only important measure of life success, value, and happiness. Many people forego the chance for greater earnings because they, for example, love a certain satisfying but low-paying line of work. Others do so because they want to spend time with their loved ones, or live in their home town and not a distant city. Will you claim that because they failed to chase another dollar an hour, they must have been forced by society into that lifestyle? It is what you would be saying to women. Ironically, the virtue of making the maximum income is a typical male trait. It’s a certain kind of weirdness that we impose it on women, and decide that they must be oppressed not to have the preferences of males.

      Seen through this more nuanced lens, we can see that 100% pay parity between men and women could actually be evidence of oppression. It could mean that women are not free to make different choices than men. But then, without understanding preferences, the pay gap or lacktherof means nothing; and that’s if there actually was a sexism-born pay gap. Is there?

      2. Probably not much of one. A 2009 study commissioned by the Dept. of Labor explicitly designed to determine the reasons for the gender pay gap conclude, in part,

      “Although additional research in this area is clearly needed, this study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct. The differences in raw wages may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”

      This is not to say that working women do not face sexism- they do. The facts are that in the nation as a whole, compensation offers no evidence for it.

      I do agree with your broader point: facts should inform any progressivist agenda or moral stance. The pay gap might have been caused by sexism- there’s no way to be sure without careful study. Studies do document important evidences of gender discrimination and oppression, such as the higher rate of depression and eating disorders suffered by women. What’s more, we need insight from such studies to begin to design potential remedies, and subsequently, to try to figure out if they’re working.

      Scientists, not activists, are needed to do that part.

  • Mika’il

    On a more humorous note, here is a song by Merle Haggard that our radical feminist friends will love, especially the ones who complain about male privilege, mainly white male privilege.

  • coffeeinelevators

    Skeptical thought may be a fine tool to evaluate the claims of whether or not a person’s assertions does in fact have a logical argument behind it. However, sexism is in and of itself a non-logical series of attacks to maintain the status quo. Too, is feminism a mix of logical application and emotional reaction that cannot be examined by skepticism itself. It’s easy to discuss some aspects, such as wage discrepancy, but how is it possible to logically examine the claim that a convention should make women feel safe 24/7? So it is that a small group of aggressive people can play the “empowered victim” card and emotionally bully and pressure others into their cause, while successfully obsfucating some real issues that need addressing.

    • I agree with that. Skepticism is a method for evaluating claims, not a conclusion. It can’t evaluate feminism as a whole, because there are as many versions as there are feminists (it’s a bit like religion in that way), but it can evaluate, confirm or debunk a particular claim or dismiss the claim as something that can’t be evaluated via evidence-based analysis.

      I mean, how do you use skepticism to decide if it’s OK to ask a woman to coffee in an elevator? A few vocal women mind; many — like me — don’t. It’s not against the law; it’s not a huge breach of etiquette. So how is skepticism going to help a guy with that? The only light skepticism can shed on the issue is that an anecdote is not evidence, and the inconsistencies in RW’s story make it unlikely to have happened as described — not impossible — but especially given her post factum claim of face-blindness, nearly so.

  • SCH

    It appears that at the most basic level, the website you have cited is not trying to prove that one strain of feminism is correct. Its intent is to explain basic feminist theory using studies that exist in the academic world. Atheism, like feminism, is a theory that tries to explain an opinion. We have to admit, like almost all things, atheism is a theory. However, different strains of atheism exist as well and this website’s goal is to be skeptical about theories within atheism. Physics and science are hard sciences that help us with this, but we shouldn’t ignore the validity of soft sciences. For example, political science and sociology, can be used to satisfactorily descrive the world we live in and these explanations are vital to developing our world. To blatantly dismiss a new theory, is ignorant and hypocritical to your self-identification as a skeptic.

    • Show me the studies and evidence in support of this particular “theory” and I’ll consider it. So far all the assertions I disagree with have been either too nebulous and ambiguous to be meaningful or have been demonstrably false. And no particular theory has been presented other than the blanket statement that “women are oppressed by the patriarchy.” OK, how exactly are we being oppressed and why? Is being invited to coffee in an elevator an example of such oppression? I don’t feel oppressed. Do I have to pretend I feel that way because some “privileged” white men & women will call me names if I don’t? Rather than surrendering to victimhood and complaining ceaselessly, wouldn’t it be better if I took cues from the women who are successful, educated, assertive, and followed their example instead? Because there’s nothing stopping me from doing that.

      As for atheism, yes there are different types. But it mainly comes down to this question: Why don’t we believe in gods? Because there’s no evidence to support their existence, and because there’s plenty of evidence to contradict many religious claims (not to mention those religious claims that contradict other religious claims, w/in the same religion).

      Why don’t I believe in many of the assertions made by the militant 3rd wave atheist feminists? Because there’s no evidence to support them.

      See how this works? Those who make positive assertions must present evidence for their claims rather than calling those who disagree with them horrible names. And those who make unsupported assertions shouldn’t be forcing them on others.

  • Copyleft

    The attempted merger of leftist politics and skepticism is especially distressing to me because I’m a leftist myself. I _agree_ with a lot of the opinions and attitudes expressed by many skeptics on equality, racism, care for the poor, war, etc.

    But I DON’T claim that these positions are inherently tied to rationalism or skepticism, because they’re not. Skepticism does not require agreement with feminism, or environmentalism, or liberalism, or any other political agendas. It’s only about religion and superstition, nothing more.

    To see people I otherwise agree with using bad arguments to reach their conclusions, and try to hijack skepticism in the process, is frustrating to me. I suddenly sympathize with those religious scientists held up by creationists as “proof that religious belief is scientifically correct.”

    • That is exactly my position as well. We can also examine falsifiable assertions made by pundits and politicians, but that’s as far as we can go. And we can’t force our views on others, or try to bully them into believing as we do.

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  • Stephan Brun

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I have been following the antics of the radfems for a thirty-year period, trying to piece together where it went wrong. It seems the radfems hijacked academe in the early seventies, because the humanities were, of all things, strongly anti-scientific postmodernists and very welcoming to feminist theory. And the radfems had a theory ready, so it got adopted. Once in academe, they entrenched themselves in the women’s studies classes. I almost took one of those in 1990, would have given me quite a shock. The latter part is documented by Hoff Sommers.

    The postmodernists received quite a blow with the Sokal Hoax, and were forced to abandon many of the worst philosophers, but didn’t quite manage to set their house in order, not realising that all their previous theories needed retesting. So we are still stuck with a mess created fifty or more years ago. And not all of it feminist either. The field of philosophy has enormous problems.

    • bluharmony

      You hit the nail on the head.

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