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Dirty feminism

You can’t have feminism without femaleness

Artillery Row

Should universities — hallowed places of learning, temples of the mind — allow themselves to be contaminated by the presence of females? What if their passive, bovine intellects were to slow the lively exchange of ideas? What if their inferior morals should poison the purity of free enquiry? What if, God forbid, they were to menstruate all over the books?

Alas, such questions are moot. That ship has sailed; the uterus-owning masses are already in there, ovulating in libraries, having periods in seminars, gestating babies in degree ceremonies (I happened to be eight months pregnant for mine). At this point it would be difficult — unless, say, you were the Taliban — to turf them out again. The best you can hope for is that they keep quiet about their femaleness, lest it offend. 

Anti-female feminism feels purer and neater

It appears some women — we used to call them feminists; now we call them TERFs — have not got the message. In a report compiled by lawyers and academics at Garden Court Chambers and the University of Essex, it’s been found that certain groups have been making a nuisance of themselves by organising on the basis of — urgh! — being female. This is bad not just because a female-centric event might cause distress to attendees expecting something more pleasantly penis-focused. “The hosting of an unwanted event,” the report notes, “would contaminate student life for hundreds if not thousands of people.”

Hundreds, if not thousands! This is because “the distress would be felt in the contamination of a part of the University which holds a particular emotional value to certain staff and students”. Such people might have to face the trauma of going somewhere, knowing that female people once stood there centring femaleness, minus the purifying presence of someone male. 

They may be reminded of Leviticus 15:20: “Everything [a woman] lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean. Or perhaps Saint Clement of Alexandria: “For women, the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.

It’s one thing to let women study on the basis that not all women are filthy menstruators, quite another to allow them to congregate in order to talk about shared biology. It’s a step away from having them free bleed all over the lecture hall. 

This trend towards contamination is not confined to higher education. On the contrary, a recent article by Jennifer Horgan in the Irish Examiner decries the flourishing of “dirty” feminism. By this, she means a feminism that prioritises the class of people once known as “the Devil’s gateway”. In its place, she advises, is needed “true feminism, the non-dirty kind”, which naturally includes the class of people who aren’t so impure and defective. 

In arguing this, I suspect Horgan genuinely believes she is just “being inclusive”. To her and others, it may seem coincidental that the language of dirt, contamination and stigma just so happens to be directed at women who seek out spaces in which to centre female bodies and lives. Shame at femaleness can be so deeply ingrained that fighting against those who embrace it can become its own moral crusade. It does not surprise me that for many women, an anti-female feminism feels purer and neater than the messy, leaky, corporeally-bound alternative. 

If you don’t think too hard, this all sounds wonderful

For them, as a movement, feminism is brilliant — the only thing letting it down is femaleness itself. Feminism is clean, pristine progress; female bodies are regressive and impure. The best feminism (like the best definition of “woman”) dispenses with the dead weight of female biology.

Right now, young women are being told that their salvation lies in a movement which, rather than challenge the idea that female people are physically, morally and intellectually inferior, chooses to cut ties with femaleness altogether. As though, if we insist that “feminism is for everyone” and “women’s rights are human rights”, the be-wombed, menstruating sub-class might get to sneak in under the radar and blend in with the real humans. If you squint a bit and don’t think too hard, this all sounds wonderful. In truth, it is anything but.

For most of my life, I’ve been aware of people disguising the view that female people are disgusting, inferior beings. After all, it remains possible to treat them as such without saying it out loud. You quietly exclude them from the places that matter, feed them lies about “different roles”, pretend the harm inflicted on their bodies is random. The underlying beliefs about what women are and what they are for do not change. The difference today is that so-called “inclusion” narratives — ones which demand that female people accommodate and include male people at all times — make them more obvious. 

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal describes how “when legitimating the patriarchy, one is almost always referred back to the body”:

To be human is to subordinate the body to the intellect, and woman was not thought capable of doing this, and therefore she shouldn’t have human rights either, society reasoned. Woman became “body” so man could be “soul”.

When male people claim to be women, we do not decide that they, too, are creatures who lack souls. On the contrary, here at last are women who are worthy of liberation. We lower, baser creatures, the old-style women, are supposed to be grateful. What better way to cleanse the category “woman” of the taint of femaleness? We no longer have to think about uteruses, vaginas, dulled intellects or absent souls when asked what a woman is. Women are now fully human — apart from when they are menstruators, gestators, chest-feeders, bit-part service providers. Why have a movement just for them, the terminally unclean? 

Visceral disgust for female bodies is what real misogyny looks like

I have never known a time when people have been so open about how little they think of my half of the human race. When I was born, it was no longer possible — apart, perhaps, from in the most extremist religious circles — to express open revulsion for anyone born female. Now it is happening in plain sight. Suggest that women are adult human females and you will be told this reduces women to “baby-making machines”(because that’s all adult human females are). I am, somehow, supposed to feel honoured that I am allowed to be a woman on the basis of some criterion other than this baby-making machine-ness. I don’t know what this criterion is, but then I wouldn’t. The women who aren’t baby-making machines — the ones with souls — are the experts on that. 

I know it is considered old-fashioned to point out that this deep, visceral disgust for female bodies is what real misogyny looks like. It will, after all, draw attention to the fact that I have a female body myself, and with it, a mind that is supposedly not up to the task of assessing what misogyny is. If I were more like Jennifer Horgan, I could purify myself by renouncing the “dirt” of a female-centred feminism. There is no point in this, though. 

A feminism that has re-absorbed the idea that female people are filthy and impure, recasting the cleansing of any spaces they might contaminate as “inclusion”, is no feminism at all. A feminism which has bought into Tertullian’s dictum that “woman is a temple built over a sewer” — one that relies on male people, the pure temples, to make women worth saving — is utterly worthless. 

We are not inferior, nor are we unclean. If you can’t bring yourself to say that, you are not a feminist, clean, dirty or otherwise. 

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