Feminists Are Only Human

It takes only customs to engrave certain values in the minds of individuals who do not voluntarily reflect on them from time to time. Even in this high tech age, there are still some males who suffer knee-jerk repulsion towards anything that remotely sounds like the idea of women’s liberation, or feminism, including all inherent nuances and underlying meanings. We still see the tyranny of customs at work, especially in our Chinese society.

Specifically, I am referring to a derisive remark made by the columnist regarding the late Michael Foot’s marriage to feminism historian Jill Craigie (the comment was something like “how could he have deigned to marry such a woman?”). It is a well known fact that he is an ardent admirer of Jin Yong, the famous novelist who made his mark by the creation of womanizing martial arts hero characters in his novels, which may well explain the columnist’s sentiments towards feminists. He could, of course, have been satirical only. I hope he was, and I am thankful for his narrative describing the life and times of the respected leftist British politician, who was hitherto unknown to me.

In my humble view, Foot could not have picked a more compatible mate. Of all people, true champions of social justice and equality, as numbered as they are and Foot being one of them, are the ones who can truly understand women’s oppressed condition in a world that was decreed by men. Most men, out of absorption with their own self-interests, are just content to let the status quo be and to turn a blind eye to the plight of women in their own communities or elsewhere. Labeling all women who have the slightest tendency to fight for the rights of their lot as repugnant feminists is one way of averting the burden of reflection on the inexorably disadvantaged position women are in, and thus avoiding the conscientious responsibility to right an age-old social and custom wrong.

Many liberal thinkers have rightly equated women’s subordination to the subjugation of black slaves, of weak minorities, of peasants, of grassroots, by society’s more powerful lot. In his idealistic drive to liberate and empower the enslaved, Foot was actually fighting for a woman’s cause as much as he was fighting a political and social battle for equality. His romantic attachment and commitment to a feminism supporter was thus entirely humanistic and natural. I just don’t see how the columnist could have failed to understand the simple rationale here (smiley).

Perhaps men’s hypocrisy and selfishness is no more aptly described than by John Stuart Mill in his essay “The Subjection of Women”, which heralded one concise observation of Simone de Beauvoir’s - that a woman was not born a woman, but becomes one.

“All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more from them than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of other. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have — those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man.”

The tyranny of Chinese customs, many of which are deduced from Confucian dogmatism, in particular that relating to women’s subordination to men (在家從父, 出嫁從夫, 老來從子) (“a woman has to obey her father in her maidenhood, her husband in married life and her son in her old age”), has undoubtedly contributed to the perpetuation of women’s conditions as described above (the essay was written in 1869), and has been the cause of centuries of unspeakable painful sufferings and enslavement of Chinese women, against a backdrop of males abusing their power collectively and individually. Isn’t this exactly what has caused the Chinese/Hong Kong society to still linger in dinosaurian age in terms of education and moral values, as most vividly described in the mainland TV series “Dwelling Narrowness” (蝸居) and in the Hong Kong TVB soap series “The Gem of Life” (珠光寶氣)?

Any breakthrough in the ongoing fight for women’s liberation, like the ongoing fight for social justice and equality, in both Hong Kong and China, depends a lot on whether society (both men and women) is willing to seriously reflect on the obnoxious status quo, understand the underlying causes and have the will to do something to bring about progress and change.

A woman must learn to be responsible for her own autonomy and interests, just like an individual must be responsible for his/her own free will and choice of actions. Being responsible means bearing the consequences. Choices and liberty inevitably carry with them costs and obligations. But until females consciously attain true liberation with the full support and understanding of their male counterparts, and until individuals can enjoy full human rights and free political choices, our society cannot be said to have progressed an inch.

Reading Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” may help with the understanding part.