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The Problem with Labels

April 2, 2011

As our world struggles for equality and searches for answers of not only how to find it, but when we know we’ve reached it, and also how to label such a struggle, the lines are often blurred. When reading John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, Mill’s strong pro-women stance stands out as a radical view, coming from 1869 Britain. And while I jump to call him an early feminist, I’m a bit hesitant to attach such a label. At the beginning of the essay he states:

“… the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality” (Mill, The Subordination of Women, chapter 1).

By establishing his initial goal behind his stance as “perfect equality,” he doesn’t seem to want female equality because of its injustice, but merely because it’s hindering “human improvement.” After reading his essay, On Liberty, it’s clear this concept of societal progress drives his aspirations. So in this sense, is Mill really a feminist? Or just someone searching for progress that sees female equality as a means to reach at that goal? And ultimately, does that difference even matter?

In terms of men and feminism, there is still debate to whether men can fully attach such a label. According to Brian Klocke:

“Although I believe that men can be pro-feminist and anti-sexist, I do not believe we can be feminists in the strictest sense of the word in today’s society. Men, in this patriarchal system, cannot remove themselves from their power and privilege in relation to women. To be a feminist one must be a member of the targeted group (i.e a woman) not only as a matter of classification but as having one’s directly-lived experience inform one’s theory and praxis” (Brian Klocke; http://www.nomas.org/node/122).

I found this idea especially thought provoking: Can someone be a proponent of an equality group without being a “member of the targeted group?”

The following video is from the 2005 National Youth Poetry Slam Finals, a contrast of opinions from those of Klocke’s.

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