Recognizing Women On The Far Side of Complexity

by cv harquail on April 6, 2011

I’m getting a bit weary of talking about “women” and having some people assume that I’m only talking about “women”.

Recognize that when I use the term “women”, I am consciously talking about “women” on the far side of complexity.

The Far Side of Complexity

The “far side of complexity” is one of my favorite concepts. Contrasting “simplicity” with “simplicity on the far side of complexity” helps us recognize how we often use the same word to label two very different understandings of a category, variable, element, or system. And, it helps us recognize how easy it is to assume – wrongly – that someone is being simplistic and not complex in her thinking.

I find this problem of assuming the wrong side of complexity coming up again and again as I participate in online and face-to-face conversations about applying feminism to the business and social world.

Who do you assume “women” are?

im a feminist now what.jpg Sometimes, when I use the word “women” on this blog, on other blogs, and in conversation, some people assume that I’m referring only to “women” who are white, able bodied, cisgendered, US-based, and upper-middle class. They assume that I am ignoring the racioethnic, class, orientation, ability, and other dimensions of human difference that also compose a sexist system.

Worse, when someone assumes that I’m using the term “women” simplistically, they also assume that I am coming from a blind, unacknowledged, place of unearned social privilege. They assume I am only in the feminist conversation to help myself and women just like me. Then, they pounce on me for being inauthentically feminist, and tell me to stop talking. At which point I want to say, WTF?

Was that feminist?

This dynamic is not just happening to me; I see it happening to other conversants too. But here let me just talk about my own experience. And, let me note that this doesn’t happen often– but when it does happen, it can be profoundly painful.

Presumptions and Assumptions

I expect that this assumption is made because I “present” as (or “look like”) a white, cis-gendered, upper middle class, able bodied woman. A woman with this kind of social & economic profile is just the type of woman who’d supposedly make the categorical mistake of taking her own experience as a woman to be representative of all women’s experience. (Indeed, this type of woman is the kind of woman who historically did make that mistake.)

But, if we assume that a woman, any woman or a woman of a certain type, is automatically sexist in a certain way simply because of the categories she seems to inhabit, that’s actually a form of (anti-feminist) stereotyping. And, it engenders a dynamic that stops feminist conversation and social change in its tracks.

“Gotcha” Feminism

Anti-feminist stereotyping of other women, and the presumption of their lack of feminist enlightenment, inspires a dynamic in feminist conversations that I think of as “gotcha feminism”.

Gotcha feminism is a conversational posture that’s focused on catching someone being wrong and then turning the conversation to focus on her wrongness and her lack of adequate feminist consciousness. It’s a conversational posture that is rarely instructive but always punitive. It is a dynamic that prevents connection, thwarts alliance building, and stops our collective progress.

Gotcha feminism is a ‘holier than thou’ dynamic that aims to tell some women that they are not good enough to participate in the feminist conversation.

“Not feminist enough”

The idea that someone is not feminist enough suggests two other assumptions that inhibit social change. The first assumption is that there are defined levels of feminism -- that there is some progression where you are a better person and more valuable to the conversation if you are somehow further along on your journey.

While there may be different “stages” of feminist consciousness, there is no single path through them that is more valid than other paths.

The second assumption is that everyone is starting from the same place. Each person starts from her or his own place in the world (or standpoint), and branches out from there. Some people will begin their journeys from concerns that aren’t explicitly about gender dynamics and sex-based distinctions. They may frame their social justice understanding in terms of racial injustice, ableism, colonialism, social class, or hetero-”normativity”, just to name a few.

However, it doesn’t matter where you begin, or where you are. It matters that you’ve begun and that you are still on the journey.

If we believe that a feminist perspective is something we learn, we must expect that different people will be at different places in their own authentic journeys.

Commitment, not category, is what matters.

I also notice that the people making this assumption, that a white, able-bodied, cisgendered, upper-middle class woman only thinks of “women” as including people like herself, are more often than not relatively new to their own feminist journey, and are also more likely than not younger than me. No offense intended to my younger, super-aware and firmly committed colleagues — it’s just a correlation, not a cause.

Personally, where the age thing matters is not where you are coming from but instead where you think I’m coming from. Don’t you think that after 40 plus years of identifying as a feminist, I might have learned a thing or two about feminism in general and my own privilege in particular? Or about who “women” are, in all our complexity?

At the very least, if I’m going to be stereotyped by what I look like or how I present, the visible indication of my age should trigger a different assumption about where I might be on my journey of social consciousness.

More importantly, though, is that we take each person’s entry into the conversation as an indication of their interest in – and maybe their commitment to – learning more about making our work, home and world more just.

  • Instead of getting ready to pounce, we should be ready to support.
  • Instead of being primed to criticize, we should be prepared to learn.

We should encourage everyone who genuinely wants to participate, not act like self-appointed arbiters of who’s good enough to play.

The Feminist Conversation is Changing

At one point in our US feminist history, the idea that “women” should refer to more than one subset of “women” was an ‘aha’ for a large & influential group of active self-identified feminists. These days, though, if you’ve spent any time in the feminist conversation, one of the first things you learn is that “women” is not just some small group of women who are all alike (and all like you or not like you). You get this lesson in Women Studies 101, by week two if not sooner.

I wonder if too many feminist conversants are mired in the past, taking our analysis of the wrongs of “first and second wave” feminism and re-inscribing these dynamics on a different current world. Even before the term “intersectionality” was coined in the late 1980s, the feminist conversation was moving to embrace the complexity of “women” — how women are different and what “women” share.

Now, we should enter our conversations with each other understanding that ‘women’ is a broad, meta-category — a category on a farther side of complexity.

This is not to say that everyone ‘gets it’ and uses the term “women” intentionally to refer to all “women”. And, it is not to say that we no longer need to learn how our own experience is neither universal nor exclusive. But it is to say–

Let’s put the Gotcha Feminism aside. Let’s start from a different place.

Extend a generous interpretation. Wait until some other (feminist) actually demonstrates racism, classism, parochialism, or some other form of blind or claimed privilege before you impute it to her.

There’s simplicity. And there’s simplicity of the far side of complexity.

Let’s stop assuming that “women” is used in a simplistic way. Let’s start giving each other credit for understanding the complexity of the work we are doing together.


“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

See also: The (Feminist) Business Bloggers’ Lament

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