Laura Waters' Click Bait Women in Science Article Is Trying To Get Us to Argue About Feminism

Gah! I'm so tired of the recent onslaught of articles about whether or not someone is a feminist (and if they are, are they right kind of feminist?!?!) From speculation about Susan Sarandon and Taylor Swift to the recent brouhaha over the "sex-negative" feminist over at xoJane, it seems like there's a new article meant to drum up "F word" related controversy every few days.

Don't get me wrong. I am a fierce, avowed feminist and I love to hear about differing ideas in relation to both the terminology of feminism and to what feminism is actually doing in the world. I think it's great that there's a lot of discussion about the different stripes, different meanings, of feminism in the blogosphere. There's no one way to be a feminist, after all, although I do like to think there should be a few clear commonalities... you know, stuff like supporting equal political, social, and economic rights for women.

I used to read every new essay that even mentioned feminism, even occasionally reading the comment sections (which are, pretty much uniformly, the place where rational, nuanced discussion goes to die). But I can't bring myself to read everything in this burgeoning discourse anymore because well, the discourse is getting too damn big... and too damn click bait-y. I don't mean the content that's being produced by explicitly feminist websites like Feministing, Flyover Feminism, or Everyday Feminism. I mean the articles that appear on "mainstream" websites or news outlets, many of which seem to be blatantly written and placed in order to generate controversy and pageviews. This ever-growing crop of articles isn't contributing to the overall movement, it's merely providing a means for publications to up their online clout and show some good numbers to their advertisers.

The latest example of this blatant feminist trolling by online publications: Laura Waters' article in The Guardian expressing why she's an "equalist" and not a feminist. Gigantic sigh.

Waters' thesis is basically that she's a scientist and that she believes other scientists should be judged on their work and not on their sex. Well, ok. I'm not going to argue with that, if that's her view... but I'm not really going to say that her idea is inherently anti-feminist, either. She's chosen to argue with some kind of strange straw man (straw woman?) feminist, seemingly laboring under the assumption that feminists want women to excel in the sciences merely because they have vaginas. More vaginas in labs, everyone! Isn't that one of the chief goals of feminism? As I understand it, anyway, feminism has many, many additional concerns aside from women in the sciences, causes like reproductive justice and autonomy, equal pay, and more. By limiting the definition of feminism to the belief that feminists think women should get awesome jobs just because they're women, Waters' essay shows that she's (willfully?) misunderstanding, even cherrypicking, what feminism actually is and actually does.

Weirdly, Waters' goes on to assert over and over again that female scientists and academics need additional support to excel — from society, from their employers, and from their partners. She says, "Far more could still be done in universities to help encourage women to stay and succeed, some have childcare on campus, some have flexible working hours policies, yet lots of the women I know are still 'choosing' between a career and parenting rather than trying to do both, so clearly more support is needed." That actually sounds like a pretty feminist viewpoint, no?

Waters continues, "...there is still far from equal gender representation in academia, especially in subjects such as chemistry and engineering. I am fully devoted to promoting science to women as a great career choice and I honestly believe we need more women at all levels in science, but that is because I am an 'equalist', not a feminist."

So, OK. She believes that there should be equal representation of men and women in the sciences, she believes that female professionals need support, and she thinks that programs like Athena Swan (which is devoted to advancing women's careers in STEM academia) are necessary. Yet she's not a feminist?

And thus, I come back to my original point, which is that articles like Waters' are not intended to further the discourse about what feminism is or what it means to be a feminist in today's world. Waters' essay clearly hinges on her own personal preference for the word "equalist" rather than "feminist," rather than any real disconnect from the goals and ideologies of mainstream feminism. (Waters' reluctance to use the term feminist when it seems pretty clear that that's what her beliefs are in line with is a topic for another post entirely).

Basically, Waters' essay is another rock tossed into the pool of online feminist arguing, meant to disturb the surface for a few days, not to actually generate meaningful discussion or set forth a viewpoint that's radical or challenging. It's a poorly-disguised excuse to get people talking, writing rebuttal posts (Hey, like this one! Guess it worked!) and tweeting the link in outrage.

And that's why I'm so damn tired of essays like Waters'. Hers is particularly pointless and transparent in terms of its goals and its scope, that's true. Still, it's far from the first of its kind and it certainly won't be the last.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe all these "Is she a feminist or isn't she?" and "Here's my controversial brand of feminism/not feminism" essays are really and truly meant to contribute to the larger cause of advancing women's rights in our society. Maybe they actually do it, too. I can't say for sure whether the rhetoric is effective or whether it's just that: rhetoric.

Either way, there's a lot of feminist work to be done that doesn't involve manufactured online controversy. Look at Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, and other states where women's reproductive rights are under attack. Women and minorities are still vastly underrepresented in the media, anti-rape posters are being illegally revised in Canada, and Chinese women's rights activist Ye Haiyan has been forced out of her home. We feminists can't fix everything, but it's becoming obvious that engaging in faux feminist feuding online isn't going to fix anything.

Photo: Plutor on Flickr