As a rule, I don't expect much feminist insight from Wikileaks co-founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange. This isn't solely due to the fact that since 2012, Assange has lived in London's Ecuadorean Embassy in order to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault accusations (which he has denied) — though, of course, that's part of it. But beyond that, Assange has never seemed very interested in weighing in on feminist thought throughout his career as a public figure — which is why I was especially caught off guard when he tweeted on Monday night comparing Hillary Clinton's loss in the 2016 U.S. election to Marine Le Pen's loss in last week's French election, and then attributed both losses to "the patriarchy's grip."
The tweet is instantly shocking because the comparison is, well, ridiculous — Clinton ran as a centrist Democrat, and Le Pen ran as part of the National Front, a far right party that pushes an anti-immigration agenda; to me, Clinton and Le Pen have about as much in common as Senator Kamala Harris and an egg salad sandwich filled with shards of glass. But the tweet also packs a punch because it provides an insight into an insidious trend — the trend of defining feminism as simply "women supporting women," because you believe that women have nothing to offer but their "womanhood."
First Hillary, now Marine. It's 2017 and the patriarchy's grip is as strong as ever.— Julian Assange (@JulianAssange) May 9, 2017
Recently, there's been a great spate of people who have decided they get to define feminism when it's convenient for them — like Tomi Lahren, Kellyanne Conway, and Ivanka Trump. Many of these people, like Lahren and Conway, mostly have negative things to say about feminism; but a common thread in their criticisms and definitions of feminism is the idea that feminism is about "women supporting all other women."
As a lifelong feminist, this trend had puzzled me — like, it didn't work to trick us into supporting Sarah Palin in 2008, so why try to trot it out again now? But reading Assange's tweet last night, it occurred to me that there may be more to these faux definitions of feminism than just attempts to confuse the public; it's likely that some folks who define feminism as women supporting all women genuinely believe that that's what feminism is — and they believe it because they believe that women are worthless. In this kind of thinking, women are interchangeable, have nothing to say, and offer no reason for anyone to support them besides their inherent "femaleness," whatever that means (which is why it makes perfect sense that this line of thinking doesn't acknowledge the fact that anyone who doesn't identify as a woman could still consider themselves a feminist).
The true intention of feminism will be restored when women stop bringing each other down out of jealousy, pettiness and self righteous BS.— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) January 3, 2017
Lahren, of course, has long made a habit of invoking "feminism" whenever women don't support en masse another woman who is pushing an agenda that is focused on taking away the rights of many people. See, for example, Lahren's reaction to the wide-spread feminist disdain for Trump administration counselor Kellyanne Conway:
In fact, Conway herself has busted out similar rhetoric — despite the fact that she said that feminism “seems to be very anti-male, and it certainly is very pro-abortion, and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion.” Conway claimed in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past February that women who oppose the Trump administration “just have a problem with women in power.” Because women in power don't push specific ideas or agendas with that power, the comment seems to imply; they're simply a blank slate labeled "Woman," subbing in for all those interchangeable women around the world. You either love all women with power or hate all women with power — because the actual beliefs and actions of women mean nothing.
Similarly, a January op-ed by Clare Venegas in the Orange County Register, entitled "To Be Feminist Means To Support All Women," held that the true purpose of the Women's March should have been to give literally all women a platform for their beliefs, no matter what they may be, rather than supporting a specific political agenda. As Venegas wrote, "If the march is really about protecting women and defending the marginalized, you would think that groups behind the march would support all women, including women with different political perspectives." Venegas closes the essay by claiming "To actually be feminist means to support women regardless of their political perspectives."
To the feminists, this is an all girl television team so you're not the only ones in the "empowerment" business pic.twitter.com/gOlBUKfgUa— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) November 20, 2016
Of course, anyone who's spent any time reading or thinking about feminism knows that that is not true; even Merriam-Webster defines "feminism" as "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes," not "the act of supporting all other women, even those who labor happily to take away what you consider essential human rights." Jennifer Wright's fantastic Harper's Bazaar piece, "Feminism Doesn't Mean Liking Every Stupid Woman You Meet," digs at this false feminism, which replaces meaningful political demands with dead-eyed "support" for any other woman. Wright notes that
Reading Wright's essay last week, I recognized the phenomenon she was talking about, but still felt puzzled by the philosophies fueling it. At the time, I believed that people pushing this line were just trying to cash in on a philosophy they neither believed in nor understood, just because it's trendy right now.
I still believe that that's a factor. But reading Assange's tweet Monday night, it occurred to me that if you believe that women are worthless — if you believe that women have nothing to offer the world, that their minds are empty and their words meaningless — then of course you'd believe that feminism is just about women blindly supporting other women. After all, if you believe that no woman individually offers a thought or philosophy worth supporting, how is supporting one any different than supporting the other?
In the worldview of Assange's tweet, Clinton and Le Pen are pretty much interchangeable. That idea makes no sense to anyone who thinks that a woman has individual worth created by her values, expertise, skills, or ideas — but it makes perfect sense if you believe that women are nothing, that no woman has anything to offer the world except her vague, diffuse "femaleness," and thus, any one should be as good as the other.
In the worldview of Assange's tweet, Clinton and Le Pen are pretty much interchangeable. That idea makes no sense to anyone who thinks that a woman has individual worth created by her values, expertise, skills, or ideas — but it makes perfect sense if you believe that women are nothing, that no woman has anything to offer the world except her vague, diffuse 'femaleness,' and thus, any one should be as good as the other.
These pundits who pull this move always frame it as an attempted "gotcha" — "Surely if you were a REAL feminist, you'd back a woman with a blatant racist agenda, right? If you were a REAL feminist, you'd hold the act of supporting an individual woman above working to get greater rights and freedoms for the vast majority of women, right? REAL feminism is just about being obsessed with supporting literally every single woman, right?" What this kind of thinking misses, of course, is that feminism has nothing to do with women blindly supporting other women — a mistake you can only make when you believe that no woman ever does anything genuinely meriting support, and that unilateral support in the media is the only right a woman could possibly be missing.
Because it's impossible to miss that this "supporting all women" rhetoric always focuses on supporting women who are already powerful, as Wright notes — the "all women" we're supposed to be focused on lifting up are never poor women, or Muslim women, or trans women, or disabled women. They're women who already have massive cultural capital — yet for some reason, giving them a soapbox to oppress many other women is supposed to be a "feminist act" in a way that standing up for women with less power than you somehow isn't.
I mean, this isn't actually confusing; saying that supporting Kellyanne Conway is a more pressing feminist issue than supporting, say, pay equity is a lie that's not going to trick many people who already identify as feminists. Similalry, I don't believe that many feminists were persuaded by Ivanka Trump's claim that her father is one. But just because this line of thinking isn't fooling many who already identify as feminists doesn't mean it doesn't matter.
Because I believe that no matter the motivation pundits have for saying this, it has one awful real world impact: their words can confuse people. Likely not people who already identify as feminists, but people who haven't spent time or energy learning about feminism; people who are misinformed or just under-educated about feminism. Assange, Lahren, and Conway may not be feminist icons, but they're huge political and media figures, and their ideas about what is and isn't feminism may have as much, if not more, reach and impact than the thoughts of actual feminist activists.
As my colleague EJ Dickson wrote of Ivanka Trump's many forays into faux feminist rhetoric, "In theory, feminism is supposed to be about the disruption of male power, about joining with your sisters in arms to dismantle the patriarchy, brick by brick. Ivanka is the woman putting the bricks back together, ensuring they don’t topple. And she is doing this at a time when we desperately need that tower to crumble." If pundits can get to people who know little about feminism, and teach them that feminism is a pointless exercise in women massaging each other's egos, a way for privileged women to further prop up their privilege, or a literally impossible proposition like "supporting all women simultaneously," they make the work of actual feminists that much harder. If people learn that feminism is nothing but hollow "girl power," of course many of them will be turned off; and the time spent correcting that misimpression could have been spent agitating for actual feminist goals like paid family leave, economic equality, or reproductive autonomy. It's a trap, with no clear solution; and the fact that feminists like me fall for it again and again might be the most insidious part.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated from its original form to remove a quote from Assange reported by The Australian.