When the #MeToo moment began in earnest last October, many women felt optimistic, galvanised; others felt uncomfortable.
Some feminists urged caution; others wanted the reckoning to go further.
The #MeToo moment and its backlash made it clear that there really was a divide among feminists, but analysis of that divide cast it as a mere catfight . . .
This is a mistake. A closer look at the arguments being made by these two camps reveals a deeper, more serious intellectual rift. What’s really at play is that feminism has come to contain two distinct understandings of sexism, and two wildly different, often incompatible ideas of how that problem should be solved. One approach is individualist, hard-headed, grounded in ideals of pragmatism, realism and self-sufficiency. The other is expansive, communal, idealistic and premised on the ideals of mutual interest and solidarity. The clash between these two kinds of feminism has been starkly exposed by #MeToo, but the crisis is the result of shifts in feminist thought that have been decades in the making.
The central claim of the anti-#MeToo feminists is that the movement does not treat individual women as moral agents with the capacity to say no, to enjoy and pursue sex, and to do wrong.
This thinking partakes in a long moral tradition – one that’s highly compatible with capitalism – in which personal responsibility, independence, and willingness to withstand hardship are revered as particularly valuable virtues.
On the other hand, there is the #MeToo movement.
By saying “me too”, an individual woman makes herself a part of a broader group, and chooses to stand with others who have been harassed, assaulted or raped. This solidarity is powerful.
Call it, then, a conflict between “individualist” and “social” feminisms.
Again, this is an old debate: whether feminism’s aim should be to transform society, or to better equip individual women to navigate within it.