Gynocentrism and its Discontents
Feminism and gynocentrism
Feminism focuses on women. It focuses on women’s perspectives, interests, rights, and victimization. In other words, it is gynocentric (literally, “woman-centered”). And there is nothing inherently wrong with that. That being said, there are ways in which gynocentrism can go horribly wrong.
I am starting a series of posts on gynocentrism from the premise that feminism is gynocentric, either by the definitions that feminists give, or by their works. If the gynocentric nature of feminism isn’t obvious to everyone, then I’m happy to back up.
Types of gynocentrism
Feminism didn’t invent gynocentrism. There is a heavily gynocentric tinge to some versions of paternalism and conservative attitudes that focus on protecting women. Feminism, however, took gynocentrism to a new level. Feminists not only focused on women’s victimization, they also focus on women’s perspective and experience. (One possible exception is postmodern versions of feminism that explicitly deny the meaningfulness of the category “Woman.” Aside from finding these versions of feminism to play dishonest semantic games, my intuition is that they engage in their own covert forms of gynocentrism.)
In What Good is Gynocentrism, I argued that feminist gynocentrism isn’t inherently unjust, and that it can have the side-effect of benefitting men. In this post, I discuss how the ways that feminists’ focus on women’s interests can be problematic. There is a short distance between focusing on women’s interests, and marginalizing men’s interests. Feminists often step over this line. As Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young argue, “even though misandry is not an inherent feature of gynocentrism, it is an inherent possibility.”1
I’m not saying that all, or necessary most feminists step over the line; I make no speculation about the proportion of feminists who fall into misandric versions of gynocentrism. I’m more interested in criticizing those versions when they appear.
How could gynocentrism go wrong?
Gynocentrism, as practiced by feminism2, entails a focus on women’s experiences, rights, needs, and victimization. That is because women have experienced—and currently experience—violations of their rights, denial of their human needs, and victimization at the hands of males, of each other, and of society.
Once feminist women figured out all the ways that women were getting the short end of the stick, they were justifiably pissed off. They concluded that they were oppressed, and that men were privileged. Many feminists went even further, and saw men as the “oppressor class” towards women. The ways in which men were getting the short end of the stick were typically not considered.
The odious “comparative suffering” argument
And here is where gynocentrism started going wrong. These feminist women were correct to identify victimization, denial of rights, and oppression of women. The mistake was in concluding that in general, men were “less” disadvantaged in society than women, simply because men weren’t necessarily disadvantaged in the ways that women were. This conclusion presupposes some metric or scale on which women’s disadvantages weigh heavier.
However, to weigh one thing against another, you need to know the weight of both. Yet feminists only had an idea of the weight of women’s victimization. Since, as part of gynocentrism, they examined only women’s experiences, and not men’s experiences, they had no idea of what disadvantages, harms, and violations of rights that men were experiencing. This ignorance did not stop those feminists. They placed women’s oppression on one side of the scale, watched the balance tip, and concluded that women’s oppression weighed heavier. Men’s oppression never made it onto the scale.
Nathanson and Young have called this attitude “comparative suffering,” and indepedently, Daran called it the “Odious Comparison.”
Through their gynocentric lens, feminists figured out that women were suffering, and that the agents of that suffering were often male. Yet some of these feminists committed two fallacies. The first fallacy was to assume that if men were oppressors under the gender system, they could not be oppressed by it. The second fallacy was to paint men in general as victimizers and abusers of women. The attitude towards men became very dualistic; as Nathanson and Young argue:
The worldview of ideological feminism, like that of both Marxism and National Socialism—our analogies are between ways of thinking, not between specific ideas—is profoundly dualistic. In effect, “we” (women) are good, “they” (men) are evil. Or, to use the prevalent lingo, “we” are victims, “they” are oppressors.”3
The focus of feminism
In this way, gynocentrism slid into the tendencies for some feminists to focus on the experience, needs, and victimization of women, along with the oppressiveness, privileges, violence, and sexism of men. Simultaneously, this type of feminist discourse ignored or downplayed the experience, needs, and victimization of men, along with the oppressiveness, privileges, violence, and sexism of women.
But what is wrong with this focus? The experience of women is important. Women are victimized in society (regardless of agreement with specific feminist claims of victimization). Men do have (some) unjust privileges over women. Some men victimize women. Since all of that is true, what could be the problem with pointing it out?
The answer is that there isn’t one. The problem is not inherently with the gynocentric focus of feminism. The root of the problem is the content of feminism, which causes the gynocentric focus of feminism to become a problem.
- Nathanson, P., & Young, K. (2006). Legalizing Misandry: From Public Shame to Systemic Discrimination against Men. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, p. 310.[↩]
- By “feminism,” I mean feminists who don’t identify themselves as “equity feminists,” “egalitarian feminists,” or “individualist feminists.” These dissident feminists tend to not be gynocentric, and have fundamentally different philosophical and epistemological assumptions to other feminists. Mainstream feminists tend to dispute that dissident feminists are really feminists, which only underscores how gynocentric mainstream feminism is.[↩]
- Nathanson, P., & Young, K. (2006). Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Cultureen. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, p. xii.[↩]
Editor’s note: The first two sections above “Feminism and gynocentrism” and “Types of gynocentrism” are from the author’s longer piece What Good is Gynocentrism, and serve here as an abridged preamble to his article Gynocentrism and its Discontents. [I was unable to find a contact email for the author, but he is welcome to contact me if he has any concerns about the above reproduction]