Feminism is a theory like evolution is a theory.
I know, right?! HOW COULD I EVEN SAY THAT?! Could I be a more worstest person??!? Quickbeforeyouleaveletmeexplain:
If you’re a feminist and you say words, you often end up explaining to people why you’re a feminist. Equo pro icqum, if you’re a feminist scientist, you often end up explaining to scientists, even scientists who are feminists, why you do feminist science and why you make up fake Latin logic statements that sound fancy (answer: you can’t make up real ones). Even the most well-meaning folks who identify as feminist and bring feminism into every other aspect of their lives want to know: why bring feminism into science?
Lately, when people ask me why feminist science, I’ve been answering: because it works; because it makes sense of the world. Equo pro icqum, scientists use theories that work and make sense of the world (are you impressed I remembered to italicize my fake Latin for optimum veracity?) (I AM). But is feminism a theory? Feminism is a social movement, a lived experience, a guiding principle. To a lot of people, whether feminism is a theory is irrelevant to their activism and life work. But here, I’m talking about how it’s also a theory. Did you think I would back down from my title? DO YOU EVEN KNOW ME? (Here’s a handy test to see if you know me: (a) Will I back down from a title? (b) Do I like milkshakes? (c) Do I enjoy listy things? No, yes, and who doesn’t?!)
Ok. So, feminism is a theory (among other things). But most anti-feminists want to argue that feminism is a political ideology and therefore evil. This is one of my favorite anti-feminist science arguments, because it equates political ideologies with evil and the picking on feminism is pretty obvious if you insert other ideologies: HUMANISM IS EVIL! PACIFISM IS EVIL! DISARMAMENT IS EVIL! WEARING WHITE BEFORE LABOR DAY IS EVIL! (or is it after?! BOTH ARE EVIL!). In my book, the book of evil, I reserve ‘evil’ for things that deserve the moniker, like walls you stub your toes on (jerks!), plants that won’t grow despite your best efforts (a-holes!), and paper cuts (the nerve of that paper!!!). Yes, feminism is an ideology but, and here is the refrain in my song: feminism is also a theory. I will explain more because even I know that saying the same statement over and over again doesn’t make it true (despite what many academics have tried to teach me. har har! academia jokes!).
What kind of thing is feminism? It’s lots of things. To be honest, I’m not sure most of my feminist-identified people would have a ready answer to describe what feminism is (in terms of a type of thing) (but maybe I am projecting). Saying feminism is a theory could be troubling in another way because many anti-science folks would say that theories are ‘just theories’, that they’re unproven conjectures, which means that calling feminism a ‘theory’ provides a load of additional kindling for those people who want to burn feminism on the anti-feminism+anti-science pyre. If feminism is a theory, then it’s just a random guess, right?! And then feminism slinks away, tucking its loose armpit hair into its shapeless clothes, weeping, but stridently so, wondering why it ever thought stupid things like payment equity were worth considering. (Full disclosure: I’m pro-armpit hair AND pro-payment equity! Surprise! That was irony! I’m pro-stridency, too, but that is just good sense, not irony BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LIKE STRIDENCY?!?!)
Are theories ‘just’ theories; guesses and random conjectures? No. Theories aren’t just random guesses. They’re not unproven conjectures. They’re incredibly valuable, important, and insightful models of the world. Last I checked, no one can understand the entirety of the world all at once, so theories are a way to make sense of aspects of the world and guide our engagements with it. For scientists, theories are why we get up in the morning because, without them, the world might just be a big bunch of worldness. How to make sense of it? With a theory, of course! Like, take evolution. We use evolution as way to make sense of the living matter we see in the world and how it has come to be. Evolution is a theory in all the amazing ways we mean theory: it explains the shit out of the world. Its explanatory power is off the charts!
Feminism is a theory like evolution is a theory: feminism explains the world we see. That’s why students who take a feminist class are so often like: I was blind but now I see. For realz! Because feminism explains things you can’t make sense of otherwise. It’s like putting on the right prescription glasses and realizing everything had been out of focus before. I, myself, have -8.5 eyesight (which is worse than most people but who would be competitive about their bad eyesight? Definitely not me, but my eyesight is worse than yours) but my eyesight was literally – LITERALLY I PROMISE – -300 before I got my feminist glasses (quirky yet stylish OF COURSE).
This whole way of thinking is useful in another way. I often have students ask me: what if I do a project where the results don’t jibe with feminism? What if my science contributes to anti-feminism, misogyny, inequities, racism, etc.? What if I am still using jibe but no one else is?! I used to think about this myself and worry, so I understand the students’ concerns (jibe is never out of date). Few feminists want to do work that hurts women or undermines feminism. Contrasting this with evolution is useful: no one worries that their evolutionary biology experiment will call evolution into question because evolution is such a strong theory that it will almost inevitably explain the finding. Same with feminism: it’s such a strong theory, a truth of our world, that it will still explain the finding. Because that’s what truth does, make sense. There is no way that one finding will undermine either evolution or feminism and, instead, there is all likelihood that evolution and feminism are strong enough to make sense of unexpected results. That’s why we have them and that’s why we use them. That’s not tautological, where theories explain themselves; I mean that both evolution and feminism will legitimately make sense of even the most head-scratching seemingly off-target results because why? Because feminism and evolution make sense like a boss.
Of course, that’s not to say that evolution and feminism, like all awesome theories, can’t be revised or improved. For example, bringing modern genetics and now epigenetics into evolutionary theory has transformed evolution in wowish ways. Similarly, bringing intersectionality into feminism has transformed feminism in I-can-see-clearly-now-the-rain-has-gone ways. It’s always possible that a theory is wrong – OF COURSE! – but the strongest theories are supported by the available data and continue to be useful. They continue to make sense of the world in such important ways that the world would go unexplained without them.
So, when someone asks you why feminism? think of me in the background saying feminism because it makes sense of the world. Because it works. Because it’s right. Just like evolution. And watch their head explode in all the best ways. Though that is not the best image to leave you with, so also you could imagine me saying that doing the running man because that will definitely up the awesome ante.
p.s. I checked with some feminist philosophers of science as to whether I was allowed to make this analogy. I’m not sure they were entirely happy with it but they gave me the go-ahead. They may have sneaked side glances at each other while they were doing so, thinking I couldn’t see them but I could. So basically what I’m saying is that if you disagree with me or poke a whole in this argument, I cannot be held responsible for anything I have said, ever, and that is a given, unless you want to hold me responsible for awesomeness and THEN GO RIGHT AHEAD WITH MY PERMISSION.