Let’s critique feminist scope.

Too big? Too small? A feminist can never be just right. Image from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Project Gutenberg

Too big? Too small? It’s never just right.
Image from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Project Gutenberg

“You’re asking for too much. That’s not reasonable.”

“That is such a little thing to complain about. You’re too easily offended.”

Scope critiques may be second only to tone critiques among criticism of feminist advocacy.

One might assume that those who critique feminists for not taking a more big picture approach are different people than those who critique feminists for not taking small enough steps. In some cases, this is true. Some people are sincere in their concerns about scope, particularly within the feminist movement. I have noticed that some feminists consistently prefer incremental change approaches over more sweeping changes and vice versa. Personally, I consider both scope and tone when making decisions about which feminist projects I participate in.

However, in my experience as a feminist, I’ve also found that people who oppose feminism in general tend to critique feminist scope whether it is large or small. Scope can be as elusive as tone; feminists will always be accused of not having it right. Both tone and scope critiques bypass the main issue, avoiding engagement in a conversation about gender inequality.

Opponents of women’s ordination regularly accuse its supporters of having both too small and too large a scope in the same breath: “It’s not appropriate to ask for such a big change. You should think of something more reasonable. And why are you worried about priesthood when there are starving children in Africa? There are bigger problems in the world.”

When critics bring up scope as a tactic to avoid a real discussion about inequity, the best response is usually no response. But when a response is warranted, here are some talking points you can borrow from me. As someone who is frequently accused both of scope-too-small and scope-too-big, I’ve become something of a veteran in scope defense.

Responses to the Scope-Too-Small Critique

  • If this is such a small problem, there is no reason why we can’t find a solution.
  • Just because this problem seems small to you, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a big effect on other people.
  • Accomplishing even small changes breaks down institutional inertia, removing barriers to global change.
  • Incremental change chips away at the big problem.
  • I’m working within a conservative environment that is hostile toward change. Baby steps may be the best I can accomplish at this point.
  • This is my community and these are my people, so I am most qualified to address problems here, even if big problems exist elsewhere in the world.

Responses to the Scope-Too-Big Critique

  • We could address small issues one by one, but issues will keep cropping up until we address the root of the problem.
  • Even very small changes require a great deal of work in an environment so hostile to change, so I would prefer to invest my time where I can make the biggest difference.
  • We are likely to get less than what we ask for, so it makes sense to ask for more in the hopes of at least moderate improvement.
  • I have too much respect for myself and other women to ask only for slightly less discrimination. Women merit equality.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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10 Responses

  1. Em says:

    Thanks for these. It can be so hard to think of the right way to respond to criticism though you feel strongly about your position.

  2. Rob Osborn says:

    Women feminists scare me. Whether its on a little thing or a big issue. They are not willing to have honest uncensored dialogue. They want it only their way or nothing! I will be honest- you wouldnt have so many critics if you guys were more open and honest in debate. I find it interesting that it never fails that when I do post here on your blog that you will only publish my replies if it plays into your agenda and makes me look bad. When I do make a good talking point you censor it and pretend all men are the same.

    • Rachel says:

      Rob, if female feminists frighten you, and you feel censored in this space, why do you choose to spend time here? (Speaking of tone, I know it doesn’t come across well via the written word. Please, if possible imagine me asking in a sincere voice, rather than a snarky one, because that is how I mean it. I genuinely Don’t understand.)

      I am not familiar with the specific censorship your comments might have received, but know that we try very hard to only censor posts that go against our comment policy. That’s it. I am also 99.99% sure that none of the Exponent bloggers believe (or have any desire to pretend) that all men are the same. And the only “agenda” that I know of for the Exponent blog is to tell Mormon women’s stories.

      • Rob Osborn says:

        One of the very last times I posted a reply (the rape culture thread) it was censored. The reply represented my stance that explained a very very good point. But, because it didnt work to the feminist advantage it was never published. I am not here to troll, nor to bash, just honest inquiry and defense of what I perceive to be non truths. You know how frustrating it is to want to say something only to have it censored out?

      • Rob, quite some time ago, in accordance with our comment policy, you were placed in permanent moderation by an Exponent moderator for violations of our commenting policy. That means that your comments do not automatically post. If I happen to see one of your comments to one of my posts in the pending queue, and it does not break any of the commenting rules, I approve it, regardless of whether I agree with you or not. But we are all volunteers here and I personally do not have a ton of time to spend searching our database for pending comments, so some may be missed, as is the case with the comment you mentioned, which I just found and approved for you.

  3. Rachel says:

    I think you’re right about the similarity between the scope and tone critiques, and love your suggested responses. Thank you!

  4. Wendy says:

    Thank you for this, April. Working to effect equality for women is no easy task. It’s a shame that we have to endure further oppression in the process. This list is enormously useful. Thank you for sharing it!

  5. Lorie says:

    Thanks for this, April. Though I count myself among those for whom the structural inequality in the LDS Church is such that female ordination is essential, I also embrace the many interim measures that will lead to a more inclusive community. The All Are Alike unto God petition exemplifies both. It was first and foremost intended to be a call for ordination, but, by listing a series of interim measures, it both lays out the scope of the inequality and acknowledges the work of the small-step feminists. http://whatwomenknow.org/all_are_alike/

    • Andrew R. says:

      What if, and of course I don’t know the answer to this anymore than anyone else here probably does, but what if the “Structural Inequality” is actually part of the Plan of Salvation?

      Female ordination is not essential – at least not in the Plan of Salvation. Indeed quite the opposite. Whilst men MUST be ordained as a salvic ordinance, women do not require ordination.

      So “what if”? Is there not another way? As I have pointed out many times here, at the stake, and certainly the ward, level women have very much an equal voice – at least in my observation, in my locality. I am not saying there are as many women in councils as men, but I am saying they get to speak, are listened to, and their thoughts are acted upon. Being ordained would not change that. In fact I believe that female ordination would be counter productive.

  6. Jen Galan says:

    Thank you for this. When the adrenaline pumps I lose my ability to speak thoughtfully. I truly appreciate actual words I can practice before-hand.

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