How quickly can I get myself into trouble?
The title? Three words in. My. That possessive pronoun — its import of territorial control, indenture, even ownership.
But I can’t help wanting to be a feminist, even if the wanting — or the possessing, if you insist — may belie a little reckless cynicism. Rare instances of warming to my own gender, my putative gender, have generally — though not absolutely always — felt like feats of engineering: mechanical and painstaking, executed from blueprint or CAAD schematic. Friendships with women, even when exceeding purely platonic status, have never seemed to require the same fussing over deflection, load-bearing, Hooke’s Law, Venturi Effect, and so on. Newtons of this, ergs of that. If I screw up around my girlfriends, I find out that minute. I’m just busted, period. There’s none of that fake sad-faced Gary Coopering. No flustered anticipations of handshake style. No drumming.
I used to want to be thought one, a feminist, which isn’t that difficult. Being one, with a higher level of commitment, is more complicated, not least because it’s not entirely my decision to make. Sincere or not, I may be de-authorized by gender alone from claiming the label. That argument — a very persuasive argument, I’d grudgingly concede — generally centers on contingencies of privilege or cultural appropriation. For males — for lads, boys, men, guys, dudes, blokes, not to say cads and bounders such as oneself — any presumption of self-annointed feminism may be an exercise in wishful science.
What comes to mind is Karl Popper’s idea, somewhat vitiated by recent thinking, that genuine science (good hypotheses, good theories) must be, as he puts it, “falsifiable.” Before a thing can be proved it must be submitted to counterarguments; we must be able to imagine a situation — a null hypothesis, to use R.A. Fisher’s complementary term — in which the assertion in question could be proved false. According to Popper, scientific method has less to do with proving evident truths than with disproving contradictory speculation. (A pseudoscience, he would say, is not real science because no hypothesis can be imagined to dispute its claims.)
By the same token, I shouldn’t be allowed to call myself a feminist if such a label, however well intended, could be reconciled only against my private, self-ennobling definition of the word feminist. First, we would need to conceive of an alternative to my definition, to my personal reality. Next, that alternative would need to be shot down or shot at — submitted to tests, objections, plausible countervailing evidence. Otherwise, that’s all it is, my personal reality, and the people who matter most in this discussion, a slight majority of the human race, would be perfectly justified in rolling their eyes and walking away.
Scientific method, by consensus and even by Popper’s attempt at a reductive definition, proposes an ongoing process, rather than locked-down, immutable conclusions about the natural world. Assertions and theories are constantly being tested against new evidence and new questions. (Accordingly, Einstein’s theory of general relativity is not rendered “incorrect” by newer theories of quantum gravity and spacetime singularities; instead it’s revealed to be incomplete.)
To whatever extent I am one, a feminist, or could say that I am one, I may owe that distinction to the scientific method of my closest childhood friend, Big Lisa, who on some summer day in the late 1950s ordered me — squinting and half-pickled — to approach the center of her plastic wading pool. “OK, now stand on the blue mermaid and pull your trunks down.”
I obeyed. She pointed and said, “See?”