I want to be a feminist. I used to want to be thought one, 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 — any presumption of self-annointed feminism may be an exercise in wishful science. (Some readers will have dismissed my ambition merely on the basis of that possessive pronoun in my title, its import of control, even ownership.)
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 — 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 majority of the human race, would be perfectly justified to roll their eyes and walk 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?”