Victim feminism

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Victim feminism is a term used by some liberal and libertarian feminists in the 1990s to contrast their conceptions of feminism with other feminists who they view as reinforcing the idea that women are weak or lacking in agency, and therefore need to be protected.[1] Amongst sociologists, it has come more into use to describe a similar manifestation of feminism in the 2010s, particularly on college campuses in the US, part of a rising moral "culture of victimhood", as opposed to other dominant moral cultures like the "culture of honor" and the "culture of dignity".[2]

Naomi Wolf contrasts victim feminism with power feminism. In her view, victim feminists present women as "beleaguered, fragile, intuitive angels" thus preventing women from taking responsibility for the power they actually have. Among various attributes of victim feminism, Wolf writes that it projects violence and competitiveness onto men or their patriarchy, while disregarding these qualities in women.[3] Christina Hoff-Sommers refers to this more traditional feminism as equity feminism and makes similar points about the emphasis on agency in equity/power feminism vs the core emphasis on victimhood and the essentializing beliefs in patriarchy of victim feminism. Laura Kipnis has documented how victim feminism has particularly taken root in college campuses around issues of sexuality in the 2010s leading to metaphoric "witch hunts" for violators of sexual harassment policies, enabled by vaguely written Title IX anti-harassment laws governing US college campuses.[4] Kipnis notes this contemporary strain of feminism leads to a mob mentality organized around victim and oppressor, such that even enthusiastic, consensual relationships can be reframed after the fact by women as abusive and where defending one's reputation against accusations is framed as further abuse, aligning with the accusatory dynamics of victimhood culture as described by sociologists Bradley Cambell and Jason Manning.[2]

Colin Grant described Wolf's power vs. victim dichotomy as being rooted in differences in how feminists address the liabilities that women suffer: while victim feminism simply dwells on them, power feminism seeks to identify them, with the purpose to challenge and overcome them. Grant also mentions that Wolf herself appears to have embraced both sides: her book The Beauty Myth seems to be from the victim feminism camp, but with Fire with Fire Wolf transitions to the power feminism side.[5]

This dichotomy of "victim" vs "power" was criticized for being defined too broadly so that Wolf's argument became lost.[6] In addition it lumps together diverse and radically different feminist schools, and this confusion aids antifeminists in their rhetoric.[7]

Victim feminism was described as a negative tendency in gender feminism. The more positive tendency recognizes the distinctiveness of women's experience and views (regarding sex, morality, etc.) as a positive alternative in contrast to that imposed by the "patriarchal" views of men.[5]

Naomi Wolf's Fire with Fire and Katie Roiphe's The Morning After met with considerable media attention. They were described as part of the backlash against the perceived domination of the feminist theme of victimization in the contemporary popular culture.[8]

One of Wolf's and Roiphe's arguments is that emphasis on victimization reinforces the stereotype of women being fragile and vulnerable. However it was argued that their solution in the form of "power feminism" is simplistic, because it fails to take into an account the systemic nature of women's subordination. Overall, the "victim vs. power" dichotomy was described as false and fundamentally inadequate, and leading to "problematic extremes".[8]

Gender studies scholar Rebecca Stringer writes that besides Wolf and Roiphe, other feminist authors have criticized the representation of women as victims and promoted a brand of agency-affirming feminism. These include Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Sommers, Natasha Walter, and Rene Denfeld.[9] Each of these authors wrote popular books in the 1990s about feminism framed as calls to action like earlier works by Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, but instead of agitating for political and economic change, they often argued in favour of the status quo.[9] According to Stringer, this trend of 1990s agitation against "victim feminism" is tied to the concurrent rise of neoliberalism.[9] At the same time, in her book Knowing Victims Stringer argues that these critiques of "victim feminism" do not affirm women's agency, but rather problematize women's capacity for agency and declare a lack of women's personal responsibility, which is, in Stringer's view, akin to victim blaming.[10]

Elizabeth Schneider criticizes the dichotomy of feminism in the form of "victimhood vs. agency" from the legal standpoint, arguing that the view of women as either victims or agents is incomplete and static. She points out that, first, both concepts are too narrow and incomplete, and second, they are not the opposite poles of a spectrum, they are independent, but interrelated dimensions of women's experience.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Citations:
    • Schneider, Elizabeth M. (1993). "Feminism and the False Dichotomy of Victimization and Agency". New York Law School Law Review. 38: 397. An earlier version of this essay was presented at a panel on "Victim Feminism" at the Law and Society Association 1994 Annual Meeting. Also available as HeinOnline.
    • Goldberg, Carole (29 December 1993). "Feminist War Is Won". Chicago Sun-Times. Fire announces a "genderquake" - a resurgence of female political power. And it says it's time to reject the "victim" feminism that casts women as powerless objects of male malevolence in favor of a new "power" feminism that enables women
    • Beck, Joan (23 January 1994). "Feminist Indifference to Children a Key Weakness". The Buffalo News. Buffalo, NY. most women don't fully understand yet that a "genderquake" has occurred. The time has come to shuck "victim feminism" and its sexist whining and embrace "power feminism," the better for women to reach out and claim their fair share
    • Pollitt, Katha (21 February 1994). "Subject to Debate". The Nation. The current attack on "victim feminism" is partly a class phenomenon, a kind of status anxiety.
    • Abrams, Kathryn (April 1994). "Review: Songs of Innocence and Experience: Dominance Feminism in the University". The Yale Law Journal. 103 (6): 1533–1560. JSTOR 797093. If these movements are not to work at cross-purposes, feminists in both genres ought to give thought to their inter-relations: writers like Roiphe, Paglia, and Naomi Wolf might have had more difficulty making a target out of victim feminism, for example, if academic feminists had ...
    • Raven, Arlene (Summer 1994). "Judy Chicago: The Artist Critics Love to Hate". On the Issues. Naomi Wolf, in her Fire with Fire, defines victim feminism as women seeking power "through an identity of powerlessness." Two features of victim feminism according to Wolf are: identifying with powerlessness even at the expense of taking responsibility for the power women do possess; and putting community first, hence being hostile toward individual achievement
  2. ^ a b Campbell, Bradley; Manning, Jason (2018). The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars. Palgrave McMillan. ISBN 9783319703299.
  3. ^ Cole, Alyson Manda (2007). "Victims on a pedestal: anti-"victim feminism" and women's oppression". The cult of true victimhood: from the war on welfare to the war on terror. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. pp. 50–51. ISBN 9780804754613.
  4. ^ Kipnis, Laura (2017). Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus. Harper Collins. ISBN 9781538412633.
  5. ^ a b Grant, Colin (1998). "A sex myth: feminist proposals". Myths we live by. Ottawa, Ontario: University of Ottawa Press. pp. 122–124. ISBN 9780776604442.
  6. ^ Henry, Astrid (2004). "Daughterhood is powerful: the emergence of feminism's third wave". Not my mother's sister: generational conflict and third-wave feminism. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 28. ISBN 9780253111227.
  7. ^ Hammer, Rhonda (2002). "Culture wars over feminism: Paglia, Wolf, and Hoff Sommers". Antifeminism and family terrorism: a critical feminist perspective. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 61–62. ISBN 9780742510500.
  8. ^ a b Schneider, Elizabeth M. (2000). "Beyond victimization and agency". Battered women & feminist lawmaking. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 74–75. ISBN 9780300128932.
  9. ^ a b c Stringer, Rebecca (2014). "Victims left, right and centre: constructing 'victim feminism'". Knowing Victims: Feminism, agency and victim politics in neoliberal times. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. pp. 17–18. ISBN 9781134746019.
  10. ^ Stringer, p. 20
  11. ^ Schneider, Elizabeth M. (1993). "Feminism and the False Dichotomy of Victimization and Agency". New York Law School Law Review. 38: 387–399. Also available as HeinOnline.