Education and Culture · Feminism

On the confused, and confusing, discourse of edu-twitter feminism

feminism@teach_well wrote a blog about feminism in response to three blog’s, Man up, Like a lady and He for she by Sue Cowley. I suppose I have an interest because I was mentioned in one of the blogs @teach_well critiqued.

Teach_well accuses Sue of “female chauvinism” but it is a somewhat confused argument. It must be a fine line between asserting a feminist identity and being a chauvinist. There are many schools of feminism but I have yet to encounter one that does not in some form or other deal with power relations. Those who are dis-empowered surely need some kind of collective representative identity to be able to exercise any kind of power.

Teach_well says this:

To state that some traits are masculine and others feminine, which are biologically bestowed on us dependent on gender, which are natural (and thereby traits of the opposite gender are unnatural to us) is simply playing into the very stereotypes used to oppress and subjugate women in the first place.

I’m not sure that Sue Cowley made that point but even so even if gender is  socially constructed it is perfectly reasonable to assert that men and women are different. Unpicking the nature / nurture argument is a mine field.

The feminist position presumably is that whatever the truth of the matter it has to be recognised that women have less opportunity to assert their identity. Feminism is surely not an argument about what women should and shouldn’t but about their ability to be so.

Regardless Teach_well identifies with the characteristics that are required to be successful in a society that is male dominated:

I know my parents despaired at times that I was strong minded, opinionated and out-spoken but in the long run it helped get me my politics degree! I did not adopt ‘masculine’ traits, I was just like that. That I was not stereotypically feminine was one of the many battles I fought with my parents. Far from being a people pleaser, I was happy to just ignore and not care. It was unnatural to fit those stereotypes.

Asserting the right to conform, however naturally, to a male dominated society in order to succeed is a perfectly legitimate argument but is it a feminist one? Later in Teach_well’s blog it becomes clear that the object of her ire are feminists themselves but first Teach_well seems to want to challenge gender identity politics::

Stereotypes of masculine and feminine traits have abounded for millennia and to deny there is any truth in them is wrong. Yet to me they represent a list of traits which are similar to star signs. There are so many that you are bound to have some of the stereotypical traits of your gender, just as you are likely to have some of your star sign. That these stereotypes hold true entirely in any individual is fantasy. That they are biologically determined, even more so.

Are gender traits entirely socially constructed not biologically determined? Are there no differences between a man and a woman? Can a women, as a gender type, only exist in relation to the oppression of a man? There are more questions than answers but it is, if nothing else, an interesting argument.

The anti feminist – feminist

Having seemingly collapsed the notion of gender Teach_well then constructs an anti feminist – feminist argument that sees women asserting their right to an identity as being a form of oppression in itself:

That she (Sue_Cowley) ‘naturally’ displays traits that fit the feminine stereotype is not the issue, it’s that she applies this rule to all others and is thus pushing an agenda of conformity onto female teachers. I have met many women in primary teaching like Sue and so her arguments are not new but depressing all the same.

in some ways I agree. Asserting the right to an identity could actually be an act of power. Collectives create norms that can become as much of an imposition as the norms they aim to displace.

On the problem of collectives

It seems to me Teach_well’s argument is reminiscent of the Gramsci argument adopted by the radical right of politics and neo traditionalist bloggers who often seem to have similar political views despite ascribing very different labels to themselves.

The argument goes that the Marxist collective created the norm of the working classes. Without Marxism there would be no working classes. In effect, having established a working class identity the working classes lose the desire to aspire to be something more. They become normed as working class, which is an obstacle in itself. Marxism is guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectation. It is, I have to say, an impressively clever circular argument. Surprisingly so considering the kind of people who make it. Gramsci, the Marxist, morphs into Gramsci the hero of the radical right and neo-traditionalism.

Teach_Well seems to argue that in asserting her right to a feminist identity Sue Cowley is creating the very characteristics that have made women fail in a male dominated society. Women should adopt the traits that help women succeed in a male dominated society in order to be successful.

There is nothing wrong with this argument as far as it goes. Again I wonder whether the argument is a feminist one or just an adaption of the arguments of the radical right that to be working class, or to be a woman, is an act of submission that can only be resolved by adopting the ways of a cultural elite that happens to be male. Again it has overtones of Hirsch another darling of the radical right.

The bitter rambling of the scorned feminist

Invariably the radical right would characterise Sue Cowley’s position as the bitter ramblings of a feminist who hasn’t the grit and determination to succeed on her own merits:

Teach_well duly obliges:

What I really think is going on is that Sue is simply upset that she was not asked to serve on the behaviour panel. End of.

She is now waging a war of manipulation and desperate trying to taint those who want changes made to the current methods used and systems adopted. To call it sexist is a means of controlling the debate through other means.

The fact that the rest of the blog is an anti-progressive neo-traditionalist critique does little to counter the view that it is Teach_well who has hijacked feminist discourse to make a political argument.

By the end of the blog Teach_well has to re-construct the notion of a woman to be able to re-claim the feminist ground. And of course expose the essential straw man at the heart of the argument. Sue Cowley’s blog was not about gender based traits. It was about gender based discourse that is male dominated. A totally different argument altogether.

As for the men – feminism at its best was about freeing us all from a checklist of gender based traits that we had to adopt in order to be accepted.

Differences are real but they need not be exaggerated or used to peddle deterministic ideas of who we are as individual humans. Sexism is real, affects millions of women daily and to use it in this way demeans the very real problems women face.

In the end being a better person is far more important to me than being a better woman.

“Sexism is real” and women face real problems but it is far better to be a better person than a better women?

Again it seems to me to suggest that the only resolution to women’s issue is not to be a woman at all. Maybe so, who am I to say otherwise but I would say that gender is not only the means to oppress women but also the means by which women can take collective action..


Sue Cowley’s view that the re-emergence of gendered language is a step back in time seems like a classic feminist argument whether you agree with her or otherwise. Teach_well’s argument on the other hand is that women need to adopt the traits that are required to succeed in a male dominated society. Indeed she goes even further seeming to suggest that in fact the notion of a feminist identity is in itself a form of oppression.

I think it is that argument, which I fundamentally object to. By collapsing power relations and dismissing collective action it allows some to argue that it is those who seek to represent the dis-empowered that are responsible for creating the dis-empowered. It is an argument that makes more sense in education where an educated work force understands the issues but in many communities across the world the “man up, show some grit, we can be as good as men” arguments simply make no sense whatsoever.


I have tried to write an objective counter argument to a blog that was, in my view, quite personal. I hope I have achieved that. I have no wish to argue about it ad infinitum on twitter. if you wish to respond write a blog disagreeing with the arguments as opposed to commenting on the person arguing them..


33 thoughts on “On the confused, and confusing, discourse of edu-twitter feminism

  1. For the record, I’m pretty confident teach_well says the exact opposite to “women need to adopt the traits of men to succeed in a male dominated society.”

    What she was arguing was that “grit, resilience and being intellectual” should not be treated as masculine traits.

    Surely you don’t think being intellectual is a masculine trait???

      1. No because that would presume that intelligence rather than power is the principle way of achieving in this society, which is a problematic argument. But I wouldn’t write about a blog if I didn’t find it challenging intellectually

      2. I’m just completely lost in your line of argument. Power exists and make dominance exists, intellect is associated with male powerful, therefore there’s an issue with a woman saying women can be intellectual? Can you see how this doesn’t make a great deal of sense? Surely the better line of argument is teach_well’s which runs ‘we need to wrestle intellect back from any association it has with masculinity’.

      3. I never mentioned intellect. What I am trying to say is that power selects that traits that suits it. If anyone valued intellect more women would be powerful and they are not, which proves my point.

      4. So to be clear, you’re saying intellect is not valued? I am still at a loss as to how this ties to the gender issue that the blogs were about – are you agreeing with teach_well in saying that traits such as ‘intellect’ are not (or should not be) masculine, or are you agreeing with Sue (as your blog seems to do) that these traits are masculine??

      5. I agree with Teach_well they are not masculine traits. I disagree that Sue ever said that intellect is a masculine trait or if she did I missed it. And my blog never mentioned intellect and I resent you keep on trying to put those words in my mouth.

        I said quite clearly if intellect was valued more women would be in power. They are not..!

      6. “In which case I’d just suggest re-reading the post you were challenging, which explicitly mentions it!”

        As I said on the blog and on some of my posts here I didn’t disagree with or address all the blog.

      7. “Also worth noting that power selects nothing – ‘it’ has no agency as it is not a thing. Do you mean ‘powerful people’?”

        Power resides in institutions, symbols etc not just people

      8. Yes, but always exercised by an individual. But point is that power is not a thing in itself – you can talk of powerful people or institutions, but not of power on its own.

      9. You are in danger of sliding into ontological relativism. Power can be emergent and generative. It is a social fact. Power does not reside in any one person, time or social space. You have to have an ontological position, which is the argument against gendered language

      10. I think you’re turned ‘power’ into some kind of deity! This does at least explain a lot of your previous blogs. One might say that power is a little like money – it exists, but only as a function of individuals and institutions. When people say ‘money talks’ what they mean is ‘people with money can have more influence’. Money cannot talk. It has no agency of its own. It’s a social fact, but that doesn’t mean we should anthropomorphise it. Same with power. It exists. People have it. Institutions have it. But it has no agency of its own. Can you give an example of where it does have agency??

      11. This is not a structure / agency problem. Money is a central concern for economists, but they don’t go attributing agency to it. Do you really think that power has agency of its own??

      12. Power is objective and socially real. It has generative and emergent properties, which exist before and after any one human being but humans being enact it within those constraints.

      13. If you think it is then I think you’re not quite understanding the argument – the point is that power has no ability of its own: it is always vested in someone or some institution.

  2. “There are basic biological differences between men and women that affect us all, and we cannot simply put these to one side. As this article points out, “the odds of men and women having evolved the exact same emotional psychology are basically zero”. No matter how much I might yearn for equity, I do not want to achieve it by ‘owning’ male words and attitudes, or behaving more like a man. That would not lead us to greater equity, it would just lead to women behaving more like men in order to gain a fairer share of the power. In order to achieve equity, I think we need to accept that there are what we might term ‘feminine and masculine traits’, and then we should value these equally, in both men and women. We need ‘yin and yang’ to create a balance.”

    Not sure you read this in Sue’s blog – the message seems quite garbled. There are attitudes, behaviours, words, traits that are male/female or are there?

    I am clear – we are human beings first and foremost. Humanity is the most important thing to me and the divisions and differences we see are exaggerated to justify inequalities. That there are differences and inequalities is not a figment of anyone’s imagination and need to be tackled where they exist, not invented because it suits ones argument.

    All traits are human traits which are a spectrum and we fall on the spectrum somewhere based on biology and socialisation – the exact mix of which is unknown.

    However, you state that I have adopted behaviours that are ‘male’ to cope in a male-dominated society without ever considering the possibility that maybe those traits are not male at all or even more likely to occur in males than females naturally. Or shock of shocks – I never adopted them at all but they are my natural traits. Where is the proof that any of those traits are ‘male’ per se and that women can only ape them? I haven’t ‘identified’ with those traits – they are my traits!

    Sue’s argument was not a feminist one, it was an attempt to taint all those who believe in a traditional approach to education as sexist in order to devalue their contributions and ideas. It states clearly that to implement these ideas is sexist and unnatural.

    I have never suggested traditional/progressive is based on gender, don’t believe it is in the least. I think twisting and turning my statements to suggest that I have melded the two when it was Sue who did that in her blogs is underhand.

    To deem terms such as pupils, intellectual, rational, logical, grit, resilience, rigour, standards as male is not calling out sexist terms – it’s creating them.

    As for the criticism of my blog being too personal I actually agree that I did not depersonalise it sufficiently and it would have been better to write the blog when I was less fuming about the whole thing.

    However even in your rather more admirable attempts to play the ball not the person – there is still much that I consider a personal attack or assumptions/speculations about me as a person. However, I do respect the fact that you have written a blog rather than subtweet.

    I think the way this has blown since the behaviour working party was announced is not sheer coincidence. Any of these blogs could have been written or criticisms made prior to that but weren’t. They weren’t.

    That three working parties have been announced recently with female chairs and are gender balanced has not led to a chorus of cheers from the same people who cried sexist over the behaviour working party – why is that?

    1. I don’t wish to get in a spat. As I said I don’t agree / disagree with some of your points rather to ponder whether they are feminist. The point being that feminism tends to present itself as a challenge to power relations. Your argument presents all the problems of what I describe as the Gramscian argument, which tends to challenge collectivism and undermine power relations both of the Left and that of feminism.

      As to your last point I agree any collective is a power stance in itself, which presents challenges. Apart from the personal attack your blog was interesting and challenging.

      1. No I’m not interested in a spat either. I do think it’s fair to have a right of reply. Feminism is a challenge to the collective including the idea that there are masculine and feminine traits. The fact that women felt they were having to ‘ape’ behaviours that would mark them as ‘feminine’ and be discouraged from displaying any traits that were seen as ‘masculine’. This applied equally to men – hence notions of being ‘cissy’, ‘weak’, etc if men were to display emotions such as crying.

        I don’t have a problem with people critiquing the traits if they think they are negative, I have a problem with assigning them to men and women in this way. While some women may very well adopt traits and behaviours in order to cope, others are not doing any such thing – hence the fact that when women display certain traits they turned into negative terms – decisive into bossy for example.

        As I said if the gender stereotypes presented held true then there would not even be a discussion in the first place, and no reason to be feminist. We were already ‘free’ to be ‘feminine’ – why fight it if its natural to us all?

      2. Debate is good I just don’t want circular arguments or people putting words in my mouth, which you haven’t done to be fair. I do understand what you are trying to say but I think there is a fundamental problem of dealing with power. I think you acknowledge that above

        “Feminism is a challenge to the collective including the idea that there are masculine and feminine traits”

        I think you misunderstand me to some extent. Here I am talking about feminism as the collective.

        “The fact that women felt they were having to ‘ape’ behaviours that would mark them as ‘feminine’ and be discouraged from displaying any traits that were seen as ‘masculine’.”

        I agree with that and I think I said as much in the blog in so many words.

        “I don’t have a problem with people critiquing the traits if they think they are negative, I have a problem with assigning them to men and women in this way”

        Hmmm I’m not sure you made that clear in the blog. It is important to consider that some feminine traits that have been used to subjugate women are also good traits it’s just power doesn’t particularly value them. Empathy. emotional intelligence etc. It’s quite possible to argue that power oppresses both men and women it’s just that power happens to be men (if you get my drift).

        “While some women may very well adopt traits and behaviours in order to cope, others are not doing any such thing – hence the fact that when women display certain traits they turned into negative terms – decisive into bossy for example.”

        Agree with that

        “As I said if the gender stereotypes presented held true then there would not even be a discussion in the first place, and no reason to be feminist. We were already ‘free’ to be ‘feminine’ – why fight it if its natural to us all?”

        In a sense I think that is a point of consideration that whatever the truth the stereotypes exist and the power relations have to be factored in

        I think there are three points I wanted to get across. Firstly that using gendered language is not helpful. Secondly that asserting a feminist identity is not chauvinism per se although I accept it can be problematic (as you suggest) and thirdly that in some way you seem to start to de-construct gender as an analytical tool in the same way that Gove and Gibbs to de-construct Marxism using the post modernism of Gramsci.

        That is the problem of the grit and aspiration discourse. It’s not that I think it’s not true to some extent. Some could do with more grit. It tends to undermine the collective by emphasising individual traits, which is how we got into traits in the first place. I’m not sure its entirely helpful.

        Don’t get me wrong I can see your points but I think that is a huge problem with the neo-traditionalist discourse from that perspective.

        I do think there is an interesting debate here though, which is the extent to which individualism undermines the collective and visa versa particularly in relation to “disempowered” (although that seems a bit extreme) groups

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