I’ve written a bit about cluster concepts, and how they can be incredibly useful to us when it comes to defining some words or ideas. Roughly, a cluster concept is when you have a word, an idea, a concept, that marks out a group of things. There is a cluster of characteristics associated with the word / idea / concept. To be a member of the group of things marked out by the word / idea / concept, you have to have enough of the characteristics, but not necessarily all of them.
So, imagine a list of characteristics. Say, characteristics, a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j and k. And imagine one thing that has characteristics a, b, c, d and e, and that’s enough to be able to say that the thing (whatever it is) belongs to the group. Imagine another thing that has characteristics g, h, i, k and k, and that’s enough to be able to say that the other thing (whatever it is) belongs to the group. There’s no one characteristic that the things share, yet they are properly both members of the group, because they have enough of the characteristics to be recognised as members. That’s a cluster concept.
It’s a very powerful conceptual tool. Wittgenstein argued that it helped us to make sense of the idea of games (after all, just how much do rugby league and hide and seek have in common), and Natalie Stoljar has used it to help us make sense of the concept of “woman.”
For a long time, I thought that we could use cluster concepts as a tool for understanding the idea of being a feminist. After all feminists are incredibly diverse.* We are tall, short, fat, thin, black, brown, white, temporarily able bodied, disabled, married, partnered, single, polyamorist, lesbian, intersex, trans, cisgendered, hetero, bi, mothers, childfree, fertile, infertile, whitecollar, bluecollar, pro-porn, anti-porn, pro-sex work, anti-prostitution, conservative, liberal, socialist, from all parts of the political spectrum. Yet all recognisably feminist, even if many of us, including me, still have so much to learn about being feminist and doing feminism.
If feminist / feminism is a cluster concept, then by rights, there should be no one characteristic that feminists must necessarily have. But… I think that there is one characteristic that feminists must have, or they can’t be considered feminist. Simply, feminists must be pro-choice.
You will notice that I said, “pro-choice.” I don’t think that a feminist must be pro-abortion, for herself. But she must be pro-choice. That is, she must allow women to choose, for themselves. It is entirely consistent for a feminist woman to say that she would not choose abortion for herself, because she thinks it is wrong, but at the same time to say that she supports other women making this choice for themselves. But a feminist can’t remove choices from other women.
I get to this position through thinking about what the basic premise of feminism is. Very simply, it is that women are autonomous adults, capable of making decisions for themselves, of being rational and competent, of conceiving of a vision of the good life, and making choices in order to achieve that vision of the good life.
Or to put it in Stef’s fine words – being a feminist means that you are free to fuck up. Your life, your decisions, your responsibility. Just because you are an autonomous adult.
Abortion is a big moral issue. And make no mistake about it – it is a moral issue. It is an issue where people are asked to think about who and what counts, about where life begins, about the significance of lives that are already being lived and lives that may or may not be lived, about who bears the costs of prohibition. It is an issue that is jam packed with moments of judgement.
If you deny a woman the right to make those decisions for herself, then you are denying her autonomy. You are saying that she is not capable of making moral judgements herself, that she is not, after all, an autonomous adult. She is a child, and you must make moral judgements for her. That is not feminist, at all.
This is why the position taken by Feminists for Life is fundmentally incoherent. They want women to be treated as autonomous adults, except they are not prepared to allow women to be autonomous adults who are capable of making their own moral decisions. That’s not feminist, at all.
And it is why it is absurd to suggest that Sarah Palin is a feminist. Simply, she is not, because she will not allow women to make this moral choice for themselves.
I do not think that being pro-choice alone is enough to mark someone as feminist. But being anti-choice / “pro-life” is enough to indicate that a person doesn’t really believe that women are autonomous adults. Next time you see someone claiming to be feminist, and saying that she is pro-life, I suggest you raise a very sceptical eyebrow, and decline to recognise her as feminist, at all.
*Some women have disavowed feminism, for good reason, and identify as womanist. I’m reluctant to just talk about “feminists and womanists”, because being incorrigibly privileged (I’ve got the lot, bar male privilege, and I’m on the borderline of losing the privilege that comes with looking young), I know that I am all too apt to assimilate other people’s experience to my own. Simply adding “and womanist” to “feminist” seems to say that womanists are just another variety of feminists, and from the reading I have begun to do, I can only see that as an enormous insult to WoC. I’ll be keeping on with reading and thinking, and in the meantime, I am trying to start with a simple acknowledgement.