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Now I know that I’ve posted about this before – and certainly in the comments on this very blog I’ve been called a “feminazi” more than once for expressing the controversial opinion that women are people, too – but there’s recently been a couple of stories in the papers in which the word has been bandied about again.

The first and most prominent is that of a lawyer on LinkedIn who has been branded a feminazi for scolding an older man via email for commenting that her profile picture was very attractive. Here’s the thing; I don’t actually think that his action in itself was offensive. And before you cry, how can you have betrayed the sisterhood like this, Lavinia? what I want to point out is that the context makes it offensive. I don’t necessarily mean LinkedIn, although I think perhaps a work networking site is not really the best place to catch people in an amenable mood for that kind of compliment, no matter how benignly intended.

No, I mean the context of our society’s gendered power relations. Women are so used to comments of that kind – focussing on appearance rather than competence or merit – being used in a dismissive fashion that (certainly for my part) it calls up a whole package of upsetting and frustrating material. I still remember very clearly (though it is back through the mists of time now) one of my early tutorials at Oxford in which the tutor made a (positive) comment about my appearance when I came into the tutorial. I have no doubt that it was kindly meant, but it made me feel immensely uncomfortable; I was alone in a room with someone who was in so much more of a position of power than me, and I just wanted to be dealt with intellectually. I didn’t know what to say. And whatever people may think, I would argue that men are usually – in our society – enjoying the superior position in that power dynamic.

So to call a woman who has become upset, perhaps apparently irrationally, a feminazi – aside from the hideously inappropriate comparison between someone telling someone they are offended and the holocaust in a very juvenile manner typical of the internet forum’s trump-card attitude towards nazism –  is to completely misunderstand how complex and upsetting things can be within a wider context.

Likewise, the Telegraph’s Daisy Buchanan (how I am loathe to link to the telegraph, but it really is the most direct link) has been widely ridiculed as a “feminazi” for saying she doesn’t feel safe on the train. The one thing that has been picked up and made a mountain of was some comment she made about a man chatting her up while she was trying to read her book. Aside from the fact that I think ANYONE attempting to talk to ANYONE who is clearly busy reading ought to be punishable by a night in jail, I think those who criticise fail to see the context that motivates that upset.

For me, anyway, ultimately it’s the frustration that someone has ignored either what you are saying (how was my essay? what work connections can we make? etc.) in order to relate to you in a way that reduces you to your looks (the way women often are in the media) or the signals you are giving out that you’d like to be left to your own devices (reading a book). It’s obviously not a horrible crime to tell someone they look attractive, but neither is it a horrible crime to express that you find something inappropriate or upsetting.

Sure, it’s easy to make fun of isolated examples, but we shouldn’t ignore the wider trend, nor should we allow people expressing indignation to be silenced by the childish accusation of being a ‘feminazi’ – it’s a stupid word used predominantly by unthinking people, and in the dialogue about love, sex, and gender politics, we can all do a lot better.

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