One more, from 2009. This argument is still relevant in light of the somewhat recent controversy in the feminist blogosphere regarding Jessica Valenti's refusal to speak on a panel with an anti-feminist right-winger. Enjoy!
In the feminist blogosphere, I sometimes run across the following argument.
"There isn't one, monolithic feminism. There's always already feminism(s) and there are as many diverse feminism(s) as there are people. Feminism(s) mean different things to different people"
I find this kind of patronizing, for one. This line is always laid down as though it said something profound, but the fact of the matter is that it is a half-baked platitude. It's one thing to take note of the political dynamics of the disagreements and contestations coming from the margins, which were aimed at the (largely) white, liberal, middle-class, straight feminist projects that had come to present themselves as the only game in town. But it is quite another thing to propagate the facile conclusion that feminism really just means whatever individual persons want it to mean.
In fact, you can't really understand what those very contestations and interventions (e.g. from black feminists like Angela Davis and bell hooks, revolutionary lesbians like Monique Wittig, feminists writing the wake of colonialism, deconstructive feminists like Butler, etc.) were about unless you unequivocally reject the idea that feminism can mean whatever certain individuals want it to mean. For if it were true that feminism just is the plurality of existing views, norms, and relations of power regarding gender and sexuality, then there wouldn't be much point at all in contesting the way that mainstream feminists were paving over forms of oppression that didn't form a central part of their own experience. If "feminism" just means whatever individuals want it to mean willy-nilly, then the practice of criticizing white liberal feminism from the margins couldn't be intelligible.
That is to say, according to those who sing the timeless praises of "singularity" as such, difference as such, and pluralism as such, etc. it would appear that bell hooks, Monique Wittig, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, and many others did something seriously wrong. How dare they, you might think, contest or launch political interventions aimed at dismantling certain mainstream feminist theories and practices, when they ought to have left well enough alone and let those myopically white and middle class straight feminists "express their individuality and difference"? How dare they tell those white, middle class feminists what to do! Uh oh, its the 'feminist police'!
This is, of course, preposterous. There is a world of difference between making the totally valid sociological observation on the one hand that there is widespread disagreement about what feminism is and should be committed to doing, and on the other, claiming that there is an endless plurality of things feminism can mean for different people. The latter only obscures the actual concrete political dynamics of what gets to count as feminism by whitewashing important disagreements as simply 'different expressions of plurality'. When Judith Butler wrote Gender Trouble, I doubt very seriously (for more reasons than I can count) that she would have said that she was merely expressing her individuality and adding yet another brand of feminism to the endless shelf of pluralism. Her book caused such a stir because it was a trenchant critique of a certain way of thinking about feminist politics, it expressed disagreements and offered arguments aiming to undermine what others thought feminism entailed.
Notice also, that if the 'endless pluralism' story were right, there would be absolutely no way to identify cynical imposters who called themselves feminists disingenuously. For instance, imagine that Rush Limbaugh decided, without changing anything about himself whatsoever, to simply call himself a "feminist". (This is already happening with Sarah Palin, btw). Could anyone who grasps what the tradition of feminist politics means actually take him at face value? Could we really bear to label his political commitments as 'solidly radical feminist' just because he claims we should? The problem here, of course, is that the 'many feminism(s)'-'endless plurality' story would have no way to contest Limbaugh's claim. For if they were right, they'd have have no reason to want to contest Rush's claims at all. Think about it. He'd simply be expressing what feminism meant to him and proving their point that there really are only feminisms and a wide plurality of views. They'd have no grounds for understanding the politics of what is and is not feminism.
If feminism has to do with liberation from oppression, it cannot mean whatever individual people want it to mean. Meaning is never a matter of individual whim. Pretending that it is, however, is hardly a subversive move, but a thought-act wholly welcomed by contemporary consumer culture. This faux-individualist megalomania is encouraged by existing relations of power, and it is a powerful narrative running through ideological "arguments" about social mobility, debates about redistributive taxation, into the ways that people are encouraged to think of themselves in terms of the various consumer preferences they have, and so on. Buy, buy, buy! Consume, we're told. Give in to your consumerist fantasies and lust after immediately gratifying fixes! And shame on you if you stop to think about what this whole individualist, consumerist picture might amount to... that's to commit the sin of "telling others how to live their lives". "The personal is political" is a feminist slogan. "Everything is personal and nothing may be criticized" is not feminist or radical at all, this is the conservative message of contemporary capitalism. Banal also is this notion of 'if it feels good do it', 'live and let live', etc. These are not emancipatory anthems, but hackneyed advertisement jingles for the status quo.
But in reality, even superficial critical engagement with our culture and society quickly reveals that we are constantly told how to live our lives, how to think about our bodies, how to think about gender norms, how to dress, how to behave, etc. Feminism is a project aiming to uncover and ruthlessly submit these features of contemporary culture to critique (with a view to overturning them).
Feminism is an unremittingly critical political project. At its best it leaves no cultural, social or political phenomenon uncriticized. But pulling this 'just let women do what they want' line is dishonest. Should feminists condone what Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and the Anita Bryants of the world say? Is Sarah Palin a feminist? Of course not. And we have a name for people who say otherwise: post-feminists.
Feminists who say "just let people believe what they already believe" are no feminists at all. Feminism is supposed to be about criticizing and challenging existing relations of power. It's supposed to be about shredding oppressive norms that have come to appear to many as 'natural'. Anything less is complicit with oppression.