Letter to the Editor: Student criticizes feminism opinion article

In the previous issue, opinion columnist Parker Wells wrote an article arguing that improper utilization of statistics greatly damages the feminist movement. Rather than defend the validity of the statistic (already done by online commenters), I would like to focus on the argument itself. Though the issue he raises no doubt comes from a good place (acknowledgement of the complexity of statistics), his article approaches it in a way that is ultimately more harmful than it is helpful.

There are many things that we need to do in order to address inequality, but nitpicking a statistic in this way, while masquerading as an attempt to help the movement, derails the conversation. Don’t get me wrong, pointing out potential problems with a way of thinking is often beneficial, but how it is done speaks volumes. A helpful discussion of some problems we can run into with statistics should be carefully framed by an understanding of the importance of feminism, which his article has failed to do. Parker conveniently leaves out any mention of what the movement strives for, speaking only of what it purports to do (which already serves to undermine it). Not only this, he writes that “feminism in America perpetuates myths and dishonesty” as if this is the only result from the movement, rather than the use of this statistic as a tactic employed by feminists (a fallible tactic used generally in argumentation, for that matter).

Essentially what I have gathered from Parker’s article is an insistence that incorrect usage of this statistic (that women on average earn 77 cents per every dollar men earn) prevents feminism from improving gender representation, combating sexism, etc. I believe he is trying to argue that this inaccuracy, as he sees it, makes it so that feminism cannot be taken seriously by many, thus hindering its progress. In order for this to be true, however, we must have individuals who choose to no longer care about feminist issues in the face of these ‘inaccurate’ numbers. Or, perhaps worded more gently, individuals who close off feminist conversation until the problem is resolved, i.e. we settle on a number that you are more comfortable with. The way in which the article is framed allows the conversation of feminism to continue only once these terms have been fulfilled. It is no wonder why the statistic is so commonly cited! I would venture that feminists are often asked to validate their beliefs on the basis of statistics alone, rather than qualitative data. And from there, of course, one can nitpick into oblivion how exacting the numbers ought to be, feeding into the vicious cycle.

Parker’s decision to focus on the topic in this light, leaving out information supportive of feminism, closes off the conversation just as strongly as demanding that feminism be “honest in its assertions.” It is difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt, too, because he does not even make any mention that despite the popularity of the statistic, feminism is still important and simply must be approached critically. Perhaps one can say that “of course, feminism is important!” but we readers cannot take this for granted. Leaving off this context does more than make his article read “blunt” or “underdeveloped,” as he later defends –it changes the meaning entirely, hindering the goal of equality, regardless of whatever context he would like to project onto it outside its publication. Neither will I accept the defense that there simply was not enough room to include the entirety of his stance. If you are willing to publish your opinion publicly, then you ought to stand by what you wrote. It does not seem to make sense to publish something you only partially agree with due to lack of space, only to retract it later –but, then, perhaps I misunderstand journalism in this regard.

In sum, it seems to be a much deeper problem when people attribute so much value to ‘accuracy’ (as defined by them, of course) that they undermine an incredibly important movement, especially in the face of so much qualitative data that cannot be captured by numbers. It is feminism which needs to change, these individuals seem to say from a safe distance, before we can give it a proper look –but in doing so they have overlooked the conditions they’ve built around the conversation (the condition that feminism is valid only after it has proved itself worthy through the propagation of ‘accurate’ statistics). Let us encourage a critical understand of statistics, then, rather than use it as a bar for considering the issues feminism strives to combat.

-Matti Wong, senior