Are you a feminist?
Posted on September 23, 2013
Are you a feminist?
If you’ve paused to contemplate your answer, then here are a couple of questions that might help you clarify your position.
Do you think that men and women should be treated equally?
Do you think that sexism prevents this?
If you have answered yes to both questions then congratulations, you are a feminist!
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, feminism is:
“the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”
Author, feminist and social activist, Bell Hooks, has coined a widely-used definition:
“Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.”
Most reasonable people will agree that equality between women and men and an end to sexism and oppression would be a good thing. And yet, surveys consistently find that a majority do not call themselves feminists.
The problem, respondents say, is not with the ideals of feminism, it is with the word “feminism”. It conjures up an image of militant, man-hating lesbians (the butch ones, not the lipstick ones) with bad hair. “Normal” people don’t want to be thought of as one of those and they certainly don’t want to have to explain themselves to their family, their peers or their employers when they identify as a comrade. So yeah, sure, they believe in equality but please don’t call it feminism.
How many militant, man-hating lesbians with bad hair do you actually know? Compared to the amount of people you know who just don’t like sexism?
As long as it has existed, the word “feminism” has been hijacked and discredited by politicians, by religious groups, by the media. As with the civil rights and gay rights movements, supporters are portrayed as angry, overzealous and just… different. They promote a way of thinking that challenges the status quo so those in charge feel the need to defend their positions.
Media mogul, Pat Robertson, sums up right-wing paranoia quite well:
“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”
Leaving aside the idea of child-murdering witches, the accusation of an anti-family, anti-men agenda is a common one. But how exactly will ending sexism hurt men and their families? Sexism hurts men too. Sexism asserts that men are not as good parents as women, that they should be viewed with suspicion when they are alone with children, that they can’t be victims of domestic abuse, that being kind or gentle is gay, that being gay is a bad thing, that caring about their health or appearance is feminine, and that being feminine is also bad.
Feminism is not something that is done to men by women; feminism is for everybody and it aims to improve the lives of everyone by tackling the sexism that affects us all.
We are all guilty of it – men and women. We are born into a patriarchal society that promotes sexism and we are socialised from birth to believe sexist values. Women judge other women on how they look as much as men do because we have all learned to believe that how a woman looks is more important than what she does.
Sexism is not our fault but it is our responsibility. We all need to confront our own internalised sexism to realise how prevalent it is in our way of thinking about ourselves and others. That is Feminism 101.
But what about the word itself? Is there too much baggage? When a majority of people who are actually feminists don’t want to use the F-word, is it time for a change?
No. No way.
Centuries of progress wiped out because of a smear campaign? Misogynists telling each other that they were right about feminism all along? A new brand name with the same old prejudices to fight?
Feminism has had a good century. Western women can now vote, work after marriage, we have access to contraception, safe abortion, the right to have a different address to our husbands, the right not to be raped by them, access to healthcare and to comfortable clothes. In theory, Western women have a free path to succeed in whatever field they choose.
Of course, not all feminists are rich, white, middle-class women who want to succeed in the boardroom. Many feminists have other prejudices to deal with, such as classism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. And many feminists are men!
Some people suggest using the word “humanism” instead of “feminism” – if we are all to be treated equally, then why can’t we just see each other as fellow human beings?
The problem with the word humanism, is that it suggests that we are already equal and, in taking away the “fem” part of the word, it disregards the prejudices that woman face. Should we replace the words civil rights or gay rights with humanism? Of course not because racism and homophobia are real things. So is sexism.
The word feminism matters because of the battering it has taken – the word itself is a symbol of the struggle for equality. To deny it is to reinforce sexist propaganda.
So, are you a feminist?
By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Huffington Post on 23 September 2013.