Feminism. For a long time it has been a dirty word. Women too afraid to label themselves as one for fear of being called a man-hater, or ugly and bitter about not being able to get a man. But things are changing. And recently the pace has really been picking up. More and more celebrities have come out as feminists (as if it’s a closet you need to come out of!), culminating last week in Beyonce’s much publicised VMAs performance, where she proudly stood in front of a sign saying FEMINIST.
While this has been happening, the backlash has also been gathering pace. Movements like Women Against Feminism have emerged telling the world proudly why they “Don’t Need Femininsm”. While I support women to live whatever life they choose, I feel this group really misses the point. Saying you’re not a feminist, but in the same breath saying you think the sexes should be equal is, as Amy Poehler sagely points out “like someone being like, ‘I don’t really believe in cars, but I drive one every day and I love that it gets me places and makes life so much easier and faster and I don’t know what I would do without it.'”
The one thing we all need to do is stop arguing about semantics. Don’t want to call it feminism? Fine, but don’t pull down the power of a word that gives women all over the world solidarity and strength. Want to stay home with your children? Great, all power to you. Thank feminists for fighting for maternity leave.
Before tearing down feminism, or declaring you are not one, here’s the thing you should probably understand – the meaning of the word feminist:
Not that women are better than men, or deserve more rights. That we deserve equal opportunity. This manifests itself in lots of ways, and some women fight more vehemently for it than others, but at it’s core feminism is about equality. If you believe that women deserve the opportunity to achieve and have the agency to make their own decisions, then you are a feminist.
Yes, there are many complex and difficult discussions we need to have, and keep having. We opened Pandora’s box only very recently (in historical terms), and upsetting thousands of years of gender division and inequality is hard work. We’re not going to agree about everything, and challenging privilege will always be met with vehement opposition. And it is 100% true that women of my background and opportunity are the luckiest women to have existed on the face of the planet. Ever.
But does that mean things are equal? Not by a long shot. Even in my fairly blessed experience, I have been told by people I work with I’m too aggressive, when I have merely been assertive. I’ve been told I should tone down my personality if I want to find a man. I’ve felt guilty because I’m an unmarried woman in my thirties, and because I don’t 100% know that I want to have children. I have been pressured into sex, and been called frigid when I said no. I am lucky enough to be in the two thirds of women who have not been raped or sexually abused, but I have had men I am not dating or sleeping with make advances on me when they think I’m asleep.
I’ve also spent years wondering why men aren’t interested in women’s stories. Why a film about a woman is deemed a “chick flick” and not worth watching. A book about a woman is “chick lit” and not worth reading. Why women in films are sub characters, and sidelined; love interests, mothers, there simply to give exposition.
My eyes have been increasingly opened to the injustice that is not just in third world countries, but right here. Men still harassing women in the street. Online activists for women’s rights receiving death and rape threats from anonymous trolls. Women still being told to police ourselves if we want to avoid being raped. Still being called sluts, or bossy, or crazy in an attempt to control us. A culture that tells little girls they should be passive, while little boys should be active. That a woman’s value is in her sexual appeal to men. Women are still made to feel guilty for having a job and children. For having a job and not having children. For having children and not having a job. Women are still asked “how they do it all” when they work and have children, while men with children are never asked this question.
Having said all this though, let me make it absolutely clear – I do and have always loved men. I have watched my own father’s feminist awakening as he went from thinking women couldn’t be good lawyers, to years later employing all female lawyers. I have also been lucky to be friends with some great guys – who are now wonderful, involved husbands and fathers. I have a gorgeous boyfriend who is patiently trying to get his head around feminist issues, so he can understand and be involved in discussions about it with me. Feminism is not set up in opposition to men, even though equality is often perceived as loss. The battle we’re fighting should not detract from men’s opportunity or rights. In fact, it should be a fight that men want to get involved in, and I fully endorse support from wherever it comes.
I can understand why men might feel attacked, or feel afraid of feminism. To be told that you have privilege you have never seen or felt can be confronting. To be asked to give more to women who you are already struggling to understand can be confusing. To be told you are a potential rapist can seem offensive. But privilege exists whether you acknowledge it or not. And breaking down gender inequity will help men too. They should not feel they have to be tough, or primary breadwinners. They should not constantly be portrayed in popular culture as hopeless buffoons. They should be able to take time off to be with their children. They should have real partnerships with women, not pseudo mother/child relationships where they need to have their domestic needs taken care of for them.
I can also understand how some women would struggle to feel solidarity with womankind, and feminism. Feminism has had a bad reputation for a number of years, and calling yourself a feminist was tantamount to declaring yourself an angry man hater. And not only this, but sometimes simply feeling you want to take women’s side will depend on your own feelings towards women in general. I had a terrible experience at an all girls school as a teenager. My overwhelming experience of girls was of backstabbing, and outright cruelty. Then in my twenties we were all set against each other, in the competition for men. I didn’t feel a sisterhood, or a strong desire to identify myself with a feminist cause – even though I had spent my childhood challenging the gender status quo in my family; arguing with my mother about teaching me to use the washing machine and not my brother, yelling at my dad for saying women were just more suited to domestic duties. By the time I was at uni I wanted to be friends with the boys – and I wanted them to like me. So I called myself an “equalist”. It took many years, and several feminist mini-epiphanies for me to start to feel solidarity with women. Inspired by reading strong, intelligent feminist writers, I have been finding a voice for all the little injustices I that I had quietly noticed for years.
It gives me real hope, and joy to see the tide on this is now turning. That we are reclaiming the word feminist, and opening up this important dialogue again. It seems like all the little girls who were raised by working mothers, and under the illusion of equality have reached adulthood, and realised it’s not all we were promised. We are having our own daughters and realising our work is not even nearly done.
While we definitely need our men to accept and support our agency to make our own decisions (even mistakes), even more so, we need women to stop being our own worst enemies. Feminism is about choice. Something we can be grateful to feminism for giving us in the first place.