By Sarina D. ’19
I am a feminist. This label often comes with a lot of misconceptions. Feminists do not hate men. They do not believe all men are rapists. And, this one’s for you Dad, they are not all “angry lesbians with green hair shouting ‘abort’ in front of Planned Parenthood”. If feminism was defined by any of these things, or many of the other things people believe it is, I wouldn’t be a feminist either.
That’s why I think it is important for us to establish the key objectives and values of the movement in an era in which our next generation is taking the reigns and helping the movement evolve in the context of our evolving society. But to do this, I believe that we who identify with the movement need to work to dispel some of these false ideas about what feminism needs, and need to do a much better job of explaining why we have chosen to take on this label and all that stands for. Now, a quick disclaimer- obviously I cannot speak for all feminists from my generation. My only intention is to explain what feminism means to me, and what I believe it means to the many young people in the movement based on my experiences and conversations with them.
So, I hope that by delving into some of the most common questions and misconceptions that people have about feminism, I will help at least one person who reads this article come to a better understanding of the movement- or even a desire to be a part of it.
Misconception #1: Feminism means female superiority
Feminism, defined simply, is the advocacy for the social, political, legal, and economic equality of people of every gender. Recently, I have thought a lot about the term “feminism” and whether the label actually hinders the movement’s progress and prevents people who would join it from taking that label. When many people hear the term feminism, they associate it with the advocacy for female superiority, or the extreme outliers who believe things like “housewives need to liberate themselves”. When pondering this, I instantly felt that it would be easier if the movement was called “gender equality activism” or something like that. But then over Thanksgiving break I read Nigerian activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We should all be feminists.” When addressing why we should not label feminism as human rights advocacy or something of the sort, she states, “It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude one. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.” While the label may hinder the movement in that it inherently yields misconceptions about feminism means, I am no longer sure if I regret the fact that we chose it, or that another name would be more appropriate. Feminism means gender equality for all, but is specifically tailored towards the rights of women- who have been historically oppressed. It seems about right to me. Let me know what you guys think!
Misconception #2: Feminists shame housewives and traditionalism
Another key misconception about feminism is that the movement advocates for an end to the concept of housewives and believes that all women should be professionals. The way I would describe feminism to someone is the idea that women should have a choice. This means that we should support women whether they want to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, housewives, or sex workers. It doesn’t mean that we should force all women out of the home, but rather that we should advocate so that women all around the world have the choice.
Misconception #3: Feminists worship women like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer
Now, this one is super specific, but I think Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer are representative of a group of women who have been viewed as feminist icons in the past that most people who identify with the movement today take issue with. Lena Dunham quite literally, ranted about a black man being homophobic when he did not take in conversing her at an event, frequently objectifies black male bodies, makes racist jokes about Asians, and jokes about sexually harassing her little sister. Amy Schumer, another lauded “funny, feminist, body-positive queen” frequently jokes that Mexican men are rapists, and defended racism embedded in her work by essentially stating that racism is an inevitable part of comedy. These two women are traditionally seen as millennial feminist icons, but the reality is that feminism today reject’s their white feminism.
So what is this white feminism thing anyway?
“White feminism’ has nothing to do with the race of the person who identifies as the feminist. Rather, the term was coined as a means of describing the advocacy for gender equality where it only benefited a specific type of women, or most commonly, white women. In essence, this form of feminism failed to address the distinct forms of oppression faced by ethnic minority women and women lacking in other privileges, and was perpetuated and led by typically white, upper class, cisgender, Christian women. White feminism meant advocating for equal pay without acknowledging that black women in Hollywood make even less than their white female counterparts. It meant masquerading as a social justice hero while spewing hatred against other minority classes. And it meant assuming that every women was an equal beneficiary of the feminist movement. We cannot truly make progress as a movement unless we recognize that there are so many different types of women with so many different identities that yield different treatment in our system. To assume that women are a homogenous population who have the same struggles and suffer the same consequences from socio political and economic bias would be to discount and erase the lives of so many women- and to leave them behind while a small privileged class surges ahead.
What is Intersectional Feminism?
Intersectional feminism arose as a solution to white feminism- an alternative to an ideology that only offered progress to a homogenous population of privilege. Intersectional feminism is the idea that we want to make progress as women- but not on the backs of blacks or Latinos or poor people or the LGBT community. It is the idea that minority progress should not be a zero sum game like it has been in the past. It is the idea that we should acknowledge that the women who stood at the forefront of women’s rights initiatives in the past often owned slaves, or spewed
Misconception #4: Feminists believe that all men are sexist/rapists
First of all, it would be disingenuous for me to say that no feminist has ever claimed something along the lines of “all men are pigs”. It would also be disingenuous for me to say that feminists never make generalizations about men and their intentions, beliefs, or behaviors. I believe this is one of the largest flaws of the movement that hinders its progress. Male allies can be vital to the movement and can pass the microphone to women or create space for women to speak out.
Misconception #5: Feminists believe gender inequality is the largest/only issue facing America/the western world
Gender inequality is a human rights issue that manifests itself in political oppression and violent atrocities in many nations in the world. In this sense, feminism is one of the most pressing issues facing the international community. However, feminists in our nation know and understand that gender equality is not the only cultural and systemic issue that we as a society face in the western world, which is why the intersectional part is so important.
Misconception #6: Feminists would all have abortions themselves
Many of the women I have met who identify as feminists morally or religiously disagree with abortions or would just not be comfortable having one themselves. But being pro-choice is about believing that women should have the choice, and believing that our personal religious and value systems should not, in a secular country, dictate someone else’s decisions.
Misconception #7: Feminism only benefits women
Feminism is the ideology centered around the advocacy for gender equality, and that means advocating for gender equality where it benefits men. Men are held to impossible standards by our society to be powerful, unemotional, and strong. They are expected to work tirelessly, and often have to see their less capable spouses favored in custody cases. Feminism means working towards equality for these issues, and to ensuring that we acknowledge and address where our system harms men as well
Misconception #8: “Take off the hijab”
One of the hardest challenges to navigate as a member of the feminist movement is the question of how we deal with gender inequality in other cultures and religions. We recently had a Women Driving Change meeting surrounding this topic where we talked about our own cultures and families and how we went about avoiding imposing our value system on others while still speaking up for inequality. This manifests itself in the debate over the hijab. Feminists today know that attempting to tell Muslim women to “liberate themselves” by taking off the hijab is an example of this imposition of beliefs, a fundamental misunderstanding of the head garment and its purpose, and an attempt to make choices for other women when we should be empowering them to make their own. I try to remember this when I talk to my grandmother, who was in an arranged marriage and who adheres to traditions that symbolize subservience to her husband, but to be honest, I wish I knew the right answer to this issue in general if there is one. The only compromise I can come up with is that women should have a choice whether they adhere to tradition or not, but giving women who live under different political systems this choice is no easy task. I can imagine this will be a question for feminists in each coming generation to think about and to contribute to.
Misconception #10: Feminism only focuses on first-world problems
Now, this one has a lot of legitimacy, especially given that a lot of the issues or movements you will hear about in the media have to do with privileged individuals(i.e Times up for Hollywood). However, I would say that some of the largest problems that feminists today face are child labor and domestic violence, education, and sexual harassment, most of which have global focuses. There are still women in countries all around the world who do not have legal or political rights, who are denied basic education, and who are subject to violence and abuse. This is our priority in the movement, and we recognize our privilege in relative standing. This is mostly for those who say that women are equal in America or in Europe and thusly there is no need for feminism. Feminism is a global movement, and that means that advocacy is not limited to our personal lives, communities, or even nations.
Misconception #11: We don’t need feminism in first-world or western countries
But don’t get me wrong, the conception that America or the western world does not need feminism because we already practice equality is false. We have definitely made immense progress from 30 years ago, 100 years ago, and 200 years ago, but we’re just not quite there yet. Here are a few facts that I hope will convince you is the case.
- Because according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 1 out of 6 women will have experienced attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
- Because in 2015, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, females who worked full-time, made 79 cents to every dollar a man made. That is a 21% wage gap(we can talk about how the wage gap is partially due to the fact that women are actually paid less than men and due to the fact that there are social challenges that inhibit women from reaching their full career potential or attaining the same high-paid jobs)
- Because, despite the fact that there are more women than men in America and on earth, according to the Catalyst Conference, The House of Representatives consists of 19.3% women and 80.7% men, and the Senate consists of 20% women and 80% men.
- Because men get 60% longer prison sentences than woman for the same crimes.
- Because the place a women is most likely to be murdered is her home.
- And so much more.
I am a feminist because I want to solve these problems. I am a feminist because I believe that a world in which people of all genders are politically, socially, and economically equal will yield the best results for our society overall. And I am a feminist because I no longer want to wonder this: if we had been using the untapped potential of half of our population on this earth for the past centuries of our existence, imagine where we could be now.