I Am A Feminist. Not A Humanist.

Let me begin this discussion by saying that I am a feminist. I support and believe in feminism. I think that feminism is extremely important and multi-layered, and that supporting feminism works in the favour of women, men, and gender non-conforming people everywhere. And, by extension, I believe that everyone should identify as a feminist as well.

Not everyone agrees with me. And I’m not just talking about your typical overt misogynist who believes that all women should be barefoot and pregnant and all men should be burly, tough-guy, macho-men lacking emotion.

In 2014, actress Shailene Woodley, who has in the past discussed women’s issues, caused controversy when she refused to call herself a feminist. When asked by Time Magazine if she considered herself a feminist, she said, “no because I love men”. She then continued on to say, “my biggest thing is really sisterhood more than feminism”. This then prompted many to ask, does she even know what feminism is? After all, the dictionary definition of feminism is, “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”. Loving or hating men has nothing to do with it; it isn’t about that. It’s about equality, by nature.

But who cares about the dictionary definition, right? As anyone who has studied linguistics can tell you, the definition of words has a tendency to shift and change over time (fun fact: the word ‘awful’ originally meant something more akin to ‘awesome’). So is it possible that what Woodley is reacting to here is a shift in what feminism means? Because she isn’t the only woman who appears to believe in equal rights between the genders, and yet doesn’t identify as a feminist.

Actress Susan Sarandon, for example, has stood up for women’s reproductive rights and other human rights issues over the years, and yet she will not call herself a feminist. Instead, she refers to herself as a ‘humanist’, saying that she finds it “less alienating to people who think of feminism as a load of strident bitches”. And she is not the first woman (or individual, more generally) who I have heard come up with other terms for supporting equal rights, like “humanist” or “equalist”.

And yet, I still call myself a feminist. And I still fully believe that everyone should identify as a feminist. And why?

Well, first of all, I want to get the least important issue out of the way first: humanism is already a thing. It has nothing to do with gender equality, but rather takes a more human-centric view of the world, as opposed to a more theological view.

There. And now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about feminism more specifically.

Feminism is a movement that has fallen under a lot of criticism, and a lot of these criticisms are the reason why some women have chosen to distance themselves from it.

For example, let’s return to Susan Sarandon’s claim that feminism is “alienating”. Why is it alienating? Well, perhaps the reason for that is the prefix – “fem”, meaning woman. There are many people out there who have asked that, if feminism is truly for everyone, then why is it called “feminism”? Shouldn’t it be something more inclusive?

Well… no. No, I don’t think it should be.

Why is it called “feminism”? Because the sort of equality that feminism fights for is an incredibly gendered type of equality – so, of course, it makes sense that the name for the movement would refer to gender. And not only any gender, it refers to the female gender, which is the one that has, historically, been most obviously harmed by gender inequality.

That isn’t to say that the patriarchy doesn’t harm men. It does. But generally speaking, it is women who have been more overtly shunned, marginalized, and looked down upon because of it. Changing the name so that it doesn’t refer to women anymore ignores this history and cultural context.

And, I would argue, it is because of the patriarchy that many men feel uncomfortable identifying with a movement that refers to women in its very name. The patriarchy, after all, always presents femininity as something vapid, stupid, and lesser. Men are encouraged to cast off their feminine side, while women are mocked and belittled, creating a culture where the majority of insults that are thrown at men refer to them as, somehow, feminine – sissy, queer, girl, etc. Of course men don’t want to identify as feminists, if feminist means woman and women are inferior.

But it is exactly this kind of mentality that feminism is trying to fight. So changing the name so that men feel less alienated sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? We are trying to create a culture where men would feel absolutely no shame in being a feminist, even if it does contain the prefix ‘fem’. After all, there is nothing wrong with being a woman, and there is nothing wrong with supporting women.

As famed feminist scholar bell hooks once said, “feminism is for everybody”.

But part of this distance from the term is born from a bit more than that, as well. Generally speaking, feminism has been accused of plenty of unsavoury things – such as man-hating, or trying to strip men of their masculinity, and therein lies Shailene Woodley’s comment that she isn’t a feminist because she doesn’t hate men.

And to argue against this, I am tempted to return to the dictionary definition, as many feminists before me have done. But, as I pointed out before, the dictionary definition means little, doesn’t it? So, instead, I’m going to focus on what feminism has actually done.

Recently, feminists have been involved in such movements as #metoo and #timesup, both of which deal with supporting victims of sexual assault or harassment. Feminists have been fighting for women’s right to reproductive health, fighting rape culture, and combating the wage gap. Some of this might indirectly relate to men, but for the most part, the focus is on women. And even when men are considered in feminism, it is usually in an attempt to better their lives as well – allow men the chance to explore their emotions, move away from toxic outlets for masculinity such as violence, and admit to vulnerability when they have been hurt or victimized.

In fact, feminists have been trying to distance themselves from this image of man-hating for years now. As actress and feminist Emma Watson once said, “The more I have spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.”

Feminists have been dismissed as ‘feminazis’, and yet nowhere in the world, at any point in history, have men been forced into concentration camps by evil feminists. So why do we live with these assumptions?

Well, I, for one, am tempted to side with the argument that dismissing feminists as ‘man-haters’ is, quite simply, a way to dismiss the movement en masse. It is a way to say that what we fight for doesn’t matter, that it isn’t true equality. But I disagree; I have never seen anything, in all my years of identifying as a feminist, that indicates that the entire movement, en masse, does not desire equality.

Now, that isn’t to say that all feminism is created equal. As I mentioned before, feminism is a complex, multi-layered issue, and there are many different types of feminists. There are intersectional feminists, radical feminists, liberal feminists, and so on and so forth (for the record, I tend to aim toward intersectional feminism). I do encourage you to read up on the differences between all these theories in your own time (many of these differences are related to arguments about what equality means, and who women should strive to be equal to, which is much too intricate a discussion for me to begin here). But the simple fact that feminism is such a complex issue, with such extensive history and intense academic research put into it proves to me that it is not a movement to be discarded so easily. This is a movement with a solid groundwork, with so much history and importance, that it seems sort of ridiculous to just cast all that aside in an attempt to distance ourselves from some made-up criticisms that don’t even truly reflect what the movement is.

Historically speaking, feminism, as an umbrella movement, has been the term that we use to refer to the fight for gender equality. It is a term that states that there is nothing wrong with being a woman. It is a term that states that men should be comfortable with the feminine, and women should be allowed to inhabit spaces that have traditionally been reserved for the masculine. It is a term that is backed up by history and culture and academic research, all with the intent of creating a more equal, loving, and accepting society.

To quote Maya Angelou, “I am a feminist. I’ve been a female for a long time now. It’d be stupid not to be on my own side.”

Why Feminism Is Still Important

I’ve been noticing a very dangerous pattern in feminism lately – or, technically speaking, I suppose, outside of feminism. More and more frequently, whenever the word is brought up to a crowd of women, they’ll squirm uncomfortably in her seats, adopt an awkward expression to their eye and they’ll say, “I believe in equality, but I’m not a feminist.”

Now, I’m not going to say that these women are wrong, per se. After all, they’re only saying how they feel, and how can a feeling be wrong? No, instead I’m going to say that these women have been misinformed – they’ve been misinformed by society, by the media, and by the men around them who are intimidated by feminism (not all men are, of course, but I’ll get into that in more detail later).

I think many of us are familiar with the dictionary definition of feminism. After all, that’s the first line of defence that the feminist who hears this statement jumps to. “By definition,” s/he says, hoping to appeal to this woman’s logic, “feminism is about equality, about creating a world where we can all receive the same treatment, regardless of gender. You can’t say that you believe in equality but you aren’t a feminist – the two are one in the same”

The thing is, however, many of the women who awkwardly avoid being labelled as a feminist know this. They’ve heard the dictionary definition, and they still stand by their misinformed claim to accept one idea without the other. So then why? What is it about the movement for equality that makes so many women uncomfortable?

Well, if you ask many of them, they’ll give you a multitude of answers.

“Because I don’t hate men,” some of them might say, their answer short and sweet and simple.

“Because feminism doesn’t address the issues that men face in our society. Men are expected to be the providers, and we don’t talk about how unfair that is!” says another.

“Because feminists today don’t have any real problems,” another will suggest. “Not like women in other countries, anyway, where they’re still sold as property and beaten to death if they have sex out of marriage.”

On the surface, I understand where many of these arguments are coming from. They’re well-intentioned, I’m sure, but still, misinformed. Because the way I see it, feminism does address all of these problems.

As I’ve said before, true feminism is about equality. It is not “women vs. men”, as many of these non-feminists seem to believe. It is about feminists (male and female alike) vs. the patriarchy – a long-established set of societal norms based on the assumption that men/masculinity is better than women/femininity. The general existence of the patriarchy is not anyone’s fault. No true feminist is blaming men for it. The problem is that everyone – including women – have internalized at least some of these patriarchal ideas, and thus, it keeps being enforced.

Let’s use this in an example – maybe the one provided by our friend, the non-feminist. Men are expected to be the provider, and that isn’t fair. I agree – it isn’t. The problem is that the patriarchy tells men that they need to fulfill this role simply because they are men. Because waiting for them at home, of course, is a weak, passive woman who needs to be protected. Because if the man doesn’t serve as the provider, then this women will die, as she is incapable of fending for herself. It is the patriarchy telling men this, not feminists.

Men do face many problems at the hands of the patriarchy. They are expected to limit their expression of emotion because emotions are weak or, in other words, ‘feminine’. They are dismissed when they come forward with stories of rape or abuse, because men are much too strong to have either thing happen to them. They are expected to fit into this narrow definition of what it means to be a man, and if they deviate from that at all, then they are belittled and called ‘feminine’ (fag, sissy, girl, ect.). And that is why feminism is so important. We need something that confronts the patriarchy – that teaches people about it and helps them to understand the problems underlying it. We need it just as much for men as we do for women.

And as far as the argument goes that modern feminists in western countries don’t have any problems – I disagree. Women are still far from being treated as men’s equal, and if you think that we are, then I don’t think you’re looking hard enough.

In my home country of Canada, one in three women will be raped. And if numbers don’t scare you enough, then that means that it can be expected for either me, my mother, or my sister. That means that whenever you walk into a room filled with people, then there are multiple female rape survivors standing amongst you. That means that it is not a foreign problem – it is something that we are dealing with right here, in our country, and it is part of a huge, complex series of problems all stemming from patriarchal ideas.

And if you are raped, then you can expect not to be taken seriously as a woman. You might be asked questions like “how much were you drinking” or “what were you wearing” or “are you sure you didn’t lead him on”, as though any of that has anything to do with the violence that has been perpetuated against you. If you are raped, then it’s your word against his, and there’s very little chance that you will ever receive real justice.

In my home country of Canada, a woman working the exact same job as a man will make seventy-two cents for every dollar he makes. And you can expect to make even less than that if you’re a woman of colour.

In my home country of Canada, women are told constantly to be ashamed of their bodies – whether it be directly, like being told to cover up or hide yourself while breast-feeding, or indirectly, like the time when I was told in high school that I needed to put a sweater on because my body might prove a distraction to the boys in my class.

If I went on about all the feminist issues that we still have to face in Canada, I’d be here all day, but my point is, we’re still a long way from equal. And, yes, there are women in other countries who have it worse, I won’t deny that. But you know what isn’t helping those women? Telling feminists to shut up and stop complaining because people in Africa have it worse.

If women in other countries have any hope of receiving help, then they will need feminism. They will need that tool to dissect the patriarchy. They need that long-standing history that will help them to understand how to proceed. Feminism can help those women, not hinder them.

And it isn’t shocking that domestic feminists are concerned with domestic problems – they’re surrounded by them, they see them every day. I honestly doubt that if you asked any feminist in the first world if she thought that the wage gape was more important than the issue of women being beaten to death for having sex out of marriage, she would say that it is. But she would say that they are both problems that need to be addressed, and feminism is capable of addressing both of them.

And if you don’t personally believe that feminism today is doing enough for men or for women in other countries, then why don’t you be the change? Start talking about it, write a blog, spread the word – it’s easier today to do that than it ever was. Feminism is a grand movement, and it’s been constantly changing ever since its invention. If you told a first-wave feminist about the issue of the wage gap, after all, she’d have no idea what you were talking about! So introduce the idea if you feel the need to – be that change. Don’t disregard the entire movement because you don’t feel it’s done a sufficient job of discussing certain issues yet.

So then if feminism does address all of the problems that non-feminists are concerned about, why are they still so uncomfortable with the idea? And worse yet, many people – women included – have become hostile to the idea, turning to movements such as “Feminism is Cancer” to voice their hatred.

Well, in my opinion, it all goes back to the first explanation given by the non-feminist: “I don’t hate men”. As I hope I’ve proven above, feminism, of course, is not about hating men, but it does seem to be difficult to convince some men of this.

I find myself reminded of the “meninist” movement – that group of men who preached the idea that feminism was imposing on their masculinity, and they didn’t feel free to be themselves anymore. There are two reasons I can think of for them feeling this way:

1) it’s a knee-jerk reaction. They see women who are looking to upset the balance of society, who want to take away the privileged status that men have upheld for centuries, and their automatic assumption is that women are going to take it for themselves and appoint themselves the dominating gender. “It’s a mutiny!” these men cry, and run to their meninist battle-stations.

2) These particular men are ones who benefited from the patriarchy. They liked their role as the provider – they felt very comfortable in it. It gave them purpose, made them feel strong and, well, ‘masculine’. They liked being able to marry a woman who perceived her entire purpose in life to be serving him, living only for him. When feminism comes along and tries to take this away from them, or at least make them question it, they don’t want to lose it. They claim that feminism is stripping them of their freedom, when the only freedom they’re losing is the freedom to oppress women.

So these men go forth, they bash feminism, they demand to have their misinformed voices heard. And some women do hear them. They hear men telling them that feminism is an evil, it’s a ‘cancer’, one that will take away their own rights and their own freedoms. And I hate to say that these women want to impress these men, but one thing that the patriarchy does preach to women is that they should strive to be accepted by men. So they say that they “believe in equality” (because they do), “but they aren’t a feminist”, because feminists are evil. Feminists want to take these men’s rights away. And these men are more important to please than anyone, according to the patriarchy.

I am uncomfortable with saying that the only reason that a woman would say “I believe in equality, but I’m not a feminist” is to impress men, however, so I offer another explanation: because in our still-patriarchal society, men still rule the world. Men who benefit from the patriarchy are in our media, they release our movies, they write our news reports – they’re everywhere, and they’re always so eager to give us their opinions. And particularly if you do not go out and research feminism for yourself, there are only so many times that you can hear a man say “feminism is evil” before you start to believe it, no matter how strongly you believe in equality.

And this, my friends, is why we need feminism. This is why I am so hesitant to allow the feminist movement to fall away into this alternative movement of ‘equality’. Because the very voices that are telling us that feminism is evil are the ones that feminism is fighting against.

So let me end this rant with this proud declaration: I, Ciara, am a feminist.