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.”