The word “feminist” has the ability to spark two equal and opposite reactions: solidarity, complete with fist pumping and a rallying cry, as well as horror, accompanied by a swift repudiation of feminism and all that it entails. Although this can be said of many things, feminism is among a handful of things that can alternately inspire outrage and inspiration, and is considered a source of ire to a large portion of the population—ire that, largely, comes from a place of genuine ignorance or misunderstanding.
What is Feminism?
A simple dictionary definition of feminism is this: “the theory of the political, economical, and social equality of the sexes.” On paper, this seems ideal for most (sadly, not all) of the population, as very few will argue that women legitimately deserve to be considered of a lower political, economical, and social class. Why, then, the hesitance to adopt the title, or promote its tenets?
The word “feminism” was coined in the late 1800s by a French philosopher, and enjoyed sparse usage for the next 30-40 years. Although mentions of feminism were made during this time, it was also a time during which women were, without hesitation, regarded as “less than” men, in that they were not permitted all of the liberties and enjoyments men were afforded. Although feminist movements existed before this time (suffrage, anyone?), the United States could no longer ignore the presence of feminism during the 1960s and 70s, as more men and women adopted the moniker of “feminist,” and argued in earnest for equal rights and, perhaps even more to the point, equal standing.
Feminism—and All That Entails
Although the definition of feminism initially appears to focus on the rights of women, it is important to note that it encompasses equality as a whole, regardless of race, religion, creed, or otherwise. The basis of feminism is that people should not be discriminated against—period. There is no exception due to the presence of a vagina (regardless of its particular shade or intended use), just as the presence of a penis does not indicate a greater position of power. Instead, all men and all women are regarded as equals—partners and allies in life, rather than being relegated to an imaginary hierarchy with arbitrary rules and no clear basis in fact or biology.
In practice, feminism is simple: treat everyone equally. Treat every single human being you come across as an equal, a peer, and a companion. That ten-year-old who comes to your door bearing religious tracts while their parents wait (anxiously) in the car? An (admittedly bothersome) friend. That man whose hulking presence is more than a little bit intimidating? Equal. That woman whose glorious cleavage is perpetually on display? An individual worthy of your time and attention.
Don’t misunderstand: feminism does not require that you literally befriend the entire world. There are going to be mindsets, personalities, and issues you find especially frustrating and incompatible with your own ideas. However, feminism does require you to offer respect and kindness to every single human being on the basis that all humans—every last one—are worthy of basic human rights and consideration.
A Practical Application
Feminism will look very different for different people, and that is perfectly fine. Some feminists might focus on the right to choose a career, a family, or both without being subjected to ridicule or fury, while others might choose to hone in on human rights and dedicate their lives to ending the horrifying proliferation of slavery and murder. Whatever the day-to-day minutiae of your brand of feminism might be, its basis must be this: all men and women—and all of the in-between—are equal. All have value. All deserve to be treated as human beings in need of dignity, respect, and deference.
The label of feminism might require you to alter your mindset, some; many (myself included) find ourselves flinching at the racist or sexist comments our grandparents say without a second thought—comments that might, however inadvertently, have marred some of our own views and thought patterns. Introspection is key to the growth of feminism. Take a moment to consider your view of the sexes. Even the staunchest feminist might uncover a harmful stereotype accepted as fact.
Most of us have grown up with some amount of sexism. For some, sexism has been relatively benign. One brush with sexism I can recall came in the form of an admonishment for wanting to purchase and ride a motorcycle when my sixteenth birthday rolled around. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that boys would be wholly uninterested in a girl who rode a motorcycle, as it was far too masculine and therefore unappealing. Although my young heart was startled (and sadly filed that dream away), the message was clear: you have value only as long as men give you value…and men give you value only as an ornament, or an object to be admired.
Why Eschewing the Title of Feminist Creates a Problem
Many men and women shy away from the word “feminist” for its connotation. Many a person has adopted the title, only to use it as an excuse to suggest that women are actually superior, and men are little more than base animals in need of culling—or worse, in need of extermination. A strict dictionary definition, however, quickly overthrows this (patently false) notion of feminism, as equality among the sexes means just that: equality, not a reversal of the patriarchy.
So why is this a problem? Shying away from the title creates a divide in human rights activists, and marginalizes a movement striving to empower human beings as a whole. Refuting the title of “feminist” suggests that there is something inherently problematic in the notion of women being equal to men. It also suggests that those who do uphold the beliefs behind feminism are in some way flawed, or are a part of a movement whose tenets are unfair or cruel. And finally, it discourages others from seeking out feminism and, consequently, upholds a system that definitively values men more than women.
A Religious Basis
Some would argue that religion upholds the idea that men are intended to be given greater import than women—and in some religions, that is the case. However, to argue that this is the case in the Judeo-Christian tradition so common to the United States is to fundamentally misunderstand Christian texts, and mistake (flawed) tradition for legitimate theology. Should you find yourself among those hesitant to espouse feminism based on biblical (or extra-biblical) texts, I challenge you to further examine these texts’ views of women; after all, in the creation of mankind, was it not determined that a man alone was not enough?
I, myself, have come across many a religious individual whose distance from feminism is borne of the misguided notion that various deities proclaimed women the lesser sex, and to depart from this idea is to decry the very religious beliefs they hold dear. However, consider this: most major religious traditions favor the notion of balance—of give and take, yin and yang, light and dark, etc. The very idea of balance is an argument for equality: a dominantly male presence is no more desirable than a dominantly female presence. Instead, the ideal is an equitable division of both.
Admittedly, this is not the case for all religions. However, here comes an important distinction: women may choose to be involved in a religion in which this is not the case. And feminism, ultimately, would support this decision: the problem comes from women being forcibly subjugated, rather than choosing a role for themselves. Should you find yourself wanting to adopt the ideas of feminism as your own, but fear leaving your belief system behind, please rest assured that this is not a requirement.
Housewife Versus Career Woman
Here, again, comes an oft-debated topic. Some women feel as though being a housewife or stay-at-home mother flies in the face of feminism. Others feel that having a career is another example of an agenda being forced upon them. What is a feminist take on the subject? Simply this: choice. A woman, as a feminist, should have the option of staying home (without being treated like a pariah), or of going to work (without the suggestion that she is abandoning her “womanly” duties). A man, as a feminist, should understand that a woman’s role is not decided prior to birth, by virtue of having ovaries, but is a choice to be made and determined by her, and no one else. And women should acknowledge the legitimacy of a man deciding to stay home to care for children. Once again, the important thing to remember, here, is equal treatment.
Whether you are a married lawyer working 80 hours per week, a broke college student holding down 3 jobs and barely getting by, or a stay-at-home mother whose sole responsibilities are housework and childcare, you should be and feel empowered to make the decision yourself—not due to societal pressure, or the wishes of those around you, but what you deem is best for yourself and your family.
In a Word
Ultimately, feminism is about one thing: equality. Equality requires both sexes to support and encourage one another, and to regard everyone with care and consideration, abandoning the notion that any one person has the right or responsibility to make life decisions for anyone else. A feminist view of the world is a view for everyone—young and old, male and female, religious and not. A feminist worldview is a compassionate one, believing agency and respect are more important and valuable than adhering to traditional gender roles. An argument for feminism is an argument for human rights. Bearing this in mind, the question remains: Are you a feminist?