I’m a feminist. I’m a feminist because, throughout the world, individuals face the denial of social, political, and economic opportunities just as a result of their gender. I’m a feminist because I want to resist this system of oppression which defines the lives of multiple individuals: the lives of soldiers who are denied the ability to serve because they are trans men or trans women, the lives of same-sex couples merely seeking the right to marry and live their lives together, the lives of adolescents being abused in cruel “gay conversion” camps, the lives of men who defy gender roles imposed on them, the lives of women who are denied the right to equal pay and to employment, the lives of nonbinary folks who’re simply trying to resist social impositions that confine them to certain standards they don’t want to meet.
Let’s take a flashback, to March 8, 1917. Petrograd’s Nevsky Prospect saw a spark, which eventually turned into the burning pyre upon which Russia’s Tsarist autocracy was cremated. It was a protest against crippling food shortages, created by Tsar Nicholas II’s corruption and disregard for the Imperial Duma. And it was a protest which women participated in and led – proletarian women celebrating International Women’s Day, a protest against broad sexism which specifically afflicted them and against the specific monstrous form of patriarchy that is starvation and food insecurity.
The power of an organized feminist movement ought not be understated. The 19th century saw women’s rights groups successfully bringing about the 1839 Custody of Infants Act and the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act in the United Kingdom, and establishment of the right to property for women in all Australian colonies by 1897. The 20th century beheld suffragettes and Suffragists successfully campaigning for the right of women to vote and to be politically represented. It saw women rising to positions of political power and striving to achieve gender equality. The 21st century sees the increasing acceptance of homosexuality and the LGBT community take strides everyday, and is actively condemning and breaking apart, through movements like #MeToo, an imbalance of power which has created a pervasive phenomenon of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The developing world has seen real change because of a powerful feminist movement as well. From the late Qing period, Chinese feminists fought an entrenched paradigm of Neo-Confucian gender segregation. The Iranian women’s movement emerged in 1905, calling for the integration of women into the workforce, and aiming to achieve basic conditions of equality. By the mid-20th century, multiple developing countries, including Egypt and India, had laws against gender equality.
Needless to say, the feminist movement still has work to do – we continue to live in a patriarchal society that we ought undermine. With that in mind, I hope to clarify, in a broad sense, what the feminist movement is and why there’s little justification for the irrational fear of the label “feminist” that people tend to have.
What is feminism? What are its goals? To quote author and activist bell hooks, “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” We live in a system of patriarchy. Patriarchy is a specific system of social relations, which is characterized, broadly, by (1) women losing freedom and equality, in terms of economic status, political power, profession, and sexuality, (2) men giving up the ability to express themselves emotionally and being shamed if they behave in a way which is not aggressive, dominant, and “masculine,” and (3) the erasure of LGBT+ and nonbinary individuals. Feminism, as a movement, seeks to combat these three structures which define our society.
This is a place for me to clear up a bunch of misconceptions. First, feminism is not simply about women being equal to men. That is certainly a part of feminism, and a particularly important one, because gender inequality significantly contributes to the power structures at the heart of patriarchy. However, it is not enough that women and men are equal. Feminism wants freedom, in terms of the ability of women, nonbinary folks, and men, to rise up the corporate ladder and become successful, and also to lead a full existence emotionally and sexually. Moreover, feminism wants equality among various non-gender based sections of people as well. It is not acceptable to live in a world with gender equality, but a world in which brotherhood is always dominated by white, wealthy, heterosexual men, where sisterhood is dominated by white, wealthy, heterosexual women, in countries with a white racial majority. The reality is that there are unique problems of poverty and race which are critical to the discourse of feminism.
Second, on the misconception that feminism is anti-male or man-hating. It isn’t.
There are two notes I want to make on this, both of which serve as strong arguments to resist patriarchy. One, feminism actively benefits men, and protects them from patriarchy. It’s because of patriarchy that men who are sexually assaulted feel like they’ll be shamed by their male peers. It’s because of patriarchy that LGBT men commit suicide three times more often than heterosexual individuals. It’s because of patriarchy that men are forced to adhere to masculine notions of aggression and dominance, and any man who breaks the norm is never going to gain approval. Indeed, as bell hooks notes, “Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples.”
Two, the reason the language of feminism is framed around women is because, while patriarchy affects everyone, its effects have particularly harmed women. Women own less than 20% of the world’s land, despite the fact that they constitute half the agricultural workforce. A gender wage gap exists, meaning women make 70-90% of what men make. 81 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment. One-fifth of the world’s parliamentarians are women. Austerity measures disproportionately affect women, who, according to The Guardian, “will have shouldered 85% of the burden of the [British] government’s changes to the tax and benefits system by 2020.” Fifty-five percent of the victims of forced labor and seventy-one percent of the victims of human trafficking are women. Crucially, poverty is sexist. Fifty-six percent of low-income individuals in the United States are women. Moreover, environmental damage targets women because they lack resources, mobility, and decisionmaking capacity in patriarchal households.
This itself offers a case for feminism – we know that (1) people have the freedom of choice and the right to equality and (2) these rights are systematically violated by the patriarchal structure of society, for all individuals, but particularly for women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and nonbinary/genderqueer persons.