It can be hard to feminist (if you’ll permit me to use that word wholly inaccurately as a verb for a minute) especially once you pass the threshold of “wait, we’re not actually in the post-feminist society I was promised in 1997” and enter the world of “this bullshit is everywhere, I can’t unsee it and everything I used to enjoy seems tainted.” Your friends think you’re too earnest, too sensitive, too…feminist. Random people on the internet think you’re a mouthy shrill bitch who isn’t getting enough good man loving but they wouldn’t want to give it to you because you’re too fat for them anyway. People at work look at you askance when you tell a colleague that saying “god, MEN, all the same, never ask for directions” is sexist and then they all awkwardly change the subject.
And it’s a battle on two sides – you’re not just trying to be the good feminist ambassador for rights and equality, you also feel that you’re constantly having to defend feminism itself. I often find myself on the back foot in these sorts of conversations – saying things like “that’s not really what feminists think”, “that’s not what feminism’s aims are”, “that’s not what feminists want” and, of course, “#notallfeminists are like that”. But you can’t really define something by what it isn’t. When you are faced with people challenging your viewpoint retreating into your corner and assuming a defensive position isn’t going to win hearts, change minds or get you a cool winning move. So today, instead of talking about what feminism isn’t, instead of saying “this is not my feminism”, I thought I would write about what feminism is and should be – when it’s working at its very best. I asked a few pals, men and women, who self identify as feminists, what words and phrases they associate with the starting words “Feminism is…”. What follows is an edited collection of the ideas we came up with.
Feminism is about equality
At its very core, feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities and the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. So, if you believe that men and women deserve equal rights and equal treatment, and you say that out loud, then you are a feminist! It really is that simple.
Equality doesn’t mean that women should be better than or in charge of men, and equality doesn’t mean that men should be treated as badly as women.
Feminism is about choice
Feminism wants women and men to be able to have the freedom to make the same choices; be they big obvious ones like becoming an engineer or an art teacher or a parent or less obvious ones like being able to choose to walk home alone after dark. Obvious ones like a girl being able to choose to do a GSCE in computer programming and a boy to choose home economics and less obvious ones like a girl chosing to dress as Batman and a boy chosing to dress as Elsa.
We’re not talking about the choice to do absolutely anything you want to do without consequences; as I discussed a few weeks ago choice cannot be unlimited, as some choices you make cause harm. But choices shouldn’t ever be limited to gender.
Feminism is intersectional
Intersectionality is about recognising that people experience different types of oppression which intersect and affect how we experience the world. How we think about feminism and how we advocate for each other must take this into account. To talk about an “oppression olympics” is to miss the point by such a spectacular margin that one can only assume anyone that does is either trolling or wasn’t paying attention. Intersectionality is particularly important for feminism because white women’s voices have a tendency to be heard over those of other marginalised groups. If we see hashtags like #solidarityisforwhitewomen and go oh hey now, I’m not like that, waaaahhh #notallfeminists then you know what we’re doing, right? Instead of taking the opportunity to learn and listen we are derailing; forcing the conversation to be about us, and failing to take into account how different aspects of people’s lives and backgrounds affect their experience of gender based oppression.
Feminism is for men
Anyone can be a feminist (although I think cats struggle with the concept) and as feminism advocates for equality it by definition advocates for everybody. The majority of feminists recognise that pretty much all of the issues that women, men and people who identify outside of the gender binary face are down to a society with patriarchy built in at it’s very roots.
There is a lot of confusion over what ‘patriarchy’ means and it’s often misunderstood as meaning simply ‘men’, but it’s far more complex. When someone blames ‘patriarchy’ they are not blaming men. While my personal focus is on empowering women and ending violence and oppression against women, I also believe that dismantling patriarchical ideas of gender expression will have a huge benefit for men too, and that many of the issues men face (for example, in custody issues, suicide and depression rates, minimisation of male rape and domestic violence against men) are products of a society which values ‘masculinity’ and sees ‘femininity’ as inferior. When women are no longer seen as inherently nurturing (a product of patriarchy) and men as inherently violent (a product of patriarchy) we’ll see change. When women are no longer seen as inherently weak and submissive (a product of patriarchy) and men are no longer seen as inherently strong and dominant (a product of patriarchy) we’ll see change.
Feminism is multifaceted
One accusation often lobbied against feminists like me is that we are focusing on silly unimportant things like page 3 and “compliments“ and toilets and putting women on banknotes when what we SHOULD be doing is campaigning against IMPORTANT things that REALLY affect women like FGM and domestic violence. This demonstrates a lack of awareness of how all of these things are related in a structural system like patriarchy, and it implies that any feminist that is campaigning against, say, street harassment, is incapable of also caring about or campaigning around other issues.
There are so many aspects of our world which need attention and focus, and no one feminist can campaign against Every. Single. One. That would be exhausting! What we can do however is lend our voices to each other’s campaigns even as we focus on our own. I don’t personally campaign directly around FGM or for the 50/50 parliament but I know people who do and I support them and spread their message, and offer my assistence when they need it, just as they would do for me.
Feminism is global
From the college in Nigeria offering scholarships to the girls affected by Boko Harem, to the projects in India working to improve access to safe bathrooms for women, to the youth empowerment schemes in Burma; movements all around the world are working to improve the future for women and girls.
We’re lucky in the UK to have as much freedom and power as we do – but just because women in one country are better off than women in another isn’t a reason for women to ‘settle’ for being ‘not as badly off’. Feminists therefore will focus their energies on the issues close to them, and to their communities, but this doesn’t stop feminism being, and needing to be, a global movement.
Feminism is courage
When women are bombarded with threats and are even killed for standing up for their beliefs it can be scary – and dangerous – to keep putting yourself out there and continuing to stand up and shout. For every woman that refuses to be silent, for every woman who won’t ‘just get off the internet’, who won’t ‘just stay at home’, who won’t ‘get back in the kitchen and make a sammich’, who won’t ‘shush now and be a good girl’ there are millions more standing behind them supporting them, holding them up, and millions more unable to use their own voices who rely on those that speak out to make a difference. It takes courage to stand up, courage to keep speaking, and determination to never stop.
Feminism is community
Divide and rule is a known tactic of oppressive systems, and it’s extremely successful within patriarchy. Once you can escape the media-supported idea that other women are your ‘competition’ and that bringing other women down will make you feel better, you open yourself to a brave new world of supportive voices. I have met some of the most incredible women on my journey, and we’ve all had similar experiences of having our battles minimised and criticised and denied by people who think we can’t succeed, or who don’t want us to. I can vouch from experience that there’s nothing more powerful than a room full of women going “I get it. This is hard. But we’re utterly awesome, and we understand, and we can do it. YOU GOT THIS”.
Feminism is honest
I will let my friend’s own words speak for this one: “I almost said ‘acknowledgement’ but I think ‘honesty’ is more positive. The recognition of inequality, and the drive to address that to make things better for everyone, rather than to promote women above men. A lot of anti-feminist criticism seems to suggest that we are dishonest about what we want.”
Feminism is being a good parent
I am not a parent, but I have many friends who are, and they all felt strongly that their identities as feminists and parents were inextricably linked. They want to make sure their daughters get all the opportunities they deserve, and aren’t limited by society telling them they must be pretty and sweet. They want to make sure their sons know they can be sensitive, loving, kind and caring. They want their daughters to believe it’s ok for them to be strong and powerful, and for their sons to believe it’s ok to be gentle and quiet. They want their daughters and sons to never fear chosing a pink item over a blue one or vice versa. They want their daughters to feel safe on the streets, and their sons to know why this is their responsibility too.
Fathers should be able to take on a loving, caring and nurturing role without it being either questioned or applauded. Mothers should be able to take on an economically supportive role without it being criticised or analysed. The work of being a parent should be recognised as vital, important, difficult and rewarding – regardless of the gender or sex of the person doing the parenting.
Feminism is challenging
Feminism challenges the prevailing ideas within society. It questions the status quo and says “um, actually, no, this is not ok” and goes about trying to fix that shit.
But feminism also has to challenge itself and feminists must challenge each other in order to develop our own ideas and be better allies. We should challenge each other when our feminism is exclusionary, when it isn’t as intersectional as it should be. We should challenge each other when we perpetuate problematic language . We should challenge each other even when we agree, just to make sure our ideas hold up to scrutiny, and to know how to back up our arguments. Challenge should be about mutual learning and understanding. It is through challenge that we grow.
Feminism is hopeful
Every feminist genuinely believes we are going to one day have a society where we all have equal rights and opportunities. That’s why we keep doing this. Sometimes it seems insurmountable – it feels like the task is just too huge and too complex, and that patriarchy and oppression is so deeply hardwired into our society that even the task of getting people to see it in the first place is too great. But every day we’ll fight on because we believe we’re right, and we believe we have the moral responsibility to keep pushing.
My hope comes from seeing the young people in my local community and how engaged they are with issues of equality, empowerment, consent and respect. They might get written off as ‘just kids’ – but these young people have a far more sophisticated understanding of social justice, privilege, inequality and equality than I ever did at their age, and they are developing the language to speak out with confidence.
If the young people within my community are in any way representative of the young feminists out there, and I believe they are, then I have no doubt that the future is feminist.
And Feminism Is Awesome.
n.b. Feminism is…about so much more than I’ve been able to cover. If I’ve missed something important to you, let me know in the comments