What is Feminism?

That’s a question that I spend significant time mulling around in my mind, but not one that I’ve ever attempted to answer with any kind of intention or purpose.

Yesterday I was a guest on Hamilton Talks, a local cable show hosted by Larry Di Ianni.  He asked me how I would define feminism; not a trick question, although it took me be surprise.  Who doesn’t know what feminism is?  I mean, they’re talked about all the time, those “feminists”.

Now. I can go on and on about feminism, but coming up with a pithy response eluded me.  I simply said that feminism, my feminism, is about equality.  For women and men to have equal access to the same opportunities.  Feminism means that men can stay home just as well as women can work.  That’s the concise and simple answer.   After all, it was the beginning of the interview and he had lots to talk about.  The complete, more complex answer, however, could take up a whole show.  And then some.

So, perhaps just to be better prepared next time, should there be one, and so I don’t have to resort to the tired and trite economic argument  (women earn 70 cents for every dollar men earn), which I did, I thought maybe I’d see what I can do with some purpose and intention.

I’ll give it 1000 words and a Saturday afternoon.

I’ll begin by restating what I said previously:  My feminism is about equality.  For women and men to have equal access to the same opportunities.

One of the reasons that I’ve resisted to define feminism is that feminism is personal to each woman.  Some women are even in denial of their inherent feminism.  That is, perhaps, the challenge of feminism, to try to be all things to all women.  Can’t please everyone, all those other –isms get in the way.

As a feminist, I believe that gender is the primary organizing feature of society.  Some people consider it race, other people gravitate, up and down, toward class.  I’m in the gender camp.  That’s probably because as a white, educated, employed person, I’m at the top of the privilege pile.  All those other factors:  race, class, ability, sexual orientation etc, etc all impact upon the primary identifying element:  gender.  And I mean gender not sex.  But what is gender without sex?

Sex is the biological condition we are born into and is used as the basis for our gender role expectations.  You’d think that would be pretty simple, but sex is not so clear cut when we consider the determining factors.[i]  And as we grow in knowledge about how it is we are who we are, that could change.  In fact, count on it.  So, right now, we consider sex to be determined by chromosomal markers, XX for female, XY for male.  That’s as small as we can see.  For now.

Gender refers to the behavioural and social expectations assigned to each sex.  People have come to use gender when they really mean sex.  This serves to, in some ways, negate the biological, which is dangerous because the biology is important, although we haven’t quite figured out the full extent of it yet. [ii]  Transgender people may be bio-boys or girls, but accept and adopt feminine or masculine gender roles, respectively.  Transexuals take it further and correct the biology to match the behavioural.  Free to be, you and me.

Feminism advocates for equality in access to opportunity, all opportunities, for everyone.

The history of women in the world, the written history of the world, forms the basis of the definition.  For centuries women have been vilified as less than men, soulless, wanton, more evil temptress than holy mother.  Women have paid for their sex through their death in childbirth and in the bonfires of the witchcraft trials.  Women have been held back from education, denied the freedom of movement, of employment, their futures tied to their biology as they birthed baby after baby.  Female gender role expectations have wrapped women solidly up in hearth and home, the space of less importance, private, maternal, yet subject to paternal control, the male head of the house, the house to the state.  Even in her own realm her power was subject to his.  In the face of the law a married woman and her husband were one:  him.  A single woman was redundant.

In advocating for equality in access to opportunity, there are many past wrongs that need to be corrected; attitudes that need to change, perspectives that need expanding.  We are, in Canada, only two generations away from a time when married women were expected to leave the workforce upon marriage, baby plans or not.  A woman’s ability to work is the basis of her economic security.  History has been too clear:  can’t trust the men to take care of the women.  Nice thought, but it hasn’t worked.  The women have to take care of themselves.  In taking care of themselves, they take care of the world:  children, husbands, parents.

It’s not hard to understand when we cast a glance around the world, to cultures where gender roles are firmly entrenched and backed up with social and judicial sanctions, places like Afghanistan or Iran, to see that gender repression can, and indeed does, exist.  Will it continue in the face of greater emphasis on female education and empowerment worldwide remains to be seen.

The pushback is relentless and continues unabated.  However, generational change can be counted on to lead the way to a new tomorrow.  I have more options than my mother, my daughter more than me.  But I’m under no assumption those options are guaranteed.  There is an imperative for women to be involved in the decisions of their time, for their voices to be heard, to be players on the stage of humanity.  Use it or lose it.

Many people will say that they’re humanists to try to capture the essence of equality, of human rights.  Humanists assume an equal playing field – which it is, in their theory.  Feminists see the inequities that accrue to gender role expectations, male and female, and work to level the playing field, particularly for women.  They do the work the humanists assume is already done.

That’s what feminism means to me.  What does it mean to you?


[i] For an interesting history of the medical invention of sex, see Alice Domurat Dreger, Hermaphrodite and the Medical Invention of Sex (Cambridge:  University of Harvard Press, 1998)

[ii] The field of epigenetics and the interaction between genes and environment expands our understanding of how we are who we are and the impact of environment on gene expression and the development of disease and other personal characteristics.

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4 responses to “What is Feminism?

  1. Thanks Asanempoka. I will definitely check our your blog.

  2. What is feminism? It sure as hell isn’t about equality. The problem is that there is an enormous gulf between the THEORY of what feminism is allegedly about (the dictionary definition) and the PRACTICE of what feminism really is and does in reality.

    It is quite easy to demonstrate what I mean. You see, when your movement claims that it is simply fighting for equality with men, not special privileges above and beyond what men have, no silly, just equality, then your movement needs to explain why it still exists in the western world now that women have had all the same rights as men for quite some time now in addition to some female-specific special privileges on top of that which no man will ever have. Point me towards even ONE law in the U.S. for example which discriminates against women in favor of men. I hear crickets chirping. When you have already achieved all the same rights as men yet you still keep on playing the victim card to try to milk further gender-specific concessions out of society, guess what? You’re making it pretty damned obvious to anyone with more than 2 brain cells to rub together that equality isn’t nearly good enough for you, that you’re a female supremacist movement unconvincingly dressed up as one that’s “fighting for equality”. (For crying out loud, even the movement’s very NAME gives away its purpose. If it was fighting for equality it would be called egalitarianism or humanitarianism or something quite a bit less narrowly gender-specific.)

    If feminism TRULY was about fighting for equality rather than being a one-sided gynocentric superiority movement then ask yourselves why it constantly pooh-poohs any problems or injustices that aren’t 100% exclusively about women. Ask yourself why it makes no effort at all to redress any of the imbalances that favor women over men.

    For example, where is the feminist activity on the issue of women being sentenced to 60% less prison time for the same crimes as a man? Why isn’t feminism demanding that women be held to the same standard of adult responsibility as a man who committed the same crime? Why is your movement content with such an egregious disparity in sentencing? Oh yeah, because it is a disparity that favors women over men, whereas if the situation was reversed with men getting let off with 60% less prison time than a female you bet your ass it would be a feminist priority.

    Why is feminism content to see 93% of workplace fatalities being male with only 7% being female? If feminism is about equality then why isn’t feminism working to try to convince more women to take these dangerous jobs so perhaps we could start to equalize this extremely one-sided workplace death ratio? Oh yeah, because feminism is perfectly content letting men do the dirty, heavy-lifting, dangerous and hard jobs that keep society going and letting women get the air-conditioned office jobs… then bitching about how a secretary answering phones all day in an air-conditioned office is a “victim of discrimination” for not getting paid as much as a man 500 feet in the air dangling off a skyscraper installing window glass though of course we know they will NEVER be THAT specific in their criticism because it would risk revealing the vapid, dumbed-down, apples-to-oranges nature of said criticism. Far better to just make some unsubstantiated claim about your mythical “gender-based discriminatory pay gap” that magically disappears as soon as one adjusts for personal career choices, education and childbirth.

    Where is feminism’s activism about the issue of women getting awarded custody in about 90% of child custody cases? To the extent that the woman would have to just about be a practicing prostitute or a heroin addict in order for the man to be given custody. Funny but this doesn’t seem to make it onto feminists’ radar either, gosh I wonder why…

    Why has feminism remained silent about the huge discrepancy in funding for male homeless shelters versus female homeless shelters? When the overwhelming majority of homeless people are men rather than women, why on earth should men’s shelters get short shrift compared to female shelters? This clearly isn’t an important issue for your imaginary “patriarchial” government which routinely ignores men’s issues in favor of women’s issues so why isn’t feminism, the movement you never tire of telling us is not gynocentric but all-inclusive, fighting for equality not female supremacy, doing a damned thing to bring this to society’s attention? You can bet any amount of money if the situation was reversed with the homeless population being mostly female it would be a crisis of Biblical proportions, worthy of the government declaring a “war on homelessness” to solve it. Why is the feminist movement just as disinterested in this matter as the government?

    Why is feminism content with men still having to pay alimony in 2014? Aren’t you the same ladies who constantly tell us how women are just as good as men, just as capable and just as independent? Then why the hell should a man have the responsibility of paying for the upkeep and lifestyle of his former spouse on an indefinite basis? Why did this issue only make it onto feminists’ radar (in Florida) when the infinitesimally small amount of women paying alimony to THEIR former spouses inched up a tiny bit while still remaining a mouse fart compared to men’s alimony payments? Where is feminism’s indignation that these supposedly liberated, independent women are entitled to being supported by a man that isn’t even living with them any longer? Why don’t you see this as an enormous insult and indignation? Oh yeah, because I suppose the convenience of getting a monthly check in the mail assuages your little feelings of shame and dependency, right? So long as it works in women’s favor instead of men’s it’s perfectly OK with the feminist movement.

    Where is feminism’s concern with the issue of men committing suicide at rates astronomically higher than women? You know if the numbers were reversed there would be a colossal shitstorm until we got the numbers of women killing themselves back down to acceptable levels but yet with the numbers being what they are this, unsurprisingly, isn’t an issue feminists will lift a finger to work on.

    And I have yet to hear a single feminist push for women having to register for the draft. Why does a man have to register at age 18 or else he isn’t entitled to any of the benefits of society, can’t vote, can’t collect Social Security when he’s old etc. yet no woman has to register for the draft in order to enjoy any of that? Why are feminists content to let women avoid adult responsibilities that men can never avoid? Oh yeah, because it isn’t a movement about equality at all but rather female supremacy, the same reason why the KKK never pushes for anything aside from matters that affect white people. As despicable as they are at least they’re honest enough to not pretend to be fighting for racial equality.

    Or what about the biggest double standard on the face of the earth? By this I mean the elective abortion/mandatory child support issue. Let’s say a woman gets pregnant accidentally, neither her nor her partner intended for it to happen. If the man wants to be a daddy to that unexpected kid but the woman doesn’t want any parts of it she’s going to go to the abortion clinic and get that unborn human dismembered and sucked out of her uterus without having broken a single law in the process. That man will now be the proud daddy to a bloody little pile of severed arms and legs. But if the situation is reversed and the woman wants to keep the baby but the dad doesn’t want any parts of being a daddy? Tough tittie, he’s on the hook for 18 years of child support payments for a kid he will never see. The law simply doesn’t allow him to act like an irresponsible piece of shit at least not without facing the penalty of jail time for his irresponsibility. The law holds that man to his responsibility, forces him to act like a grown adult and take responsibility for his actions. Whereas the law makes no effort whatsoever to force the woman to act like an adult and take responsibility for HER actions, no, instead it lets her dance away from the consequences of her actions without a care in the world. When the man’s irresponsibility results in the woman not getting a monthly check in the mail and that’s illegal yet the woman’s irresponsibility results in the death of another human being (the unborn human) and yet THAT is LEGAL?? Are you effing kidding me?? This has to be the most horrific double standard the world has ever seen, yet I guarantee you that if anyone was to start pushing for ending mandatory child support payments or tying the continuance of legal abortion to the ending of mandatory child support it would be the feminitwits who would be leading the charge to make sure things remain as one-sided as they are now. When the woman is allowed to act like a magical sparkly princess with no more responsibility than a child even though her irresponsibility and immaturity results in a human being’s death and the man isn’t even allowed to skip out on child support payments for a kid he never sees, clearly this abortion/child support situation can be called nothing less than overt female supremacy. Not equality between the sexes. Not egalitarianism. Overt, in-your-face female supremacy and nothing less. Funny but I haven’t heard of a single feminist anywhere pushing for an end to elective abortion. Feminism seems perfectly content to let this terrible double standard remain in place and any comment made about ending elective abortion is immediately met with a lecture about how it would somehow be “oppressing women” to hold them to the same standard of responsibility a man is held to, how it would be “chaining them to the stove” or ensuring they are “barefoot and pregnant” or whatever other feminist propaganda bullshit they can come up with. Because this is one of the many double standards that feminists embrace, those which favor women over men. Another reason why few people aside from feminists themselves take feminists seriously.

    So you want to “prove” your movement really is about equality and not female supremacy and special gender-specific privileges? Great, come out against elective abortion. Demand that it be abolished, demand that women are held to the same standard of responsibility that a man is held to, demand that women receive no preferential treatment in the court system etc. etc. Basically it comes down to a realization that not everything in life is a right or a privilege, that there are some things in adult life that are called “responsibilities”. If feminism wasn’t all about milking society for more benefits, more gender-specific set-asides, more quotas, more gynocentric advantages and actually grew the hell up enough to see that there are such things as RESPONSIBILITIES as well then maybe more people would take feminism seriously. As it stands right now only about 23% of American women identify as feminists meaning no less than 77% of women wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole the movement that is supposed to be designed around their interests. That is a spectacular failure so amazing words can’t describe it. Perhaps women are getting tired of being constantly told they’re weak, helpless little victims who can’t do anything for themselves without a movement behind them to keep them pointed in the right direction and protected from this cruel world. I suspect your average woman is quite a bit stronger than that and doesn’t appreciate being talked down to. But whatever it is, your movement is dying and I say good riddance. Let it be replaced with something that doesn’t try to drive an unnecessary wedge between working class men and working class women. Let it be replaced with something far more mature, grown up, sensible and realistic. In other words let it be replaced with something that is GENUINELY about equal rights for the sexes.

    • hmmm… Henry – you don’t sound rational. You sound like an angry male-rights proponent. I’m leaving this post up because I think it proves many of my points.

      Please feel free to read around on the subject. If you want, I can provide you with some excellent resources that might help you come to terms with the feminists in your life. They’re not just working for a better world for their daughters, but for their sons too.

      namaste.

  3. You may be interested in my blog – Sisterhood Across Continents. I went to a feminist high school and find it has become an intrinsic part of who I am, the equality of gender roles, as you mention. Interesting concept and application in cross-cultural experiences within highly patriarchal societies, especially when high respect is given to women for some areas and not others.
    Keep it up,
    Asanempoka.

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