What Feminism Isn’t About

Recently, I mentioned to a close friend that I was a feminist. His response was, “No you’re not. You just care about things that matter.”

Well actually I am, and I’m proud to say it. But I think my friend had fallen into the very common trap of seeing “feminist” as a vaguely insulting label given to women who apparently annoy everyone by pushing a particularly militant brand of “feminism” and perhaps he thought I was putting myself down. Unfortunately, this stereotype usually involves women who hate men, screech about unimportant issues just to give themselves an advantage over men and long for a world where we no longer need men to reproduce so we can get rid of them all. Feminism has, in a lot of people’s eyes and largely due to anti-feminists and misconceptions, become a caricature of itself.

Ironically, that sort of “feminism” isn’t even feminism at all. Someone who hates men isn’t a feminist, they’re a misandrist. Someone who wants to rid the world of men isn’t a feminist, they’re a genocide fantasist. I see this as a form of anti-feminism in itself because it reinforces the idea that feminists are all extremists: unrealistic, unfair and a little bit unhinged. A lot of people who see all feminists in this way are the very same people who rightly insist that those who commit terror acts in the name of Islam aren’t true Muslims at all, or at the very least aren’t representative of Islam in general. It shouldn’t be a huge leap to apply that to feminism as well.

A problem that real feminists continually battle with is the fact that so many well-meaning and intelligent people genuinely think that feminists are strident man-haters who think women are superior and won’t let men be heard at all. Because of this stereotype, we’re often not taken seriously by people who actually care about the same issues we do, and others hastily add “but I’m not a feminist or anything” when expressing views that show them to be, well, feminists. That’s problematic because if we want to address a society-wide inequality, then we can only do that effectively by sticking together.

Why aren’t those anti-man people feminists? Well, because feminism means standing for equality for all sexes. Male, female, intersex, non-binary, whatever. It does NOT mean wanting women to become dominant in society or wanting men to be disadvantaged. Equality, of course, means having equal social standing and equivalent opportunities, not for everyone to be treated identically. Because we are all different. If this is what you stand for then congratulations, you are a feminist.

True feminism is fuelled by love, not hate. It has to be, because it’s about fighting for the rights of people who are being marginalised. And there’s a very valid argument that if those come at the cost of other people’s rights, then they’re not actually rights at all. Many people don’t seem to understand what “rights” means. Ever seen someone protest when they’re called out for verbally abusing or harassing someone by insisting that they have a “right to free speech”? Well, of course they do, but this isn’t it.

Feminism has achieved a lot over the years. In this country, women are now allowed the same property rights as men, rather than ourselves being considered property. We are allowed to vote. There are laws that require employers to pay us the same as they do men for doing the same work and not to discriminate against pregnant women and new mothers who need paid time off work. We even have female sports presenters these days! Goodness!

So what are feminists still “whinging” about, as many people put it? What’s our problem? We have achieved equality, haven’t we?

I wish I could say we had.

The trouble is, while we’ve been quite successful in getting rid of much of the blatant sexism in our nation’s laws and public institutions (although those employment laws I mentioned above aren’t exactly adhered to by all employers), it’s much harder to see that which is less public. Because we’ve shot down a lot of the bigger, more obvious things first (of course we did: they were huge and obvious), the lower-level, pervasive, insidious stuff is very much still there and is much harder to hunt down, trap and kill.

A brilliant example, or set of examples, to illustrate the pervasiveness of sexism in our society is Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project. The project was set up to document the everyday occurrences of sexist behaviour that make life more difficult and uncomfortable for women on a daily basis. Many of them are incidents that might seem too small to make a fuss about on their own, but over time can get really hard to live with. These are the little things that add up to something big. Things that are really hard to raise because we run the risk of people laughing them off as petty and hence refusing to take us seriously about other matters.

Sometimes it’s really TINY things, like something that’s always irked me: maleness being used as a default if you’re not sure of the sex of the person you’re talking about. When you’re on the road and commenting on another driver’s behaviour, you’ll tend to refer to the other driver as “he” if you can’t see their face. If you’re affectionately referring to an animal whose sex you don’t know, it’s “he seems friendly!” or “look at his little face!” In fact, there are a lot of species whose female members you are far more likely to see than males: most spiders and bees you will see are female, but funnily enough I’ve noticed that if I refer to a spider or bee as “she” people go “She? How do you know it’s female?” whereas “he” elicits no comment because people simply don’t notice. Try it yourself! And if someone tells an anecdote beginning “my boss…” or “my doctor…” without using pronouns, people tend to assume they’re talking about a man.

Why does that matter? Because it unintentionally reinforces the idea that women are second-class, a mere afterthought to the men who are…mankind. That doesn’t help women’s fight to be taken as seriously as men. “He or she” may be a bit clunky and “they” is argued to be grammatically incorrect by some people who don’t understand that words change, so instead of interchangeably using male or female pronouns, we default to male ones. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had singular, gender-neutral pronouns for people in English? Well, we don’t, so tough luck to us and we will have to make do with the clunky, randomly chosen or grammatically dodgy alternatives!

The Everyday Sexism Project website has literally thousands of stories from women around the world showing how very real and problematic sexism is. If you’re not convinced that sexism is still a problem I’d recommend just taking a quick look. I’ll add that when I first started hearing some of the stories about sexual harassment, catcalling and so on, I did wonder “how is this sexist rather than just people behaving like dickheads?” I understood soon afterwards how much of this behaviour stems from the perception that women’s bodies are public property and men have the right to assert ownership or dominance and feel entitled to use (or threaten to use) our bodies as they wish. And that women have a responsibility to fulfil this wish, or be labelled cold-hearted bitches or worse, rejections are met with violence. And even worse, we’re not taken seriously when we protest. So yes, that is sexism.

To be fair, most people I’ve seen or heard expressing the opinion that feminism has run its course are men. Not being able to experience the above issues first-hand, they can’t always be expected to understand fully that there are still problems with sexism, unless we show them. I’ve seen many cases of men being surprised and amazed by demonstrations of issues they didn’t realise exist because they are so deeply ingrained in the way we behave or are tiny things you don’t really notice until they start mounting up and become a big problem. So we do need to carry on showing people, and I intend to do just that in this blog (not in detail today though).

However, a few of the nay-sayers have been women, one of whom even added that she thinks men are now disadvantaged.

I have news for those people: a lot of feminists these days are men. If things were equal and feminism actually put men at a disadvantage, then why would men want to be part of it?

The thing is, sexism hurts men as well as women and that’s part of the reason why we have to be inclusive when we campaign against it. If we expect women to be meek and submissive and never take the lead, then obviously that gives men an advantage in life but it also gives them a disadvantage. That’s because they grow up thinking that they are expected to seek no emotional support when they need it, that they are under no circumstances allowed to show their emotions, that they are expected to do all the work in taking charge of things and be in control (how exhausting!) and that they are expected to work their fingers to the bone in mind-numbing jobs for their entire lives without the “break” to raise children that women get (well, they do say a change is as good as a rest, right?). Because of ingrained sexism, it doesn’t occur to people a lot of the time that actually it’s just as valid an option for your children’s father to be the full-time parent while his partner (regardless of their gender) is the bread-winner. I know a few full-time fathers, or female partners of full-time fathers, and there’s no reason why it can’t be that way if it works out better. Usually, it’s because the man earns more to begin with or is given  better oortunities for career development so it makes more sense for him to continue: can’t we see the sexism behind that?

Not only that, but if we really want to tackle any inequality then we need to consider all (widespread) inequality. Sexism often assumes heteronormativity – that is, the assumption that everyone is heterosexual or that those are the only valid relationships – and is strongly tied with homophobia in that regard. Similarly, the homophobic stereotype of gay men as effeminate and somehow less than “real men” is also sexist because it carries the implication that femininity equals inferiority and that the more masculine you are, the better you are.

Think of how lesbians and bisexual women are often fetishized in ways that gay men are not (“oh that’s so hot: can I watch? Can I join in?”).

And if we think women have it bad, well, let’s just pause a moment to think about women belonging to minority ethnic groups who are often fetishized and exoticised as well as experiencing more sexual harassment and earning less than their White counterparts – who already experience more sexual harassment and earn less than men.

Feminism often focuses on middle-class white heterosexual women but how can we claim to be fighting for equality when we’re leaving all other women on the sidelines or failing to acknowledge how sexism is tied with homophobia and transphobia? We can’t possibly tackle all of these issues in detail this week, but I wanted to make the point that someone fighting for the rights of straight, cisgender, white, middle-class women without paying heed to the multiple oppressions faced by other demographic groups is not, in my opinion, a true feminist and may well be hindering their own cause.

You might ask why, if the word “feminism” has been given negative connotations and it’s all about achieving an equality that recognises men and women as equal, we don’t switch to a more neutral term like “gender equality.” That’s a very intelligent question, and I will put my hands up and admit that I used to make the same argument before I truly understood feminism. The answer is twofold.

Firstly, we are fighting both the idea that we don’t have a problem with sexism any more and the idea that feminists are all strident man-haters who need to go away. If we agree to change the name we give that movement, then we’re letting sexism win. We’re giving in. We’re essentially throwing away all the progress we’ve made so far and failing to see the bigger picture, the fight so far, the huge achievements of feminists in history. It isn’t a new struggle. It’s the same one. And if we don’t recognise that, then we’re forcing ourselves to start from scratch. It’s also beneficial to men. If women weren’t seen as inferior, then maybe men wouldn’t (for example) feel emasculated by being victims of sexual assault and therefore not report it because they are too embarrassed by how “weak” this womanly experience makes them look, or rightly concerned that the police will laugh at them and tell them to man up.

Secondly, while our fight is indeed for gender equality, giving it a neutral name would mean completely failing to recognise the fact that, while men do experience their own struggles as a result of their masculinity, it’s still women who bear the brunt of sexism. It’s women who are still paid less for working just as hard – harder if you bear in mind that it’s still women who do by far the majority of domestic childcare and housework tasks. It’s women who are continually told that their worth as people depends on what they look like, what they wear, how young they appear and what shape their bodies are, whether they choose to settle down with men and have children or not, and so on. It’s women who have to (consciously or otherwise) factor the risk of rape and sexual assault into every one-on-one interaction, social event, working day and journey they make. And so on. If we say we want equal treatment for all genders and give it a neutral name, then we are refusing to recognise that one gender is currently way more privileged by our society than any other. We need to push for women and non-binary people to be treated as equal citizens, to balance those scales, and this must take priority until we’re in a position to iron out the creases rather than making huge radical changes. If we didn’t prioritise women’s rights, then we’d be in exactly the same position we’re in now because even if equal progress was made with men’s and women’s issues, the disparity would remain.

This widespread, historical system of privilege and oppression is the exact reason why you can’t really have “sexism against men.” Sexism refers to a systemic oppression and its myriad manifestations. You can behave in a way that discriminates against men; you can abuse a man; you can be prejudiced against men and you can ruin an individual man’s life (please let’s not try this at home…), but you can’t systemically oppress men, not with the way we have things set up.

Please note that I am absolutely not saying that we should ignore issues that give men specific disadvantages until all women’s issues are sorted out. Women might never achieve true equality (and certainly won’t in our lifetimes), but that’s no reason to hurt or ignore men. For example, more work needs to be done to address how society treats survivors of rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse (e.g. without all the victim-blaming that sadly happens). At the same time, we absolutely need to recognise that many of these survivors are men and often face a different set of problems. Sex crimes and abusive relationships are things that are often seen to affect only women and children; male survivors are often ignored, given less airspace or simply dismissed as somehow not being real victims or survivors. Sometimes men are just told to “man up and take it” or are disbelieved or ridiculed for not being able to defend themselves. That’s a terrible form of victim-blaming that not only fails to acknowledge people’s experiences but also deters them from seeking help when they are not safe. There are shelters for women who are being abused by their partners, but where do men go when they are being abused and feel unsafe at home? This is not something we can just ignore until we’ve somehow fixed the problem of violence against women. We need to treat everyone equally, give everyone the same rights. THAT is what feminism is.

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