All the dictionaries in the world. The endless knowledge of Google at your fingertips. Maybe even a vagina between your legs! All of these things and people still do not understand the definition of feminism. It has led to countless campaigns from self-proclaimed feminists across the globe to clarify the definition and, probably, even more displays of gross misconceptions.
Most of the reasons people tell me they aren’t feminists are indeed reasons they should be! Either that, or they exhibit a blatant lack of understanding of what feminism is all about. Here are the 5 people in our lives who don’t seem understand what feminism means.
1. The Gender Traditionalist
Some people believe that men should be masculine and women should be feminine, and that’s just the way it is. Never mind that “they way it is” is killing us. In my experience, they’re wrong, but I can’t change their minds. Gender traditionalists reject feminism because it’s seen as an indictment of “real men” and the women who love them.
This idea that men need to act a certain way to be masculine is one just one of they ways sexism hurts men. I’ve seen mothers clap and cheer when their 1 year old little boy falls down so he won’t cry when he’s hurt. GBTQ boys get bullied, called “pussy” or “faggot,” often to the point where they end their own lives. Men are robbed of their emotional literacy by a society that ridicules displays of emotion beyond the context of exhibiting strength.
Furthermore, women judging other women is not feminist. When other women judge feminists (and vice versa) we are falling short. Feminism is about respecting a woman’s choice to lead her life the way she wants. It’s why feminists believe in things like reproductive rights and equal pay. Feminists believe that women should decide for themselves what’s best for their lives, and have access to the same resources as men to achieve what they want.
This is not even to touch upon the horrific abuses of trans and gender nonconforming people. We need feminism to fight for their rights, too.
2. The Success Story
To be successful in almost any industry is to find yourself rubbing shoulders with a lot of men. From Hollywood to STEM careers, men dominate the professional world. Women only account for 26 of the Fortune 500 CEOs; that’s 5%, by the way.
Many famous, successful, powerful women have rejected the label of feminism for one reason or another, and honestly, it makes sense. Powerful people are largely insulated from the problems of the common people. Rich parents can afford to provide a safe abortion for their daughters if it’s not legal. They can afford private cars so they aren’t catcalled or assaulted riding the subway. Money, like whiteness, can protect some women from the more egregious offenses committed against us.
It’s no secret most of women’s biggest problems disproportionately affect poor women, trans women and women of color. They have the lowest access to education or career opportunities and the highest levels of poverty, domestic violence, sexual assault.
We’ve all heard “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” and really, what incentive do powerful people have to challenge the systems that made them powerful? These women either don’t see or don’t want to see that they are not evaluated for their competence in the same way as men. Even the most successful women will be judged for their appearance first and their capabilities, oh… maybe later. It’s why Sarah Palin is allowed to have a career, and it’s why Amal Alammudin is not best known for her work as a barrister fighting for human rights, but as George Clooney’s hot wife.
3. The Patriarchal Bargainer
I have posed this question to many women: “How old were you the first time you became aware of men viewing you in a sexual way?” Each woman – whether they identify as feminist or not – has a troubling answer: for most of us, it’s between 9-12 years old.
I was 10 the first time a boy threatened me with sexual violence. I was 11 when men started honking, shouting, and staring at me while I was walking home from school with my friends. I was 14 the first time a boy got mad at me for not consenting to sex. I was 16 the first time I got raped.
One of the most painful things about growing up as a girl is this realization that your body belongs to men – whether to look at, judge, derive sexual pleasure from, dominate or reject. We learn that our ultimate validation comes from objectification. We spend our lives trying to fit into the mold of our own oppression. We wax, pluck, shave, smooth, spray, paint, slice, suck, bleach and pose. Don’t you feel powerful, ladies?!
These so-called advantages of being a “hot” woman are rooted in misogyny. Not only do we learn to hate ourselves, we learn that positioning ourselves against other women in the pecking order is the way you get ahead. It’s a brilliant strategy, really. If you socialize women to compete with each other for the attention of men, they won’t get around to realizing the system is hurting us all equally. We have a fall guy – I mean gal! She’s in the mirror.
The resulting male entitlement to women’s bodies is all but inevitable. Boys learn that girls’ bodies exist solely to satisfy them. Just look at porn. Look at the way boys are socialized to view their sexual pleasure versus the way girls are socialized to view their sexual pleasure. Have you ever met a man who never had an orgasm? I can’t even count the women.
4. The One Who Loooooves Men
This is the most common reason I’ve heard people use for not supporting feminism: “I’m not a feminist because I love men.”
Feminism has to mean hating men, right? If feminists don’t hate men, then why don’t they call it humanism? If we build women up, it must mean it’s at the expense of men! That’s not how it works though.
The struggle for gender equality has to start with the admission that in our current world, women are not equal. This admission is key to the struggle, because in order to change anything you have to fully see it for what it is. That is why we call it feminism, because women are abused, discriminated against, paid less, objectified and judged more harshly than men.
Just think about the language we all grow up with. Boys start throwing around “like a girl” as an insult in grade school. To be called “a pussy” is to be called weak, pathetic, and scared. Well, to paraphrase my favorite advice guru Dan Savage, pussies gobble up semen and spit out humans, so maybe we should reevaluate the expression.
Feminists hating men because of sexism is a straw-man argument. It simply isn’t true. Men are the products of our patriarchal society as much as women. The way we are all socialized to view gender roles has perpetuated inequality across generations. Fighting against inequality does not equal hatred or even condemnation. In Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist she says of the man-hating feminist trope, “[t]his caricature is how feminists have been warped by the people who fear feminism the most, the same people who have the most to lose when feminism succeeds.”
5. The Victim Blamer
These are people who don’t believe that systemic inequality affects women in their daily lives. Bad things that happen to women might have been avoided if they had just acted right. These are the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” types, the American Dreamers. They tell women if they don’t want to be catcalled they shouldn’t wear tight clothing. They ask why Joan Tarshis didn’t bite Bill Cosby’s penis when he orally raped her.
They put the victim on trial for their assault while worrying about the reputation of the criminal. They scrutinize the behavior and dress of barely-teenagers victimized by grown men. They gather around like they’re at the zoo when trans women are physically assaulted in public. They bully rape victims to commit suicide and too often, they succeed. They dress up like Ray and Janay Rice for Halloween. They write op-eds defending famous rapists for The New York Times.
Little girls have their clitorises cut off and their labia sewn together so that when they are married, the husband can cut or rip her open to prove she was a virgin. Women are gang raped and left with obstetric fistulas that leave them ostracized and sometimes left to die. Girls are abducted and sold into sexual slavery. Trans women are beaten, mutilated and murdered for simply being their authentic selves. Women are beaten by their partners, sexually harassed in the street, raped by their teachers and classmates, and worse.
I guess these women and girls just weren’t trying hard enough to be successful and protect themselves, am I right?
Look, feminism as a movement is flawed. For one, it isn’t intersectional enough, which means feminists encounter various levels of ignorance within the ranks. Sometimes it’s just knowing when to sit down, shut up and listen. As long as there are women who believe that feminism is a dirty word that doesn’t apply to them, we still have work to do.
You can be straight, gay, bi, trans, cis, queer, or asexual and be a feminist. You can be a stay-at-home-parent, a sex worker, or a CEO and be a feminist. Feminism isn’t predicated on a certain set of criteria – it’s predicated on the belief that all people deserve the same rights and opportunities as everybody else.
You can be whoever you are and be a feminist. In fact, that’s what feminism is all about.