I have recently seen and heard statements such as ‘some of my feminist friends…’ and ‘I’m not a feminist but….’ This began to intrigue me as it suggests people think of feminism as a niche ideology, something for a particular type of woman (admit it, you have an image in your head). ‘My friend the feminist’ distances the speaker from feminism as it would from a political party or club member (my friend the freemason; my friend the communist etc). This is interesting because it suggests a vacuum where there should be a definition.
Let’s get to the simple fact: feminism is the belief that men and women are equal and should be treated as such. It’s really not any more complicated than that.
So to distance oneself from feminism is to say ‘I don’t really believe that the genders are equal’. That’s fine to have that belief. We can then have an honest and open debate about why you may not believe in equality of women and men. And I will try to persuade you otherwise. It could be stimulating, but we are unlikely to be friends. What I find difficult to grasp is the (let’s face it, lazy) approach which puts feminism into a box that is for single-issue fanatics and politicos with an axe to grind, as though it has nothing to do with the wider society. As though my life, your life, your daughter’s life is unaffected. Gender equality affects the entire human species and you’re either for it or you’re not.
A child, innocent of the beliefs we stamp on to it from the day of birth, asks “Mummy, Daddy, what’s a feminist?”
“Well, kiddo,” you answer, “a feminist is someone who thinks men and women are equal and should be treated as such.”
The child is observant. “But men have willies and women have ‘ginas, so they’re different.”
“Yes, our bodies have different jobs to do, but they are equally important.” You may want to add that one job is vastly more physically demanding than the other.
The child finds it simple to grasp that men and women are equal. Why wouldn’t they be? Biologically they may have differences, but why would this translate into inequality? Why would one gender find itself subservient to the other? At this basic level, it doesn’t make sense except as a bad way of gaining power by one gender over another – a morally dubious goal. As the child starts to think for itself it may ask; “so why isn’t everyone a feminist? (And why is my bedroom pink?)”
Why isn’t everyone a feminist? For every wave of activism in favour of this equality there has been an equally robust backlash which has sought to make the label ‘feminist’ a pejorative one that only a minority would be prepared to stand by. It has in the past been emptied of its meaning. It has made fighting for equality between genders a minority past time that can be sidelined as irrelevant when it is inconvenient. It’s inconvenient that women require equality within the work place after having given birth to the next generation. It’s inconvenient that women want to be equally represented at all levels. It’s inconvenient that men need to check their sexual behaviour in order to eradicate rape culture once and for all. It’s inconvenient that world religions need to dramatically change to allow women the equality they have a right to. If you agree that these are inconveniences worth addressing, you are a feminist my friend. If you don’t then that’s OK. But it does make you a misogynist and you need to take on that label and justify it.
The myths about feminism probably do need debunking, but for now, if the sceptics can grasp that feminism is as simple as our definition above states, we can start to debate real issues rather than wasting energy on explaining why distancing yourself from feminism is to distance yourself from equality of men and women. And for those who don’t believe there is an issue with gender equality and feminism is simply stirring up disagreement, please read ‘The History of Misogyny’ by Jack Holland as a start. After 3000 years of horrendous subjugation we need activism, movements and a label on which to hang our beliefs.
For those who DO wish to distance themselves from gender equality – let’s do it! Let’s debate the whys and wherefores. I would like to offer a tip to the would-be ‘unequalists’: when preparing your arguments, replace gender with race and test whether your beliefs are acceptable then.
If you are not prepared to call yourself a feminist (even in private, to yourself – you don’t have to buy the tee shirt), then you are saying you believe women are NOT equal to men. And we have a problem.