“Are you a feminist?” I asked my friend. No, she replied. I looked at her and said, “Let me rephrase. Do you believe men are equal to women?” She looked taken aback by my question. Equality of the sexes, generally in the United States, is a sensible concept to most. Yet, the term “feminism” sparks a contradictory response. In fact, many people’s responses become defensive when asked if they consider themselves a feminist, instigating rebuttals like, “I’m not a lesbian,” “I don’t hate men,” “I’m not a liberal,” “Ew.” But why?
Throughout the evolution of feminism, two key concepts have persisted. The first and complicatedly simple point, as stated, is the equality of sexes. The second is the continued suppression and oppression of women over the centuries and how that persecution and masculine superiority has mutually harmed both sexes (Richardson, 3). However, feminism has become more than just a belief, especially in the last few decades. Feminism has become a both social and economic movement, pushing into the political domain and nearly every other form of institution: civil, legal, academic. The feminist ideology has matured to the point where it often times correlates with social identity (Burn, et al., 1086-1088). Thus, the issue with defining feminism does not necessarily result from opposition to the idea of the equality of sexes but rather from the growing disparity between the feminists of these emerging institutions and those who perceive themselves as “others.” A doggedly defined feminism resultantly alienates certain groups of people, both among men and women, that impedes its overarching mission for general equality.
Feminists today have difficulty identifying with other, maybe more “traditional” feminists. The freedom of choice and opportunity has been at the forefront of feminist agenda since the popular rise of the ideology in the 19th century. Yet, women are often criticized by feminists for choosing “wrongly.” If the perception of feminists over the last 40 years has sculpted the definition of feminism, then that definition has also stripped “non-legitimate” feminists of interpretative freedom. Similarly, the concept of “choice” is denuded to present a black-and-white framework for an otherwise sophisticated network of internal struggles or desires that contribute to a certain choice (Snyder-Hall, 255-256). A modern porn-star may consider herself a feminist by arguing that she physically expresses her internal desires while another feminist may argue that starring in porn fortifies the patriarchy and submissiveness of women through objectivity. Or take a mother who makes the choice to stay at home and care for her children. While a valid choice for some women, some feminists may argue that she works against the feminist agenda by abandoning her opportunity to join the workforce, a right feminists have long fought for (259).
Thence, personal interpretations of feminism and womanhood remain subdued due to a defined position on feminism and what a feminism should look like and act like. This hypocrisy essentially engraves a new, “appropriate” idea of women as the image of a woman shifts from a domestic housewife to a business-professional woman that breeds modern stereotypes of feminists. This caging of women from one social expectation to another also consequently means that choice based on societal expectation replaces the internally derived choice that feminism supposedly endorses. Although written back in the 1860s, philosopher John Stuart Mill’s ideas in of gender roles supports the notion of free will as exercised by modern feminists. He philosophizes that humans should have the freedom “to employ their faculties, and such favorable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them desirable” (Mill, 105). In this section, Mill attests to the injustice against women’s social immobility in his era. However, his claim can stretch to include the autonomy of women to make choices according to their desires as in the interpretation of many third-wave feminists. In this way, women would be subjugated neither by men nor by other women.
More than just alienating feminists from one another, defining feminism also estranges groups of women from the feminist movement. For instance, the first wave of feminism in the early 1900s can be analyzed as a white woman’s feminist movement that isolated black women and other minority women despite the concurrent fight for racial justice (Evans, 16). Feminism became defined not by its definition of equality, thence, but by the specific class of white, middle class women who controlled the movement. The disparity in representation of the feminist movement is further solidified by theories presented by cultural critics like Bell Hooks, who redefines feminism as a challenge to not just patriarchy but to white, patriarchal dominion (Hooks, 4, 7). In the same way, feminists often exclude transgender women. The Huffington Post in July reported on several instances where the feminist movement failed to include transgender women, including a to “wrap transphobic rhetoric in the language of secular feminism, claiming that gender identity is a concept offensive to women” (Tannehill). Language in this case very explicitly divorces the women’s movement from the trans-women’s movement. Thus, feminism promotes the only equality of men and women in the strictest sense.
Women form half of our society. Men constitute the other half. Yet, the definition feminism has undertaken even in the past decade has deepened disparities between the two sexes rather than creating a movement for both to conjoin under a common goal. History professor Sara Evans writes how communities of feminists strive to break the rules of patriarchy by unlearning gender (11). This idea would theoretically provide a strong impetus in changing gender norms and breaking down masculine superiority. But Evans, clearly, is open to change and willing to diversify her learned beliefs. According to Mark Carnes, the only way to truly change deep judgement is to already be open to change (95-97). This notion means that for the ordinary person who does not care to invest time in analyzing process of thought, he or she will struggle or refuse to supplant already imposed beliefs of gender roles.
Similarly, while many Americans may advocate for gender equality, the subordination of women has been so deeply entrenched in custom that “instinct” and “feeling” have replaced the rationality to legitimize the prejudice within those customs (Mill, 273-275). Consequently, the feminist campaign that attempts to radically define itself as a movement for change may trigger subconscious resistance amongst those that hold those latent biases. Beyoncé’s single “Run the World (Girls)” exemplifies the type of propaganda that can alienate the male feminists by quavering between feminism and sexism, as depicted through the lyrics and video that promote the “rule” of women over men (Pomerantz, et al., 186-187). A portrayal of “feminism” via media as Beyoncé has done, especially when that portrayal is consumed by millions nationwide and worldwide, contributes its very definition. The difference between endorsing feminism, as Beyoncé claims to do, and mere sexism draws back on the definition of feminism. Thereupon, Beyoncé not only hypocritically uses feminism as a guise for her single by depicting women’s dominance over men, but she more aggressively attacks that irrational “feeling” held by men. Essentially, her work exemplifies how feminism can be a threat to the current cultural utility of men by completely flipping the tables rather than creating balance (Connell, 59).
How can society succeed in creating equality of the races without fear of subjugating a group of people? Feminism, when taken in its most basic idea, promotes the equality of both sexes. In other words, it recognizes the inequalities faced by both sexes. Beyoncé’s single demonstrates how “feminists” can use feminism as a means to reciprocate the prejudices that men have subjugated women to for centuries. Movements like Beyoncé’s reinforce the image of feminism as a cause for women’s superiority rather than total equality. While public figures like Emma Watson have advertised feminism as a platform for both sexes to overcome injustice, Watson’s HeForShe speech has two million views compared to Beyoncé’s 426 million (United Nations). The question therefore is not only what messages feminists inseminate but also which messages, and thus which definitions of feminism, are most consumed.
Strictly defining feminism bifurcates the population into groups to whom the alleged equality pertains to and those who remain side-casted. As a society, we must include more men and minority women, including trans-women, into the conversation of equality. We must make feminism a movement for all people and not one just for women, as it has popularly become. Additionally, this inclusion must accompany the freedom of thought and interpretation. Without allowing people the choice to ascertain what feminism means or can mean to them, society remains challenged in understanding all women and creating the comprehensive environment that fosters true equality.
Beyoncé. “Run the World (Girls).” YouTube, YouTube, 18 May 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBmMU_iwe6U.
Burn, Shawn Meghan, et al. “The Relationship Between Gender Social Identity and Support for Feminism.” Sex Roles, vol. 42, no. 11-12, June 2000, pp. 1081–1089., doi:https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1007044802798.
Carnes, Mark C. Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. Harvard Univ Press, 2018.
Connell, R. W. “Scrambling in the Ruins of Patriarchy: Neo-Liberalism and Men’s Divided Interests in Gender Change.” ResearchGate, 1 Jan. 2003, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/302128618_Scrambling_in_the_ruins_of_patriarchy_Neo-liberalism_and_men’s_divided_interests_in_gender_change.
Hooks, Bell. “Theory as Liberatory Practice.” Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, vol. 4, no. 1, 1991, doi:https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlf/vol4/iss1/2.
Mill, John Stuart. The Subjection of Women. Dover Publications, 1997.
Pomerantz, Shauna, et al. “Girls Run the World?” Gender & Society, vol. 27, no. 2, 2013, pp. 185–207., doi:10.1177/0891243212473199.
Richardson, Scott. Gender Lessons: Patriarchy, Sextyping & Schools. Sense, 2015.
Snyder-Hall, R. Claire. “Third-Wave Feminism and the Defense of ‘Choice.’” Perspectives on Politics, vol. 8, no. 1, 1 Mar. 2010, pp. 255–261.
Evans, Sara. “The Way We Were; The Way We Are.” Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End. Free Press, 2010, pp. 1–17.
Tannehill, Brynn. “’Feminists’ Who Exclude Trans Women Aren’t Feminists At All.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 13 Aug. 2018, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-tannehill-terfs-right-wing_us_5b44eeeae4b0c523e2637878.
United Nations. “Emma Watson at the HeForShe Campaign 2014 – Official UN Video.” YouTube, YouTube, 22 Sept. 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkjW9PZBRfk.