In Defence of Feminism

I was recently linked to this article on the Independent about the unpopularity of feminism amount younger generations – Can Feminism Survive The Next Generation?

It’s a somewhat old article, from September last year, but it’s a topic that comes up again and again: the idea that feminism needs a makeover to make it more relevant or appealing to younger women. I disagree that this is a major concern facing feminism today, and here’s why.

I can actually completely understand why some people don’t want to align themselves with “feminism”. I think this can happen because they have been misinformed about what it is, because goodness knows there’s a wealth of misinformation about who feminists are and what we believe. But I also think it is the case for some people because they and others like them have been historically disenfranchised and marginalised by mainstream feminists.

The people who label themselves womanists aren’t going to stop being womanists and become whatever we decide to call feminism if feminism gets a new name. Their concerns with feminism are not superficial or image-based, they are systemic. And of course there are many different feminisms within the overarching school of thought and activism that is referred to as feminism; plenty of self-identified feminists have beliefs I disagree with and beliefs I think of as harmful, such as those who claim all heterosexual sex is rape or that trans* women aren’t really women. But since I am not the arbiter of language or of feminism, I don’t get to claim they’re not the real face of feminism. Feminism has plenty of faces.

But then the Independent article isn’t about appealing to people who have serious and legitimate anger about the way feminism has treated them. That article was about appealing to young people who believe feminists are man haters. But I honestly don’t think changing the name will help there.

For one thing, a lot of the words suggested as alternatives to “feminism” are either already taken or don’t really represent the thing I see as most important about feminism, which is the specific position of women in society and the struggle against misogyny. I like that feminism centralises women, women’s experiences and women’s liberation, because so much of the rest of the world does not and I think it’s important to have an ideological space that puts women at the heart of the conversation. “Equalism” and “humanism” are both perfectly good things, but they don’t centralise the specific struggles of women like feminism does. “Womanism” is already a term coined by Alice Walker to talk about the experiences and social realities of Black women who had been largely excluded from mainstream feminism. To appropriate that term would be obnoxious in the extreme. And since feminist is an identity label, there are a lot of people who are very fond of it and won’t be letting go of it any time soon. I’m one of those people!

I know a lot of women and girls in my own sphere of experience are or have been uncomfortable with the feminist label, and I have encountered plenty of women, especially teenage women, who seem to believe the “bad press” about feminism that the article describes. I never experienced that, myself. I suspect it is because for as long as I can remember my mother has described herself to me as a feminist, and has been proud of being a feminist. My mum and I don’t agree on all aspects of feminism, and I think some of my politics are more radical than hers, but she was a woman I admired growing up who talked openly and proudly about being a feminist, and I think that made a difference to how I perceived feminism as a teenager compared to many of my peers. I hope if I ever have a daughter I’ll be able to model proud feminism to her in the same way.

Returning to the idea of giving feminism a makeover, I am troubled by the argument that because misinformation has been spread about feminists based either on a very small minority of feminists or outright fabrications – see man hating, bra burning, etc – that it is the responsibility of feminists in general (a huge diversity of people with often very different views!) to “reinvent ourselves”. I demonstrate every day that I am not a man hater, and people who claim that my feminist identity means I hate men are, quite simply, liars. I shouldn’t have to prove that malicious lies spread about me are false in order to convince young women that things like campaigning against rape culture are good and will make the world a better place for them. Nor should any other feminist.

I am especially upset by the implication – not explicit in this article, but a point that always comes up when talking about feminism’s image – that we need to prove to young women that feminism doesn’t have to mean being a fat, angry, ugly lesbian with hairy legs who never wears high heels or makeup. As a fat, angry, hairy bisexual who never wears high heels, I’d really like feminism to support me in those things, not ask me to hide them to make myself and my politics more palatable. If a woman doesn’t want to call herself a feminist simply because she doesn’t want to be associated with women who look like me then, to be honest, I don’t really want to call her a feminist either. My feminism will not ever be one that centralises the experiences and ideas of conventionally beautiful, thin, heterosexual women over all other women, because I became a feminist in the first place to get away from that bullshit.

Where feminism is hurting people by being racist, transphobic, ableist, fatphobic or otherwise propping up systems of oppression and abuse, then feminists definitely need to work to change this. Note that I say work to change this, not work to make it look like we’ve changed this. We need to constantly reflect to make sure we’re not stomping all over other women and other marginalised people in our own fight for liberation. But we don’t need a makeover so that more girls will want to call themselves feminists. I’m not concerned about feminism being trendy, I’m concerned about it continuing to do good and not doing harm. And changing what we call it isn’t going to make a difference if we’re not willing to check our privilege and listen to the criticisms of women who feel like feminism is failing them.

Finally, I think social justice movements SHOULD rock the boat. I’m not saying I think we should work to be unpopular and reviled, but I do think that if feminism is doing its job then there will be backlash, unless we have achieved perfect equality when I wasn’t paying attention (*checks* nope, we haven’t). Feminism takes many forms, but I think it should be radical and subversive and transgressive. I see no point in a feminism that has been done up nicely to appeal to and not ruffle the feathers of non-feminists. Feminism is meant to ruffle feathers. And I don’t intend to begin shaving my legs or calling myself an equalist so the cool kids will like me.

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2 thoughts on “In Defence of Feminism

  1. daharja says:

    I’m a feminist.

    I shave my legs and generally look pretty feminine. Most of the time. I love makeup and dressing up and looking attractive. And I got married in a white wedding that was kind of traditional.

    But I’m also a kick ass bodybuilder who deadlifts more than most of the men in the gym, has muscles on my muscles. I’m a farming gal who hauls 100 kg sheep around the place, and mends fences and builds chicken coops. And I’m a mum. Who bakes cookies 🙂

    What I’m saying is that the whole point of being feminist is it enables us to be whatever *we* want. And screw what others want us to be. Life is about the pursuit of happiness, and helping others to be happy too.

    I think feminism got lost somehow because a small minority seemed to think it was about making others uncomfortable, instead of about making women comfortable.

    Rocking the boat can be fun. But I just want to do my own thing, without being bothered by others. And that’s what I see feminism as being about – being able to do what you want.

    • Sarah says:

      I think discussions about what personal choices can be made under a feminist umbrella are really interesting! I am personally of the opinion that you can do lots of things while a feminist without making those *things* feminist in themselves. It’s not a zero sum game of things being either feminist or anti-feminist. Some things are just things. For instance, while I believe feminism gives women the power to choose whether or not to shave their legs, shaving one’s legs is not a feminist act (even if it isn’t anti-feminist).

      Rocking the boat can be fun, but it’s also important. The reason why feminism empowers (many) women to do their own thing without being bothered by others is because feminists who came before us rocked the boat. If feminism were not transgressive, nothing would change.

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