The definition of feminism in the always handy oxford dictionary is ‘the advocation of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes’. It is because of my belief in this definition that I very happily call myself a feminist, take part in feminist movements and advocate the cause as best I can.
I will doubt others when they tell me they are not feminists. I will doubt whether I want to be friends with them, I will doubt whether they are good people with good intentions and I admit to this doubt with no shame. However, recently I have noticed that not only some of the men in my life, but the women are increasingly hesitant to call themselves feminists. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that some people don’t, but I assumed that I had surrounded myself with the type of people that do. As a feminist I am used to constantly defending the movement, but instead of shutting them down, telling them they were wrong, or condemning them for doing so, I decided to ask them why and really listen to what they had to say (without presuming that they were wrong from the get go). The reason for this is because these are people who believe in the definition wholeheartedly, but who do not want to associate themselves with its relative term. The question this article asks, is why the term feminism is so increasingly unappealing to feminists?
Don’t get me wrong, there are some arguments which I have heard many a time that do irritate me. These are ones said out of a gross misunderstanding of the term, ignorance at how society actually functions and to the imbalance of equality women do experience at an institutional level. Nevertheless, the issues I am focusing on are rather ones of rhetoric, attitudes and inclusion in the movement.
I asked some of my (anonymous) male friends, who are very much in support of women’s rights in the name of gender equality, a few questions to better understand their point of view. Their responses have been summarised below:
Q: What is feminism to you?
A: Women’s rights to eventually reach gender equality
Q: Do you think men should be included in this movement?
Q: Do you feel included in this movement?
A: Not always
Q: Would you call yourself a feminist?
A: Yes, but not necessarily proudly or without some form of qualification of the term
This was the general response generated from my questions. The question of why they did not feel included and why they felt the need to qualify the term requires more detail than a few words. The men I spoke to were very much sympathetic of the problems women face, if not being able to fully empathise with them. They listened to my long list of possible discrimination females encounter, the uncomfortable situations they are put in and the often traumatic events that they go through simply because of their being female. None of them disagreed or objected to my list in any form.
The problem that these men have, is the third-wave, radical feminism that they feel they are experiencing more of, not just in the media but in their own experience with self-labelled feminists. At the end of the day, it is the females they surround themselves with who largely dictate how comfortable they feel speaking about women’s issues and rights. This is not to discredit the assuredness of their own thoughts about feminism, but it does impact how comfortable they feel in voicing these views. (My usual response here would be to argue that they don’t know the half about feeling uncomfortable, but that would go against my aim of trying to get to the bottom of this).
These men feel like their opinions are being devalued. They acknowledge that they cannot possibly experience what women go through, but at the same time, women make a plethora of judgements about men without understanding what a man’s life is like, but this is somehow okay. For example, the issue of ‘mansplaining’ is not necessarily negated by these men, but they have now experienced the dissemination of this concept into the denunciation of everything they say. They feel that female opinions are taken far more seriously than their own, despite the reverse being one of the issues feminists have wanted to tackle. The cause for many seems to have changed from improving women’s statuses to flipping the situation over so that females are the dominant gender.
There is also an issue of class that was brought up by the interviewees. Women want the same rights and lifestyles that middle-class, privileged white men have. Men are still expected to undertake the laborious blue-collar tasks and jobs. These are not the ones women want to have the equal opportunities to work in, but rather the high-flying city jobs. Men do not get listened to. If they complain about something, they’re told to stop being ungrateful. But if a fairly successful, white, privileged middle-class woman complains, it is her right to do so, and any backlash is considered to be offensive.
Anyone who is not a left-wing female is scared to speak. Men are now actively afraid to voice any opinions for fear of them not being specifically tailored to this audience. The hostile rhetoric of many feminists makes them reluctant to take any part in the movement at all.
I then moved on to question some of my female friends, for which the responses are given below:
Q: What is your definition of feminism?
A: Promoting greater equality for women
Q: Would you openly/proudly call yourself a feminist?
A: It holds bad connotations – people are more reluctant to speak openly with you, think you’re arrogant and abrasive. If you are a feminist, then lead your life as one rather than actively labelling yourself.
Q: Should men be included in the movement?
A: Some argued that they shouldn’t be to a large extent, because it’s about women – if men have their own issues then they should deal with them separately. Others argued that they should be.
Q: What would you say to men who say they’re not feminists, or to men who say they don’t feel included?
A: They should be feminists if they feel that women aren’t treated equally, but we understand why they choose to not label themselves as such.
Q: Why do you think they are reluctant to call themselves feminists?
A: They think women push them away, that women think they are better than men.
This is a summarised version of the answers that I received from females. Neither of these set of questions and answers take into account all attitudes, or all of the questions necessary to really do justice to the issue, but they do give a general idea of what is going wrong here. It is one thing to alienate men from the feminist movement, but that it is pushing away women is something I for one think is worrisome. Many women, strong women at that, do not like to be labelled as feminists, because they worry about how they will be perceived. Isn’t one aspect of feminism supposed to be about making women feel more comfortable in their identity rather than trying to hide it?
People make stupid arguments sometimes, sure. And sometimes there are people whose views are outright offensive. But we should not presume this is the case just because someone is sharing an opinion that isn’t exactly like ours.
My own opinion on the topic doesn’t necessarily fit in snugly with all of the above arguments, but that is not the point. In the process of interviewing these men and women, I could feel myself bursting to prove them wrong or dismiss their opinions outright as ill-informed. But with much effort, I restrained myself, and when I heard what they had to say, I did not point-blank disagree with them either. People make stupid arguments sometimes, sure. And sometimes there are people whose views are outright offensive. But we should not presume this is the case just because someone is sharing an opinion that isn’t exactly like ours.
Arguing that men don’t have issues in comparison to women is also problematic. When faced with a serious male issue I am sure the majority of feminists would not disregard it at all, but the rhetoric which we sometimes use to discuss ‘male problems’ as virtually non-existent, is harmful to how comfortable males feel in openly discussing their very real problems. We may have more issues, and in my opinion we probably do, but that does not mean that men’s should be discarded. It is both the male and female stereotypes that are inherent in society that need to change in conjunction with each other to work towards gender equality.
Trust me, I get the female frustration when sometimes men just don’t get it, but there are a lot of men out there who want to help and who are on our side, but we are not only pushing them away, but also pushing away some women who don’t want to be associated with a movement that casts them as ‘aggressive’. I agree that strong women are wrongly cast as ‘aggressive’ a lot of the time. I have been myself and it irritates the hell out of me. But one of the aims of feminism is to not cast a single stereotype on women. So just like we don’t think women should be perceived as submissive, weak, less intelligent, less capable human beings, we also should not push our own perceptions of women as dominant, outspoken, confident human beings onto every woman and get annoyed when some genuinely do not want to be. It’s about reaching a point where people can assume their own chosen identities without being told one is being too ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ and that being perceived as a negative thing.
the generally left-wing female voice…is not the only one that deserves to be heard
Though my personal opinion is that mainstream feminism is still the dominant, moderate, pure feminism that I know and love, if the people around us are being disillusioned by it, it is our duty as propagators of feminism, to (calmly) explain its true meaning, and to be willing to adapt and change ourselves too. There isn’t one right way to go about feminism. It is an ongoing dialogue to be had between all genders. Yes, this is something that should not have to even be discussed, but since we do have to, let’s go about it the right way. Even if we do have the right to be angry, which a lot of the time I believe we do, is it constructive to the cause? Shouting it in the faces of those who genuinely want to participate is not the way to go about it. Discuss, share and teach men and women about the true meaning of feminism, to not let it be undermined or tarnished. And as hard as it may be, as much as men themselves may have done it to us in the past, an argument that arises out of listening to the opposite view is always respected more than one which discards it immediately. I am by no means saying to lose that fire that drives us to keep pursuing women’s rights, but to bear in mind that the generally left-wing female voice increasingly associated with modern day feminism (which I very much subscribe to) is not the only one that deserves to be heard.
Image: Garry Knight, Flickr