On Feminism
Apr 28, 2012

On Feminism

I am proud to call myself a feminist. I take it as a first principle needing no further derivation that all people deserve equality of freedom and opportunity, and that it is both morally right and morally obligatory to fight for this in society. Feminism, to me, is simply the subset of this that pertains to women and issues specific to women. I thus don't consider it a particularly difficult or surprising position to take and feel that anyone who agrees with the above characterization ought to identify as feminists as well.

Surprisingly, not many people self identify as feminists any longer. One part of this is that feminism has been very successful at winning the rhetorical battle. The idea that a woman ought to have equal rights and opportunities to education and to work, to be able to determine the nature of their own sexuality, to rise to political office, and to be treated as equal citizens in every sense of the word is not contentious. One has to to to the very fringes of politics to find people willing to vocally and explicitly disagree with these most basic notions. Historically, this was not always the case and that battle over the idea of equality was hard fought and hard won.

The need to be called a feminist has thus lost some of its past allure as an important battle of ideas and social change. However feminism is not over and done with, nor has it been made irrelevant by the tides of social change because, while our rhetoric is on board, our society nonetheless has significant differences between men and women on innumerable issues such as differences in salary or leadership positions (even after we carefully adjust for factors like pregnancy and child rearing). People still behave, often unconsciously, in sexist, or at least sex based, ways which as an aggregate create significant differences in society. These problems are not inconsequential and require the existence of a robust feminism movement in order to identify and solve them.

The importance of feminism, and the title that goes with it, should not be so quickly abandoned simply because some subset of the goals of feminism have been reached. I don't necessarily think people would even disagree, when pressed, about the existence of many remaining problems. In some places, such as the US on issues like abortion, the importance of feminism remains quite clear. However, I think the full scale and scope of the problems and the level of endemic sexism in our society take some attention to fully realize because we are blinded to these issues by normalcy bias and lack of attention. One role feminism can play is simply to highlight these issues. Regardless, because the issues that remain are understated in society, and there is a sense in which a large amount has already been accomplished, feminism is unfortunately seen as not that important.

A common mischaracterization of feminism that has been around since its early roots is the idea that feminism is an attack on one type of lifestyle and the promotion of an alternate lifestyle. Feminism, to me, has never been prescriptive. That is, it has never advocated that women need to play certain roles (such as a work career versus being a stay at home mom), and instead has advocated about equality of opportunity so that women have equal opportunities to live their lives as they see fit. While I am sure there are exceptions, I think most conscientious feminists would agree. Unfortunately, a persistent negative characterization of feminism is that it is an attack on certain ways of life advocating for the replacement with another way of life.

Being willing to identify with a particular movement takes more than simply agreeing with its basic tenants. People desire to feel connected or identified with members of the movement in some tangible way. This was a big problem in the later stages of the Occupy movement, because while most people might agree with some of the basic political tenants being made by the movement, they simply did not identify with the people in the movement and the idea of spending time in tents protesting and occupying. Without that sense of connection, people are going to be less willing to identify with some movement. Further, I think that many people have an image of various stereotypical "feminists" in their minds (and it is probably not a male political blogger). Ironically, most of these stereotypes are exactly the examples of sexism which feminism attempts to combat.

Since I consider feminism to be a part of a larger view on politics and society, one might reasonably ask why I would feel the need to assert the label "feminist" in the sense that it might appear to be implicitly devaluing other issues. I don't feel this is the case. On some issues we have standard, socially accepted terms. I am a feminist but also am an environmentalist, an atheist, and any number of things. There doesn't happen to be a convenient expression for many issues, however, so I while I obviously support LGBT rights and fight frequently against racism or islamophobia, I cannot claim to be a "gayist" or an "anti-racist" or a "pro-religious-tolerance-ist" because these expression don't exist. As such, when I agree with the thrust of some specific movement or other I will adopt its label if it has one and express my support in other ways if it does not have one. Some issues - and feminism is certainly one of them - are such poignant, prolonged and important issues that the size of the movement that develops to combat these problems becomes sufficiently large that they happen to adopt a label like "feminism" while others, for no particular reason, do not.

Consider the comparison to racism. Racism, like feminism, is a situation where the overwhelming majority of people agree with the basic concepts and rhetoric that it is indeed wrong to be a racist and that equality of freedoms and opportunity, regardless of race, is an important tenant for our society. Nonetheless, significant racial problems remain that need work combating and are often left as a political afterthought, if that. The scope of the problems are downplayed and a willingness to address them is often muted. Interestingly, it is now considered a grave insult to accuse someone else of racism. This demonstrates how far the movement has come at the ideas and rhetoric level that the idea of being racist or being accused of being racist is a very big deal. On the flip side, because accusations of racism are difficult for several reasons, it provides a defense mechanism where we are unable to call out racism in society and from individuals despite it still existing very strongly.

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