November 21, 2014

By any other name

The path to feminism is not as easy as accepting its dictionary definition.

In her speech advocating gender equality at the United Nations this past September, actor Emma Watson stated that “women are choosing not to identify as feminists.” Yet it is becoming increasingly disreputable to refuse the word “feminist”—actress Shailene Woodley, upon stating she was not a feminist “because [she loves] men,” received much backlash from the public. Why is there such a tension surrounding this word? Why is there a need to choose between blatantly rejecting the term and broadcasting it as part of one’s identity?

Perhaps it has to do with misinformation; perhaps those who reject—or shy away from—the word “feminist” misunderstand the definition (the “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”), believing it to be synonymous with bra-burning, radicals, or the idea that women should surpass men and replace the patriarchy. If you understand the mistakes behind that reasoning and still choose not to identify as a feminist, however...well, clearly you’re just despicable.

And yet I am still wary of pinning the feminist badge on my shirt front. And since I’m deeply hoping it is not because I am absolutely despicable, I’m going to offer a few things I’ve realized as I’ve tried to explain why I’ve felt a reluctance toward the modern feminist movement.

One of the major claims made about feminism is that it is no longer necessary in our society. I can walk down the street without a man giving me his permission and without having a man at my side—you probably can too if you’ve posted about feminism on social media or are reading this article. You and I both probably went to some form of school and learned cursive and read Shakespeare and learned algebra, if not calculus. Women (and men) who fit these criteria are protesting against words like “bitch” and “pussy” and advocating against dress codes, while in Yemen a woman is only considered half a witness in court and elsewhere women cannot remove a hijab, let alone wear a strapless dress to school. Sure, elsewhere feminism makes sense, but feminism here seems almost… selfish?

But I’ve been on the Internet and in this world as a young woman long enough to recite the counter-arguments: The smaller problems, especially ingrained habits of language and lifestyle, affect a wide swath of women, sometimes even unknowingly, and we should not tolerate any form of injustice or oppression.

Another idea I’ve struggled with: the idea that feminism is no longer a choice, but something all women need. Take the #yesallwomen response to the #notallmen campaign following the 2014 Isla Vista killings in order to convey that no, not all men are perpetrators but yes, all women are affected. The parody Twitter account @notofeminism mocks claims that women don’t need feminism and has nearly 70,000 followers. Yet should it not be a woman’s choice if she wants to rely on a movement? If she is one of the lucky number who has never felt gender oppression or fear, why enforce the idea on her that she actually is oppressed or should be afraid of oppression?

But if a woman is privileged enough to not feel oppressed, she should still be aware of oppression in society, and she should use her freedom and confidence to inspire and assist others. Finally, it’s just plain frustrating that in 2014, so many people still have such mistaken notions of feminism and continue to perpetrate injustice.

Being a feminist is not and should not be primarily about yourself: Whether I need or want feminism is insignificant because there are so many other women who are forced to go to school with their rapists, receive unequal pay for equal work, or are denied rights solely based on their gender. And I need to be a feminist for them, for the sake that there is injustice in this world that needs to be fought.

There also seems to be an inherent difficulty for those who embrace the main ideas of feminism, but are reluctant to accept the stigmatization implied by the word “feminist.” From the multitude of tweets bashing Woodley to the parody Twitter that intentionally spells words wrong—as if insinuating those who do not accept their feminist badge are somehow stupid—to popular blogger Libby Anne telling those who choose not to identify as feminists to “kiss my ass, you ignorant little jerks,” we see a number of examples of how not to recruit new feminists. Not only do none of these seem like good ways to get people to understand, join, or even respect a movement, but they go against the idea that feminists advocate for all women, not only women who call themselves feminists.

Most importantly, it’s important to recognize that the label “feminist” doesn’t matter; at least, the snap judgments made on whether or not someone accepts the word aren’t fair. The definition itself differs for everyone; there is no list of boxes to check off. Equality of the sexes is a concept that is surprisingly difficult to understand, especially when factors such as medical treatments that differ due to inherent biological differences are taken into account.  Is Serrin M. Foster, a recent speaker at the University, not a feminist for being pro-life? She advocates for the acceptance and promotion of pregnancy and motherhood, especially in academic circles. Is she not doing more than those who stick “feminist” in their Twitter descriptions yet do not act?

Woodley later stated, “I don’t need to call myself a ‘feminist’ or ‘not a feminist’ because I know what my truth is,” and reiterated the idea that first and foremost, women need to respect each other. It seems that as a whole, the feminist movement should not necessarily dismiss those who do not want the label. Whether or not we claim a word does not inhibit or necessarily promote our ability to fight injustice.

Felicia Woron is a second-year in the College.