The Common Good

I Need Feminism Because ...

Human rights, woman shape. Image courtesy Bombaert Patrick/shutterstock.com
Human rights, woman shape. Image courtesy Bombaert Patrick/shutterstock.com

So, #womenagainstfeminism happened.

Last week’s viral tumblr of that name sports a lineup of women — exclusively young and predominantly white American — posting defiant placards that state, “I don’t need feminism because ...” and ending the sentence with conclusions personal and political. Like most hashtag-agitation these days, the tumblr and the corresponding tweets amounted to a fairly incoherent hodgepodge of the keenly insightful, the factually fuzzy, the overtly hostile, and the truly baffling.

For example:

"Women shouldn’t be fighting for superiority in the Western world, they should be fighting for equality where it is absent.”

"Because it has become confused with misandry, which is as bad as misogyny.”

"Because the pay gap is women’s choice.”

“Because I don’t whine hysterically until people buy me stuff!”

"Because I’m too stupid and weak to make men respect me without it (and too ugly to control them).”

"My boyfriend treats me right."

"Because if it’s sunny, I’ll wear less clothes, not because guys will stare, but because it’s hot.”

The latter sorts of statements are the kinds that make one’s blood boil while yelling, “Oh for HEAVEN’S SAKE.” (My exact response to the first friend who sent this my way.)

For these, I’ll simply reiterate the obvious fact that none of these women “against feminism” would be able to use this platform to speak their mind without it. Thanks, feminists!

But spending more time on the tumblr, it’s clear there’s a sub-narrative of women with sentiments similar to the first two listed, saying “I don’t need modern feminism,” specifically — and this warrants more thought, I think.

The distinction is interesting. These women by and large don’t disown the concept of full equality and freedom of choice, or mock others for being feminists — though their willingness to be lumped under the banner of “Women Against Feminism” is problematic, and their placement alongside statements like “Because I don’t whine hysterically” is certainly dubious.

By and large, their issue is how. They are critiquing how feminists wield the word “feminism,” questioning their perceived gap between an equanimous textbook definition and a combative articulation. If feminism is a word for empowerment, why does it so often feel like a weapon?

This challenge is not new — feminists have been divided on how best to achieve full equality, and what it should look like when we get it, for decades. But for these frustrations to be raised again, in the same chorus as other women expressing disgust with the idea of feminism entirely, reveals just how much this conversation still needs to be had.

Another recent hashtag, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, asked, are white feminists — usually the most recognized by the media — listening to and accounting for the perspectives of women of color?

Though this time the complaints come a hashtag started from without feminism, not within, the objections from the “anti-modern feminists” sound similar. Are feminists thinking expansively about making up new rules, or are they content with trying to even up the score? If feminism is about being pro-woman, why can it often sound anti-man? Does achieving equality have to feel combative?

The answer for the most privileged among us is no. From where I sit, a full recipient of the equality delivered from decades of outspoken, combative feminism in the past, I can afford to talk about the ongoing challenges facing women with male colleagues at my leisure, with minimal fear of threat or discredit to my own rights and privileges.

And across the country, women and men are working together to challenge existing gender inequality — from fighting for paid maternity and paternity leave and efforts to close the wage gap, to calling out sexism in the media, sports, and the office, naming rape, and exposing social complicity in abuse.

But this is not true everywhere in the U.S, and is even less true elsewhere in the world. Lynn Parramore at Alternet points out that feminism has always been “deeply aware of economic realities” and is at its best when it incorporates cultural clashes with economic context. Structural disparities and destructive narratives toward women persist all over the world, in traditions and laws and religions, which treats even the idea of a fully empowered woman as oppositional, even threatening, to the continued existence of the fully empowered man.

Wherever the idea of an empowered woman is threatening to society, feminism has to be combative towards the status quo.

“[We need feminism] because, worldwide, more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century,” writes blogger Rachel Held Evans, in a grave litany of ways women are subjugated, oppressed, exploited, and denied around the world.

“Because in the time it took you to take a selfie with a sign declaring that the world doesn’t need feminism ... two more American women were sexually assaulted, nearly 100 American women were abused, four women worldwide died giving birth, eight little girls were trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 6,781,920 people looked at naked women online.”

In a perfect world, women can choose to be whomever they want. But there is not yet a country on earth in which that is actually true. That is why we need feminism.

That there’s disagreement over how we talk about women’s empowerment in the U.S. isn’t surprising — feminism is a collection of unique people with unique visions of a good life, trying to figure out how to preserve past and present good, correct past and present wrongs, and forge a new way ahead together.

But it is tragically, perennially clear why speaking up against male-controlled narratives in church or school or novels or movies or business or government, against generations of excused behavior for men and oppression for women, against ongoing systemic injustice is still so crucially necessary.

From reading what these “anti-modern-feminists” have written, I don’t believe any of them would take umbrage with that. It’s a pity, then, they are rejecting the term feminism — their challenges would be great additions to the dialogue. More education and conversation about what feminism is, and how we do it, and where it can go, is clearly needed. Without it, I’m not at all sure how much farther forward we’ll be able to go.

Can we be for women even if they choose a life or a label that we’d reject? Can we be for women without being against men? Can we be for women in order to be for all?

Honestly, I’m glad for #womenagainstfeminism — not for the confused sensationalism it’s sown, or the sting it’s caused to see young women telling me they don’t need what I fight for. And I’m certainly not glad for any affirmation it gave to entrenched sexism or disparagement towards women fighting for equality. But the mottled mosaic of #womenagainstfeminism does provide a clear insight into the state of our conversation today. The portrait of complaints challenges us to reset the discussion table, respond with more wisdom, and keep trying with more grace.

There’s work to be done. Listen to the frustration. Correct the misperceptions. Teach the context. Expand the horizon. Do justice towards all. Love mercy towards all. Walk humbly with all.

Practice feminism.

 

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners.

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