As a woman who advocates for gender equality, I believe that feminism has become an unproductive term. And here’s why.
Feminist – I’m not afraid to call myself one. I believe in most of the tenets of modern feminism: equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment of individuals regardless of gender. But I have always felt a bit uneasy identifying with the term. I feel like many feminists are adamant about using the term. And I sense that at times I’m judged for being not as progressively feminist-y as the next because I don’t spring out of my seat calling myself one.
Some have noted what they consider “a disturbingly apathetic sentiment toward feminism.” There is, no doubt, even a backlash against feminism. Take the feminazi meme that has seemingly expanded of late, shelling out unfounded assumptions and stereotyping feminists as misguided fascists.
But in all honesty, there are reasons for this apathy and misunderstanding of feminism, even aside from the all-too apparent existence of misogyny and sexism. There is a very basic rhetorical problem with feminism — and it stems from terminology and semantics. Basically, feminism is a lousy term that disservices its own foundational principles of gender equity. Here are some main reasons for getting rid of the terms feminist and feminism once and for all:
1. It’s a loaded term. A reeeally loaded term.
And while it is unfair for misogynists to stereotype feminists as perpetually angry man-haters, there have certainly been some rather extreme ideas associated with popular strands of feminist thought. Take the radical feminist movement of the seventies, which forms the basis for its modern versions. One well-known contributor to this branch is Andrea Dworkin. As she describes in her book Intercourse, first published 1987,
There is never a real privacy of the body that can coexist with intercourse: with being entered. The vagina itself is muscled and the muscles have to be pushed apart. The thrusting is persistent invasion. She is opened up, split down the center. She is occupied — physically, internally, in her privacy.
While she is using heterosexual sex here as a metaphor for oppression against women, Dworkin seems to imply that penile penetration inherently subjects women to violence and inferiority. And while I can see the connection between physical relations between men and women and the nuanced dynamics of our culture’s gender gap, Dworkin’s powerful point is lost amidst the hyperbolic indictment of the male body. Vestiges like this of the more extreme rhetoric of decades past, though perhaps today dismissed by most feminists, can really muddle messages about gender equality and the meaning of feminism.
While feminism is currently defined as the promotion of gender equality, we all know that gender-based discrimination and violence do not only affect women.
2. Men experience gender discrimination and violence as well.
Men can, for instance, be subject to false accusations of child molestation and rape. And gay men have faced much violence and harassment — a 2009 study found that, during their adult lifetimes, gay men were significantly more likely than lesbians or bisexuals to experience violence, property crimes, or harassment. Feminism does not really capture any of that side of the reality. In fact, it obscures this fact and diminishes the visibility of those out there who face real and serious consequences of gender discrimination but who don’t identify as women. Men who believe in gender equality are expected to call themselves feminists, yet the growth of what’s referred to as the men’s rights movement is demonstrating that many are feeling snubbed from the feminist agenda and ultimately left out of the equity equation.
3. The transgender community experiences a significant proportion of today’s gender-based social, political, and occupational troubles.
Transgender individuals have faced a litany of harassment, discrimination and violence, from refusal of healthcare services, to denial of housing, to higher rates of violence. One report done by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality offers staggering statistics: of the 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming respondents surveyed, 26% had lost a job due to their identity; 53% had been harassed or disrespected in public; and an alarming 41% had attempted suicide. Vice President Joe Biden in October rightfully said that transgender discrimination is ‘the civil rights issue of our time.’ Individuals who are transgender or non-gender conformist face some of the greatest obstacles to obtaining civil rights, social equity, and basic levels of respect. And while LGBT issues are often privileged in contemporary feminist discourse, those who are transgender or do not conform to typical gender distinctions are implicitly marginalized because feminism, by its very name, emphasizes the victimization of females.
Yes, to reiterate, modern versions of feminist theory and activism do include considerations for men and the LGBT community. But let’s face the fact that the term feminism is archaic, misleading, and inaccurate for the contemporary situation we are in. I would say it’s akin to using the term “blackism” as the umbrella term for the anti-racist movement. The symbolic prioritization of one marginalized group at the expense of others is a problem, and so we need to employ rhetoric that is more inclusive and productive.
So, there’s a simple solution to this linguistic dilemma; we strive to employ the term “gender equality.” I’m a gender equitist. Easy, no? Many already use the term gender equality, such as the United Nations. And there are some grassroots change, as evidenced by, uhh, the 307 likes of this random Facebook page at the time of this writing. But we make a more conscious collective change in language and discard the term feminism for good. Because if we are to really take gender equality seriously, then we can no longer pretend or imply that it’s a battle to be fought only for women.