During my first semester of graduate school, I was required to take a course that introduced students to the field of graduate studies in English, and with it the many schools of critical theory. Each week we would explore a new school of thought, and we all had to present on certain pieces during the semester. I chose to present during the week on Feminism, because I consider myself an avid feminist and identified with many feminist writings as an undergraduate. I expected our class discussion to be intelligent, informed, and insightful, but I was angered to find that many of my classmates held extremely misguided prejudices against feminism. I was surprised that many of the most outspoken people rallying against feminism were women. It was then that I recognized the extraordinary need there is to redefine what feminism means and what it is to be a feminist in the 21st century.
I remember the first time I identified myself as a feminist. I was an undergraduate in a Women’s Studies class dominated by women, and my professor asked the class who considered themselves a feminist. I was one of two people to raise their hand in a class of over thirty individuals. My teacher sat back, clearly expecting this, and began to tell the class all of the misconceptions surrounding feminism, some of which I was certain did not exist, but have since found to be true. That class opened my eyes to the social and historical war women have been fighting, and continue to fight, to gain equality.
Feminism is defined by Dictionary.com as, “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” However, there are a variety of common misconceptions that surround feminism, and those who dare to openly identify themselves as feminists. To me, feminism is the fight for equality, not just in terms of wages, job availability, or the ability to vote, but also equality in the realm of perception. I am eternally grateful to the women who came before me and made their voices heard in order to procure the vote for me and other women, who forced businesses and government establishments to offer women the same jobs as men, and who are still fighting to make sure that women receive equal wages for equal work. However, as I get older, I see the next battle on the horizon as the one of perception.
Even if women are considered equal in the eyes of the law, they must be considered equal in the hearts and minds of each individual. I am sick of being told how I should act because I am a woman, what activities I should be interested in, how I should dress, what colors I should like, what my goals in life should be, and what my priorities should be. I shouldn’t have to defend my preferences and choices constantly just because I am biologically a woman, nor should I have to defer to a man to make my decisions for me. If I want to go hiking alone and have no interest in getting married and having children, then other people should accept that and stop trying to tell me why I need to settle down at the ripe age of 21 and start popping out babies. No, thank you. You live your life, and I will live mine.
One of my classmates summed it up well in our class discussion, which I spent mostly with fists clenched and skyrocketing blood pressure. One of my other classmates was saying that feminists hate stay-at-home mothers, something that is completely untrue. My classmate, intelligent and wise, said something to the effect of, “No, feminists do not hate women who want to fulfill traditional gender roles. If you want to have kids and stay at home to raise them, more power to you. But I don’t, and everyone tells me that I have to in order to be a woman. Feminism is when you support your fellow women who don’t want to make the same choices as you and advocate that all women should be able to live the lives they want to without censure. You are judging me and my life, not the other way around.” And for me, that really summed up how I see feminism.
My mother stayed at home each time she had a child, and she is one of the strongest and most intelligent women I know. However, I have completely different goals. I don’t know if I will ever want to have kids, or settle down and have a family. I am career driven, ambitious, and solitary to the core. I support women for whatever choices they want to make, and I think that the feminism I believe in seeks to do the same. Feminism should not be about women attacking other women and their choices; it should be about unilateral support of one another and a belief in the fight for equality. I believe that one day women will attain equal standing with men, in all spheres, but I think it is imperative for women and men to band together to make this shift in culture and societal structure take place. I believe that women are strong, intelligent, beautiful human beings that are capable of anything, and should not be limited to or defined by inadequate and arcane parameters. Women are boundless and indefinable, and should be treated as such.
I would like to address a few popular misconceptions surrounding feminism here, and explain why I think they are wrong. Many of these came up in class, and I still find it extremely alarming that otherwise very intelligent, logical human beings espoused these beliefs in a graduate classroom.
Feminists are lesbians.
I get this one a lot. Occasionally, someone says something blatantly misogynistic or inaccurate in front of me, or tries to tell me how to “be a real woman” and I find it necessary to correct their definition of what it is to be a woman. One of the first responses I get is that I am a feminist; therefore I must be a lesbian. I am still extremely puzzled how these two seemingly unconnected things became so intertwined in the mind of the public, but I would like the state that lesbianism and feminism do not go hand in hand. Just because I believe in equality for women does not mean I want to have sex with women. If you are a feminist and also a lesbian, more power to you, but it is not true of all women who consider themselves feminists. Seriously. It’s just common sense.
Only women can be feminists.
One of my best friends considers himself a feminist and he is a large, bear-like, bearded man. I would hope that all men are feminists, even though I know that is not true. However, to the men who do not consider themselves feminists, I would like to know how the women in your life feel about your belief that they should not have equal standing with men socially, politically, and in every other way that exists. Men can certainly be feminists, and many of the men I know are, because they recognize that women are just as capable, intelligent, and brave as men, and should be treated as such.
Feminists hate men.
This is a crowd favorite. One of my male classmates said, “I feel like feminists will yell at me if I open a door for them, and just hate men and penises, and want to go burn their bra and yell at housewives.” Uhhhhh… no? I love men. My desire to secure equal rights for women has absolutely no bearing on my thoughts about men. I don’t blame every man for the patriarchal society we live in, nor would I ever yell at a man for opening a door for me. I think that there is a huge difference between politeness and subordination. I open doors for men all the time, and that does not mean that I am trying to subjugate them to a lower socioeconomic sphere or limit their mobility in the world. I think that this is a popular response because even though the reasoning is inherently flawed and inaccurate, it shuts people up. The thing about feminism is that people do not want to discuss the secondary nature of women in our society; they want to deny its existence, despite all of the evidence to the contrary.
Feminists hate women who fulfill traditional gender roles.
Here’s the deal: I do not give one fuck if you want to wear pretty pink dresses, find a nice husband, settle down and have children. If that makes you happy, then go for it. But that would not make me happy, and I am constantly chastised for my refusal to fulfill the limited roles society has deemed socially acceptable for women to inhabit. I want to travel, go on adventures, write, hike, and explore the world. I do many of those activities alone. I do not date because I am focused on my career and my education. I will defer once again to my brilliant classmate here, because while I support women who want to make decisions society approves of, society does not approve of my decisions because they do not jive with the common conception of what a woman is or should be. I expect other women to fight for me to be treated the same way as them, regardless of our differences of choice and preference. All women — all people for that matter — should be able to live their lives in a way that makes them happy so long as it does not infringe on the rights of another human being. Last time I checked, my desire to not have children and get married is not hurting anyone, so if people could calm down, that would be great. Women can certainly do those things, but there are many other activities women can do as well.
Feminism has destroyed chivalry.
I will admit that there is a certain flavor of feminism that I find distasteful, because I think that some women do fulfill some of these stereotypes and have contributed to the adverse reaction most people have to the world feminism. I, however, and many of the feminists I know do not support this brand of feminism that refuses to let men do anything for them (like open a door) because it is considered an act of subordination. No, it isn’t. It is called being kind, and it is fine. When a man tells me I deserve to be paid eighty cents to every dollar he makes because I don’t have a dick, that is when anger should ensue, but when he offers to hold a door for me, not so much. Also, usually toolbags and douches use this as a reason to be an asshole. I think some men have just gotten lazy and forgotten that women deserve to be treated with respect and admiration, but some still remember. Chivalry is not dead, it is just much more scarce than it used to be, but feminism is not entirely to blame for this.
Feminists are all ugly, fat women who are denied by men.
People who argue this are misguided and hateful. First of all, women of all shapes, sizes, and colors are beautiful. Second, the ideological belief that women are equal is not connected in any way to unattractiveness. The feminists I know are intelligent, beautiful, extraordinary women who any man or woman would be lucky to be in a relationship with. Quit attacking people just to avoid the actual issues at hand, it is a petty and stupid distraction tactic.
Feminists just want an easy ride and do not believe that they should have to work as hard as men do.
This is the final and most pervasive misconception that I will address. I have heard a number of classmates, friends, and celebrities espouse this particular brand of misinformed declaration. One of the girls in my class said something to the effect of, “I don’t really think sexism exists. I don’t care if I make eighty cents to every dollar a man makes, I will just work harder so that I can make the same as him. My parents taught me what hard work is.” Hey, so did mine, but they also taught me that it is unfair to work twice as hard as a man does just to receive the same wage. The point is that women should not have to work harder to get to the things men receive just for being men. Gender does not define character, and it is time people realized this. I shouldn’t have to do twice the work to receive the same wage, or prove myself day in and day out to receive the respect a man gets as soon as he walks through the door. I do not want anything handed to me, or given to me just for being a woman, I just want equal opportunities, wages, and perceptions. I don’t want to be treated like an inferior, delicate flower that might break at a wrong move. I am a bad bitch and I get shit done, but I’m done with having to prove that before I am allowed in the room.
The feminism that I believe in seeks to make all women afforded the same opportunities as men in all facets of life, work, and social interaction. I think that the fight for equality is ongoing, and the work of feminism is far from done, but I believe that one day it will be accomplished, and I can only hope that the little girls who want to grow up and be something they are told is unsuitable for a little girl say “screw that” and go do it anyway.