Why is feminism still misunderstood today?
Jamie Speka investigates the true meaning of feminism, the different types of sexism and why it’s time to stop accusing feminism of excluding men.
Feminism is not a cohesive and internally consistent movement. Unique experiences inevitably establish the connotations we apply to feminism and variants of feminism are continuing to emerge from influxes of debate from social media. At the same time, the critical analysis of political ideologies bring renewed contentions to the basic tenets of feminism.
Out of the diverse ideological arrays that populate Generation Z, the word “feminism” continues to derive feelings of ambivalence and, quite inexplicably, fear. Waves of feminism shaped eras before the term became wedged into our lexicon; yet, its definition has been pressed into prescribed moulds without looking at the exact nuances that curate its current meaning. Admittedly, finding an objective definition of a movement is difficult, but getting close to an intersubjective agreement is not. Misconceptions have directed negative feelings towards the language surrounding feminism rather than the movement itself.
What does feminism mean?
To be a feminist is as simple as being a supporter of human rights – a quality that progressive societies support. False definitions, however, view feminism as subversive to equality. Perceptions that it is against men or no longer needed to instigate the diatribe on feminism. It’s nothing but a misunderstanding of the key tenants of feminism that breeds these beliefs.
Feminism: The social, economic and political fight for the equality of all genders
The misunderstanding that men and women are already equal is unsubstantiated for several reasons. A 2018 UN analysis of violence against women found that one in three women worldwide have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence and that 72 per cent of human trafficking victims are women or girls. Women are frequently denied education, with 129 million girls out of school worldwide with nearly one in three adolescent girls having never been to school in the poorest households around the world. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2021 estimated it will take 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide.
Besides macroscale indicators of inequality, structural inequalities continue to shape the lived experience of millions of women through factors such as imposed domestic burdens, clothing expectations, sexist language, and catcalling. With the fragmentation of feminism, these inequalities persist without being consistently and rigorously challenged.
The belief that women are already equal perpetuates a binary approach between men and women, neglecting that a spectrum of gender roles must be included in the fight for equality.
Forms of Sexism
All forms of sexism can be broken down into three major types: hostile, benevolent, or ambivalent. These views affect anyone who expresses themselves with more traditionally feminine traits, behaviours, or presentations. Hostile sexism refers to misogynistic approaches that view women as manipulative, deceitful, or needing to be kept within their place. Benevolent sexism frames femininity as innocent, fragile, and in need of protection. Medical News Today paraphrases a 2020 study including the US and UK that found that “people who believed in humanity’s dominance over nature and who saw women as being more closely connected with nature than men were more likely to exhibit benevolent sexism.”
These views can ultimately lead to stripping women of autonomy and viewing them as unable to accomplish tasks just the same as men. Ambivalent sexism is a mix of the two, which creates restricting barriers for women to fully act in a “socially acceptable” way within society–where traditional femininity is not viewed as capable, while “unladylike” behaviour remains demonized.
These forms of sexism can play out in three different ways: institutional, interpersonal, and internalized. Institutional sexism is woven into the government, education systems, healthcare systems and media and is responsible for policies dominating reproductive rights and formulating the gender pay gap. Interpersonal sexism occurs more casually within interactions in a range of social settings. Inappropriate comments, judgements, or perpetuating stereotypes during interpersonal interactions are examples of this interplay. Internalized sexism is highly personal. This refers to being deeply affected by institutional and interpersonal sexism so that an individual adopts these beliefs about themselves. For example, with men, stereotypes constructing masculinity often create feelings of shame if they do not abide by principles founded in benevolent sexism.
Further, the belief that women are already equal perpetuates a binary approach between men and women, neglecting that a spectrum of gender roles must be included in the fight for equality. Statistics in a Human Rights Campaign Press Release found that 47 per cent of transgender individuals faced serious acts of discrimination. These statistics are higher for trans people of colour, and those who are homeless or have a disability.
Men suffer because of the expectations set on them by the patriarchyLiz Frost, president of the University of Exeter’s Feminist Society
Femininity and masculinity have rigid definitions that restrict those identifying under the umbrellas of these words. Stereotypical gender roles define femininity as a “weaker” trait that leads individuals to not seek emotional support out of shame, accounting for many issues that men face in society. Men are socialized to perceive masculinity as unwavering independence in need of no support. This societal pressure is a significant factor in the fact that suicide and homelessness rates are disproportionately higher for men than women. Men’s issues are valid issues that fit within feminism’s agenda of reinterpreting gender to alleviate systemic social issues.
“Men suffer because of the expectations set on them by the patriarchy, which is exactly what feminism is aiming to dismantle,” says the outgoing University of Exeter’s Feminist Society president Liz Frost. “Feminism does care about men, but this sort of retort is mostly brought up when discussing gender inequality against women, rather than on its own as a genuine concern. If male suicides, homelessness, sexual assault, and violence is important to you, then do the work with feminism, rather than against it.”
If it includes all genders, why is it called feminism?
There are multiple reasons behind the label of feminism. On a rather elementary premise, it is called feminism because organisation of protest began at a time when the movement sought to empower predominantly women who were curtailed in most areas of society, from voting to child-bearing. However, feminism has since changed from its narrow focus on white, upper-class women to represent all genders, races, and classes. The name continues to resonate because if we analyse the core of these inequalities within society, the contention lies in the notion of femininity which has been historically disparaged by patriarchy. Other words such as ‘humanism’ and ‘egalitarianism’ are argued to be more accurate in articulating the ideology. This is untrue as the former is used to describe a turn towards secular modes of advancement spawning during the Renaissance, while the latter, ‘egalitarianism’, is a political ideology advocating for equality of all peoples built on the concept that everyone has the same opportunities from birth. Both of these labels do not communicate what feminism communicates: the fight for the social, economic, and political equality of all genders. Besides, as Frost notes, “Instead of questioning why it is not called egalitarianism, perhaps we should question why people are so uncomfortable centring women in the first place.”
It is our continual interaction with feminism that will bridge us together.
While everyone can fit into the movement, there are outliers who continue to misinterpret its meaning. Namely, Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) have presently been misleading the movement into a harmful territory that must not be representative of feminism. There is no space for exclusions in feminism. As Roxanne Gay writes in Bad Feminist, “We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.”
Feminism, like all social movements, is fraught with internal contradictions. This does not mean we should look away. It is our continual interaction with feminism that will bridge us together. We must keep saying the word because, as Frost reminds us, “there is power in the name of a movement.”