In the thirty-plus years I’ve been alive, I’ve seen a number of connotations applied to feminism. Going to an all-girls school and then a women’s college, for most of my life “feminist” was a positive label. It promised us girls we could do anything the boys could do. It was the assertion that we young ladies would grow into women who would shape the world and have equal claim to it. Feminists were not anti-men. Feminism had nothing to do with femininity or sexuality in and of itself. It was simply a belief in equality—in women mattering as much as, being as capable as, and due all the rights of their male counterparts. Feminism was more for than against, but if it was against anything, it was against the subjugation of women, the stripping of their rights, the exploitation of their labor and bodies, and the suppression of their voices. Feminism was against women being disenfranchised or silenced.
Later, I saw the word “feminist” thrown around like a slur. In some circles it was considered a dirty word. I saw some women shrink away from it. They didn’t want to be perceived as angry or militant. In some circles, I saw only caricatures of feminism depicted. Excuses were thrown to explain such a “pitiable” view. Feminism was treated as the choice of the homely and lonely, the bitter, or the man-hater. And sadly, I even saw some women fall for such depictions, not wanting to wear the feminist label, lest they be lumped in with other supposedly negative notions of feminism.
How do I define feminism? To me, it is simply the desire for the autonomy of all women.
It is the idea that women should not be denied opportunities or rights due to their gender. It is the belief that women and men should be viewed in equal standing as citizens. And inherent in that is the belief that other characteristics (like race, physical limitations, religion, et cetera) are not grounds for discrimination. There are a lot of issues that can come out of that. I believe that a woman with the same credentials and experience should receive the same pay as her male counterparts. I am for parental leaves that allow both women and men to find a healthy balance between family and work.
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Feminism is necessarily linked to so many other things, and as times change and culture changes feminism’s focus, as that of any movement, changes as well. We are all still learning. As humanity evolves, so must its critics, thinkers, and advocates.
Feminism must be multifaceted. Women are more than just women. They have an ethnicity, an education level, a socioeconomic status, not to mention beliefs and physical realities and limitations that define how they experience the world and how they are likely to be treated.
Every woman must inhabit an era, community, and country as well as her body. And so feminism must include all the aspects of being a woman if it is to pursue equality for all women. And feminism can’t ignore men, because an inequality that affects one actually affects everyone.
Feminism requires a multi-faceted approach and an openness to diverse perspectives. One person’s view or feminist cause will not suffice. We need everyone to have a voice. Consider the following examples: A feminist group meets in a building that isn’t wheelchair accessible. This is feminism that is limited to the able-bodied. Meetings are only held on weekends. How will we hear the voices of those who work weekends and/or don’t have access to childcare? Here’s one I witnessed personally: A woman is criticized for attending a prestigious (and expensive) college because she “just” wants to be a stay-at-home mother. Where is her equal right to choose the course of her own life and be challenged intellectually?
As I’ve gotten older, my view of feminism has had to evolve to become more sensitive to the varying degrees society subjugates and uplifts women based on characteristics that lay outside their sex. Women of color, women without financial means, women who are living in a new country and don’t speak the language fluently, women who have a disability, women who have been (or are being) abused. There are so many circumstances feminism has to consider if it is going to truly fight to make all women equal to all men. And so feminism must also care about the condition of men and the inequalities they experience, because equality for all must include everyone.
This is just my personal belief, but my being a feminist doesn’t mean that I see women and men as the same. Being equal doesn’t mean being identical to me. Our anatomy and biology differ. There are macro differences, and there are differences at a genetic level. However, different does not necessarily mean deficient. Women are neither inferior to nor superior to men. Just as I believe the color of a person’s skin shouldn’t determine how he or she is treated, I also don’t believe that a person’s sex should elevate or diminish that person’s place in society.
My feminism is not necessarily your feminism. And the issues of highest concern to feminists today are not identical to those of feminists throughout history.
Feminism, like most social issues, evolves as conditions, concerns, barriers, and dangers evolve. There was a time when women couldn’t vote or own property. It makes sense that the priorities of feminists in those days would be different from those in modern times. And women in America have different obstacles and advantages to women it other countries. However, regardless of what specific issues are of highest concern to women in any particular area or era, it is the essence of pursuing equality that remains across the globe and the generations.
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I don’t believe it’s fruitful to judge a person’s feminism. What is of greatest importance to me may not be of greatest importance to you, but we can both be feminists. We can agree on the basic principle that women should have equal rights and opportunities to men, and yet differ on which fights we want to be on the forefront of.
It saddens me when women seek to tear other women down or affix definitions to each other. It isn’t fair to discount someone’s claim to being a feminist because of his/her outward appearance. Stay-at-home mothers are feminists, as are female CEO’s. And you can be a feminist whether or not you’re a woman. Whether you shave, wear makeup, or dress according to feminine norms does not automatically determine whether you support the feminist cause.
As with most things, feminism is a learning experience, personally and collectively. Someone might just be starting out on his/her journey. It isn’t fair to knock that person down because he/she hasn’t yet learned what you have. Each individual’s perspective is unique and valid. We each have our own insights and blind spots. This is why feminism requires many voices.
As a community we’re learning as well. Just as we’re discovering new frontiers and facets of racism, so too are there unchartered territories in the face of feminism.
So let’s focus on what we can agree upon, make sure we’re listening to everyone, and make seeing equality become a reality more important that being self-righteous or trending.
In my eyes, feminism isn’t about shaming or winning, it’s about leveling the injustices of life so that we can all live and thrive in harmony.
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[Feature Image: A black and white image of a person with long hair looking into three mirrors that grow in size from small to large. Flickr.com/Ley ]