With the start of a new year, I thought I’d have a bit of a 101 post. The word “feminism” has spent the best part of a century an unpopular one, with feminists being caricatured since the Suffragettes as unattractive and humourless. When I talk to people about feminism, they often express surprise that I would identify as one of these mythical, miserable, hairy beasts – and equally, I tend to express surprise that they do not. So here goes:
What is feminism?
Often described as “the radical notion that women are people,” feminism is the basic belief that women and men are equal. Nothing more, nothing less. If you consider that women and men are equal, then you are a feminist.
Isn’t feminism dead?
No. One of the most enduring myths is that society is “now” (whenever ‘now’ happens to be) a society which is equal. People have been saying there’s no longer any need for feminism because we’re all equal now since the end of the 19th century – before women got the vote! In 1930 a high court judge moaned that we were “moving into the personal epoch of women” but looking back, I don’t suppose any of us would consider 1930 to be a time when women were equal. In 50 years time, I imagine we will look back on 2013 and goggle at the poor saps who believed that we had achieved equality: women have less than a quarter of the seats in Parliament, less than 7% of executive directorships, there is only one woman judge in the Supreme Court, the gender pay gap remains pretty chronic – in short, women are still subject to equal taxation without anything like equal representation at the sharp end of decision making. And that’s before we look at casual social sexism and misogyny in the media.
Doesn’t ‘feminism’ mean hating men / burning my bra / becoming very hairy?
No. It is a belief that women and men are equal. And the “feminists are over-masculine” is a tired old trope which has been doing the rounds ever since Richard Polwhele said it about Mary Wollstonecraft (after she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792).
So it doesn’t mean female supremacy?
No. Feminists don’t want the same society, but turned upside down; we want an equal one. Although it would be interesting to see what a Parliament looked like with 78% of politicians women, and in which women got two thirds of the media space, almost all of the sports news, practically every executive position going and nigh-on all the judicial lawmaking, that is not the society that feminism wants. 50/50 will do nicely.
I’m put off by the academic terminology. Terms like “kyriarchy” and “privilege” make me disengage from what feels like a clique.
There is no need to take an academic interest in social theory just because you’re a feminist, any more than there’s a need to understand string theory just because you enjoy science. However, there are many people who are keen on the theory, and if you are interested then it is worth persevering with the vocabulary (google is your friend!) because it gives us the capacity to put these things into words. For example, lots of feminists dislike the term “patriarchy” because actually, the system we have disadvantages some men as well as women. “Kyriarchy” (from kyrios, lord or master) describes the system which advantages the top set of men over everyone else, and recognises that not all men are equally privileged by patriarchy. It’s shorthand for the overused “patriarchy hurts men too.” See? Useful.
Isn’t feminism heaving with in-fighting?
You can’t have a movement which claims to act to advance ALL women without disagreements. Look at men’s politics (and let’s face it, that would be… politics): they all have the same aim – to improve society – but disagree radically on how to achieve it. Likewise feminists: you get Marxist feminists, Conservative feminists, environmental feminists, radical feminists, liberal feminists – all of us are feminists but there will inevitably be areas on which we do not all agree.
Here is a Feminist Truth: it is okay for women to disagree. We can do it respectfully – which is at least an improvement on Commons debates, which sound like feeding time at the zoo would if the zoo contained prep school boys fed an exclusive diet of blue Smarties. Sometimes we do it badly; sometimes we do it well, but people disagree. Women are people. Disagreeing with one another is normal and debate is how ideas are churned and formed. Political movements have always moved like tectonic plates – slowly, but with results that change the landscape – and to dismiss women’s political debates as “cat fighting,” “bitching” or “in fighting” is, well, pretty sexist.
In short, feminism can be as academic and complex as you like, but it is at base one very simple ideology: that women and men are equal. Accept that, and whether you accept the label or not, you are a feminist.