Latest posts by Emily Byrski (see all)
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What is feminism? Why do so many people think of feminism as a dirty word and imagine feminists as man-hating angry complainers? I was struck recently, while watching a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie where she tells stories of her experiences with feminism, by the frustration that feminism even needs to be defended. It does make me angry that equal rights isn’t just a common sense, gut reaction for so many people. I’m constantly upset when trying to break through to someone who doesn’t believe I deserve the same rights simply because I was born female.
Obviously not everyone you meet in life will share your opinions and there often isn’t much you can do about that, but when their differing opinions directly belittle your every merit and existence based off of something as arbitrary as gender then there’s a problem. “I often make the mistake of thinking that something that is obvious to me is just as obvious to everyone else,” says Adichie. But inevitably we will find some form of resistance in our lives against the notion that feminism should be a norm. I want to explore some of the ways to deal with the types of anti-feminists you are sure to encounter.
The Misinformed Person
A common and annoying reaction to a discussion of feminism is to say that women have it so much better now than 20-30 years ago or 200 years ago, that they are doing fine and are moving into careers just the same way that men are. But we still live in a man’s world and there is no avoiding that. Women are still expected to get married and procreate, they are still expected to perform the domestic duties like cooking and cleaning and raising children, and in many cases are expected to conform to a male-dominated society. Adichie puts it best: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller, we say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man.'” And this societal norm effects men just as much as they are burdened by a disconcertingly fragile ego that tells them they should be “masculine.” So to the person who looks at a few isolated facts and sums them up to equality, I say please recognize your fallacies and look at the bigger picture. Because gender inequality is not hard to spot even at surface level and permeates so deeply into the way we each define our places within society. And though there has undeniably been progress, we have a long way to go.
The Sincerely Ignorant Person
This person may not even realize there is a problem with the way girls and boys treat each other and possibly it has never occurred to them to ask “what is feminism?” While it may be frustrating that they could have remained so blissfully unaware, the best response is to give them the information and facts of the problem. Without sounding preachy, I try to politely provide some of the common problems that women face in our society. You can tell them about the 84 cents to the dollar pay gap that women face or that far more women are killed by their partners than all U.S. citizens have been killed by the war on terror. You can discuss the lack of women in corporate and government leadership, you can mention the added costs of being a woman like birth control and tampons, and maybe bring up the issues with maternity leave and rape culture. There is just so much proof to be cited and so many personal experiences I’m sure each of us has with gender bias to be shared. And be sure to tell this person how they can help the situation.
The Turn-the-Other-Cheek Person
This person has the information yet does very little with that knowledge. I see these people way too often and can admit there have been times I wish I had said something or done something to rectify the injustices I’ve witnessed. Oftentimes it’s a case of not knowing how to react and sometimes they just don’t notice at all. But not saying something is just as powerful and culpable to the injustice as perpetrating the injustice itself. To those people I want to create an open discussion so that they realize the problems with remaining passive and to provide them with the information of how to react in different situations. If a woman is catcalled on the street, give the guy some shit for doing so. If you are out to dinner and the waiter greets you and not the woman, point this out to him. The less we allow these everyday acts of misogyny go unnoticed, the more we contribute to the problem. And if you really want to make a difference, there are so many ways to resist.
The Downright Rude Person
They don’t care to ask “what is feminism,” in fact they go so far as to challenge your validity in even asking such a question. They look at the facts and see no problem and too often they really do believe women should be inferior to men. To these misogynists it can be hard not to blow a fuse, but this often only fuels their hatred. I find that it isn’t worth the wasted time arguing. You can try to reason with them and depending on the situation, give an honest account of your own experiences as they often do respond more sympathetically to anecdotes and being open shows them that you aren’t looking to fight, just to be understood. This isn’t always going to work though and at some point you just have to move on and ignore their prejudices, hoping that one day that hatred will be quelled.
So, what is feminism? Feminism is first and foremost a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. A modern day feminist is also a man or a woman who does not remain passive when that equality is threatened, who recognizes their predisposed biases and seeks to move beyond them, who teaches their children differently about gender, and who is not afraid to declare themselves a proud feminist. Let’s stop stigmatizing that word because, really, we should all be feminists.