Are We Even Now?
It makes me laugh when the uninformed insist that feminism is now irrelevant (and therefore feminists are …deceptive and malicious?) because in the U.S. (as though that’s the only nation that matters), men and women are now “equal.” Now, if we define “equal” as both having access to jobs, credits, and the right to vote, then yes, I suppose that’s true. But whenever people toss out this reason for their hatred of feminism, I know immediately that that hatred stems from misunderstanding.
I don’t think anyone meant to move the goalposts, but as society grew yet more complex, the true nature of inequality became more apparent. Superficial markers such as access to a line of credit just didn’t cut it. Now, we realize that inequality among the sexes is deeply connected to other forms of inequality, such as class, disability, and race. This concept is called intersectionality, but it’s been woefully absent from many criticisms of (and frankly, many applications of) feminism.
“Equal” was an original goal of feminism, but now, we’re not sure what “equal” looks like. It doesn’t mean equivalent experience or identical pay for everyone; that will never happen. Usually, feminists are talking about equal opportunity and lack of discrimination; no one is saying that anyone should be paid more for a job based on their gender—we’re saying no one should be paid less based on their gender. No one is advocating for men and women to be able to hit each other equally—we’re saying that domestic violence is never okay. (In fact, situational couple violence is equally likely to affect men and women—in that case, we want it to be equally unlikely!) We realize that domestic violence is near impossible to eradicate, but we can stop making excuses for it or laughing at men who experience it.
Feminists aren’t perfect, and the “movement” is hardly monolithic. In fact, the word “feminism” can barely even describe one type of activism. Among some people, it’s not even a form of activism; it’s an outlook. (That is, not all feminists take to the streets, and that’s okay.) Increasingly, there is a rift between mainstream, or white, feminism, and emerging forms of feminism. (A topic for another essay).
Yet anti-feminists seem to insist upon reducing all feminism in all its forms and historical moments to its stereotype of hairy-legged, bra-burning man-haters. Unfortunately, feminism suffers from poor PR and a confusing name, in addition to its general lack of consistency. Those problems don’t make feminism’s concerns invalid.
When people say that women in “other countries” have it worst, they’re comparing apples and oranges—and often, they’re adding a dollop of racism by claiming that the U.S. or U.K. have it right, while “those Third World countries” are where women suffer. Each country is unique, but research has shown that the same problems — partner abuse, discrimination, and so on—occur in each. The ways they occur may differ. But the fact is that a woman might be killed for infidelity in one country, but she might be killed for saying “no” in this country. Feminists are interested in alleviating violence against women around the globe. I really can’t understand how this seems like a useless cause to anyone except raging misogynists.
Anti-feminists also tend to get hung up on stereotypes. I can’t tell you how many people have railed against feminism on an ad hominem basis that punishes the individual rather than engages with the ideas they express. They call me names and tell me how I think and feel, as though they would know my life better than me, and then they’re silent when they tell me I point out that I meet none of their boxes on their little checklist. Not that I am representative of feminism —no one person is—but I am happily partnered with a man, have male friends, and care about feminist issues affecting men, such as toxic gender ideas and sexual violence. I watch Game of Thrones and Family Guy. I wear high heels and makeup. But it’s also okay to be a feminist who doesn’t date men, who doesn’t wear high heels or makeup, who is more interested in pay inequity or representation in the media.
Thankfully, feminism is more than the sum of its parts. We’ve all met bad feminists, just like we’ve all met bad Christians, or Democrats, or Republicans, or Trekkies. Yet with feminism, some people seem really eager to look past their friendly neighborhood feminist (and believe me, you know feminists, both men and women, who you don’t even know are feminists) and take the extremists on social media as indicative of the entire group. They’re quick to dismiss anyone who doesn’t meet their preconceived notions of what this strange thing called feminism is. They’re quick to point out that American men and women are “equal” as their main argument. Based on this apparent achievement, they wonder why feminists still want something. They conclude that feminists must want a society ruled by women, or for men to suffer—as if that’s the only way our society can be, for one to suffer at the hands of the other. Not a very positive outlook, honestly.
Yet feminists know that despite progress, things are still not ideal. Perhaps things will never be ideal, or perhaps we’ll resolve one thing and discover another problem. It’s like renovating a house; do you stop once you repaint one wall, or do you look around and see the other walls? While feminists may disagree on what we think is most important, we tend to agree that gender is inextricably related to power imbalances and violence around the world. That’s why it retains a name that has to do with gender, even though it concerns itself with more than just women (an indefinable group to be sure).
Perhaps, feminists should stop saying they stand for equality. That’s too vague a goal. Every feminist I know and read is interested in something harder to achieve: less violence, less misrepresentation, less discrimination, less inequity, less toxic gender ideals. If there’s one thing consistent about feminists, it seems like we want less, not more. We want balance more than equality, relief more than power, peace more than pain, opportunity more than restriction. Me personally, my life is good. I don’t need feminism for myself, although it certainly helped me in escaping my abuser. I am a feminist because I am concerned for others’ well-being, for those in other countries as well as my own, for all people suffering from toxic gender ideals, sexual violence, and racial, class, and gender discrimination. I am a feminist because I believe we, as a society, can do better.
Rachel Wayne is a writer based in Gainesville, Florida, USA. She received her Master’s in Visual Anthropology and Film Studies; her thesis was on the relationship between the media and interpersonal violence. She writes about society, culture, film, politics, feminism, and entrepreneurship.