A Feminist By Any Other Name…

Consider this a public service announcement.

One that honestly I naively didn’t think we needed in 2014. But it’s becoming increasingly evident that we do.

From Merriam – Webster: Feminism: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

That’s it. Simple. Clear.

Something that most civilized people wouldn’t openly admit to disagreeing with. And yet, every day it seems another misinformed voice gets the internet megaphone to broadcast why they aren’t a feminist because they “love men” (Shailene Woodley, who said: “[I’m not a feminist] because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.”), or because” it’s not possible for men to be feminists” (Pharrell).

But it’s more than just ignorant celebrities that are frustratingly setting back a movement that has been going for hundreds of years (the word feminist, by the way, first appeared in print in 1895 describing a woman who “has in her the capacity of fighting her way back to independence.” — that turn of phrase “back to independence” is in itself quite telling, but I digress, the point is the seeds of  feminism have been being sewn for long enough that we should all be getting this shit right by now).

Just as all sorts of new language has cropped up to articulate the new phases of the movement towards women’s equality (Lean In, Mansplaining, and the countless hashtags: #YesAllWomen, #AllMenCan, #BanBossy, etc) So has the backlash. For every encouraging “I need feminism because” tumblr there is a sad, horribly misguided, “I don’t need feminism” counter movement.

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No sooner will I feel encouraged by a reading a 12-year-old girl succinctly articulate feminism as “It means that guys and girls are the same and shouldn’t be treated differently because they’re guys and girls”  then I’ll read about the terrible “men’s rights” groups that are trying to get feminists classified as terrorists.

(Just to be clear, another quick definition: terrorism: the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. While I read daily of countless acts of violence and intimidation used against women, I have yet to read about feminists violently fighting for equality.)

There is a temptation to say that the word itself isn’t what matters so long as we can all agree that men and women should just be treated the same without all the bullshit assumptions and built-in biases and ideas about gender roles (If only we could all just agree as the Muppets taught us 30 years ago that “peoples is peoples.”)

But the thing is words do matter. The amazing Rebecca Solnit articulated it perfectly in her recent article. She says that you win or lose a struggle in a large part through the language you use and that some of major wins of feminism have been in naming things like “sexism”, “misogyny” and “inequality” that previously didn’t have a name and were therefore not things that people were willing to address. She says:

Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it.  If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it, let alone change it. This may be particularly true of feminism, a movement focused on giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.

So identifying yourself publicly as a feminist does matter as does understanding what a feminist is. Even if Pharrell and Shailene Woodley and those misguided teens holding up signs have the best intentions , it matters what words they use.

It also matters what words people who do identify as feminists use. Even if your intentions are good or seemingly harmless, language has a way of reinforcing harmful assumptions. The double standards masquerading as empowerment are everywhere and are so rarely questioned. For example, I constantly receive pitches for stories about “momtrepreneurs” yet I’ve never once heard a businessman refer to himself or a peer as a “dadtrepreneur.”

Even the language of many women’s leadership movements uses dismissive or infantilizing language like “girls” and “ladies.” When these sorts of double standards in language slip by unnoticed, double standards in perception do too.

A woman’s gender becomes a qualifier to anything she does — Neko Case ceases to be a musician on par with other musicians and is a “woman in music,”. It might sound trivial but it’s part of a larger problem of the conception that whatever women do needs to be judged by a different standard, and worse that we should feel complimented by it — “pretty good for a girl,” “you’re as good as any woman.”  From there it is a slippery slope to other even more dangerous standards that keep women in a different category from men.

This kind of separation by use of language is the exactly the thing feminism aims to solve while unfortunately suffering from.

Rebecca Solnit again, this time in her 2013 essay “The Longest War”:

Women’s Liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free together or slaves together.

It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not us vs. them.

Men don’t “win” when their wives and daughters and sisters and moms and friends don’t make enough money, or aren’t listened to, or fear being sexually assaulted every time they leave their homes, or are dismissed or diminished. Women don’t “win” when men aren’t allowed or expected to be present and involved fathers or when they wall themselves off into a women-only echo chamber where they don’t compete on level with the rest of the other half of the world.

It shouldn’t still be a question, but yes, men can be feminists. And should be. Everyone should be. Women who love men. Men who love women, and people who give a damn about living in a better world.

Being a feminist doesn’t mean you think women should rule the world or that men are the enemy. It means you think people is people.

Just ask these high school boys:

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