By Nyree Hall
Esteemed author, feminist and activist bell hooks defines feminism as “the struggle to end sexist oppression”. In Feminism a Movement to End Sexist Oppression, she explains that “Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives”.
Going by this definition, feminism sounds pretty awesome to me. So who can be a feminist? What do feminists actually do?
Although feminists are primarily women, everyone can be a feminist. As bell hook’s told us, feminists seek to end sexist oppression. The dictionary definition of sexism is “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.” The dictionary definition of oppression is “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control.” Feminists primarily work to end the unjust treatment of women in society, however, many feminists acknowledge that not just women are discriminated against or stereotyped in society based on gender; men and people of the LGBTQ community are as well.
Wait men are oppressed?
When it comes to men, they often experience toxic masculinity, which is a socially constructed idea of masculinity that is harmful to them as well as women. Toxic masculinity is the idea that men are supposed to be a certain way; it glorifies violence and aggression, prevents men from doing “feminine” things such as crying, being emotionally intimate with people of all genders, and being physically intimate with other men (such as hugging). The glorification of violence and aggression leads to actual violence and aggression against people, with women being a big target. The avoidance against a “feminine” show of physical and emotion affection and prevents men from being physically and emotionally close to the people they love, including their spouses, children, and parents. Many men don’t necessarily want to follow society’s rules for masculinity but are forced to due to social pressure. Many follow this idea of masculinity because they don’t know how else to act. Feminist want to help educate men and the rest of society about the negative effects of toxic masculinity, how to create healthy gender roles, and how we can stop thinking of ourselves and others strictly from a gendered lens.
So if feminism does all these great things for people, why does feminism have such a stigma attached to it then?
First of all, anything that disrupts systemic power dynamics is bound to create backlash. In the history of the United States, women have been forced to take a submissive, subservient role in society. This role has privileged men because it was socially acceptable for them to pursue education, hobbies outside of the home, work and make wages to support themselves or their families, and generally become a leader in society if they wished. Most women were not able to have any of these privileges. Their primary duties included taking care of the home, taking care of the children, and abiding by what the men in their lives wanted for them. When women decided to create a movement to empower themselves and end the sexist oppression they faced in society, most men were not on board. The result? Propaganda and slander against feminism. Some of the popular ideas framing feminists are that they are ugly, fat, can’t get a man, they’re lesbians, and that they want to oppress men. This is not an accurate portrayal of feminists. Slander against feminists has happened since the birth of feminism and unfortunately, is still going strong today. Thankfully, there are many more men and women who are feminists today and with the internet and social media, people are able to educate themselves about what feminism means and why it has been thrown under the bus all these years.
Feminism also has a stigma due to its historical struggle with intersectionality. Intersectionality is a theory coined by Black academic Kimberly Crenshaw and is used to explain how intersecting identities (such as race, class, gender, and sexuality) impact our experiences. The birth of the women’s rights movement is an example of the struggle with feminism to be intersectional. Many early feminists were abolitionists. You would think this meant that the experiences of discrimination and racism that free and enslaved Black women faced would matter to them, however, this was not the case. This set the stage for Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. Sojourner Truth making this speech about how she had never been given the opportunity to be feminine and fragile in front of a group of white women is the epitome of why intersectionality is important. The abolitionist version of feminism organized to fight for women’s rights, however, they also wanted to fight for the ability to not be seen as fragile women who constantly needed the help and support of men. However, Black women such as Sojourner Truth were not given opportunities to be feminine and have the support of men. Instead they worked just as hard as men, worked alongside men, and were not given assistance with tasks such as crossing puddles or having doors opened for them. Politically, their rights as Black people were also a high priority due to racism impacting their basic rights as people, let alone women. These early feminists were primarily concerned with their rights as White women and did not actively include Black women in the struggle. Unfortunately, this forced Black women to create their own women’s rights movement which aimed to empower them based on their needs in society. Black feminism is called Womanism, which is a term coined by Alice Walker who is an author and poet.
Feminism has also struggled to be intersectional in the case of sexuality. In the 70’s a group of radical feminists wrote a book called Love your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism” which called for political lesbianism. Political lesbianism meant not having relationships or sex with men (although sex with women was not mandatory). This is obviously problematic because heterosexual women were co-opting the label lesbian for their own politics. It also showed privilege because they were choosing not be heterosexual which is not something afforded to lesbians who are homosexual. This is also problematic because as pointed out by women at that time, women should be teaching and educating the men in their lives to be feminist, not completely excluding them from feminism and social interaction. Many women of color also found the exclusion of men problematic because men of color, while suffering from toxic masculinity, were still oppressed in society and needed the support of their entire communities, including women.
Feminism has gotten a bad rap over the years, but at its core, feminism exists to correct the toxic power dynamic between genders and make society better for all of us. Like many things in life, people are afraid of what they don’t understand, and this has also been true for feminism. Women have taken up this struggle because of their historical experiences in society but it’s up to all of us to make this world better for everyone. So become a feminist, educate yourself and those around you about feminism, sexism, oppression, and gendered stereotypes. Open up the conversation for positive social change.