In the past few months, I have become increasingly aware of the two seemingly irreconcilable narratives about feminism online, created by and for self-proclaimed “feminists” and “anti-feminists,” respectively. As a feminist myself I cannot claim impartiality in this conversation, but considering that there isn’t much real “conversation” happening anyway–at least not on Twitter or in the blogosphere–I think it can’t hurt to clear up a few misunderstandings, even if many anti-feminists will not read beyond this point.
Compared to the worldwide epidemic of gender-based violence, the seemingly never-ending battle over reproductive rights, the still very real gender pay gap, and the ever-elusive Equal Rights Amendment (to name just a few examples), arguments on the web are a small facet of the women’s rights movement. Still, I think they could reveal a lot about what “feminism” means in public discourse today, particularly because feminists and anti-feminists often claim to be fighting for the same thing. From their names alone, of course, you’d expect the two groups to be diametrically opposed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines them as such:
feminist: “An advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women.”
anti-feminist: “One opposed to women or to feminism; a person (usually a man) who is hostile to sexual equality [more correctly, gender equality] or to the advocacy of women’s rights.”
And yet many members of both parties claim that they are fighting for gender equality and that the other group is against it. The #antifeminism hashtag on Twitter is full of statements like “Feminism or equality…pick one.” (I’m not talking about anti-feminists who actively hate women, by the way; they are not worth anyone’s time.) So what’s really going on here?
From what I can tell it’s a matter of generalization and denial, mainly by anti-feminists but by feminists as well. Anti-feminists rally against a constructed homogeneous feminism that, if it exists, is actually hostile to (and completely unrepresentative of) most real feminists around the world, women and men both. They also frequently deny the notion that there is still gender inequality today. Feminists, in turn–at least on the Internet–sometimes sarcastically agree with statements about how feminism is militant misandry, and a few have said some pretty cruel things to anti-feminists, which only adds fuel to the fire of mistrust and misunderstanding.
So, first: anti-feminism. This ideology seems to be grounded in two prevailing myths about feminism: one about the feminists themselves (they are unfeminine “feminazis” who hate men) and one about society as a whole (we don’t need feminism anymore! feminism is archaic and sexist! we are all equal! go us!). The anti-feminists’ reasons for opposing feminism are certainly varied–sometimes well-meaning, sometimes covertly or overtly misogynistic–and I’m sure there are other myths I could address (and that have been addressed), but I will be focusing on these two since they seem to be the most common.
Myth #1: Feminism is misandry
The idea that feminists hate men is far from new and very far from true, but it is still a recurrent stereotype. There is an entire online community of #WomenAgainstFeminism where “I don’t need feminism because” statements appear in great numbers: “I don’t need feminism because I like men”; “I don’t need feminism because feminists tell me being ‘feminine’ is shameful and stupid”; “I don’t need feminism because violence happens to both sexes.” Created largely by the media and by the Republican party’s war on women, this “hate movement” concept has absolutely nothing to do with feminism. I am certain that almost all feminists have men that they love in their lives, and many feminists are themselves men. In fact, in a study done in 2009, “feminists reported lower levels of hostility toward men than did non-feminists.”
The antagonism happening here is against patriarchy–that is, the male-dominated societal, cultural, political, and economic structure of today’s world, which is the product of a long history of societies that gave men (largely white men) power at the exclusion and degradation of women. The word “misandry” is in many ways preposterous; it was created by early radical anti-feminists “to describe their complaints against complaining women,” as Richard Leader describes it, and it represents the hatred of men by women, not by men, “because the only ‘hatred of men’ that men themselves consider truly threatening is the hatred of iconic masculinity and patriarchy.” On the individual level, many men may feel very distanced from this concept of patriarchy, of privilege, particularly non-white men, but the fact is that we are all affected by it; women of all races, economic statuses, and sexual orientations face malignant disadvantages by consequence (more on this later).
Feminism is thus about helping women to feel empowered and safe to make their own choices despite opposing patriarchal forces, both on the micro level (such as choosing to what to wear without fear of being catcalled or attacked) and on the macro level (such as being a stay-at-home mom, starting a company, having [or not having] a child, or enlisting in the army). Feminism also benefits men in many respects. In a feminist’s ideal world, for example, gender roles would be far less rigid, and with men feeling less pressure to be “macho,” violence could be reduced and men wouldn’t be so hesitant to reach out for help when they need it. Groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) have also decried discrimination against men in the workplace and fought for the protection of men under the Violence Against Women Act (which was drafted by Joe Biden, by the way). Not to mention the ever-expanding list of feminist men around the world who want to live in societies where women are given the same opportunities as men to achieve great things (as for those you might know of, I can name Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Legend, Patrick Stewart, Jon Stewart, Aziz Ansari, and Joss Whedon off the top of my head).
I could supply many more examples, but it would not change what most anti-feminists are probably thinking at this point, if they (you?) are actually reading: Feminism paints women as victims! Women don’t need to be empowered! Women don’t need special treatment! This brings us to…
Myth #2: Feminism is irrelevant
I (perhaps unwisely) responded to an anti-feminist’s reply to one of my tweets a few weeks ago, and what he said follows this narrative precisely:
Let me be clear here: I believe in egalitarianism. Feminism is part of the fight for egalitarianism–that is, equal human rights for everyone–and I have no problem with defining the word in terms of words like egalitarian and equality. But replacing feminism with egalitarianism is like colorblindness in the context of race: it ignores gender altogether, making it a non-issue. It turns a blind eye to the fact that women are the group facing most gender-based inequalities, and it represents a basic ignorance about the state of our world.
Sadly, when I was on Twitter on May 8th I didn’t notice @madbrah_godwin’s mention of violence, and so my response to his tweet about egalitarianism did not address that statement. If I had noticed, though, I wouldn’t have been able to answer in 140 characters. Because yes, theoretically all genders are equally vulnerable to (and capable of) violence. And yes, men do face domestic violence from women just as women do from men, and that is a problem we must address.
But that does not discount the fact that women in urban areas are twice as likely as men to experience violence. According to the CDC’s 2010 report, nearly 1 in 5 women in the US have been raped at some point in their lives, compared to 1 in 71 men. I do not mean to trivialize these men, of course–men are raped by both men and women, just at lower rates–but violence against men does not make violence against women irrelevant. Around the world, at least one in three women is subject to sexual violence in her lifetime, from sexual assault to sex trafficking to child marriage to genital mutilation. It is widespread in India, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the United States, Russia, Argentina (tweet #NiUnaMenos!), and–well, basically everywhere.
And violence is just the beginning. Women are facing anti–abortion laws left and right in the US while reproductive rights are nonexistent in many other countries, and women face a clear pay gap in nearly every occupation, earning 54-90% of what men are paid in the same positions. Only 14.2% of CEOs in the S&P 500 are women; we make up only 19% of the US House and Senate. The Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution was originally proposed in 1923 and still has not been passed–though hopefully this will change soon, as ERA bills were just reintroduced by the 114th Congress this month. Women in Saudi Arabia are not even allowed to drive, and King Abdullah only just gave them the right to vote and run in municipal elections, which they will do for the first time ever in 2015.
I could go on, but I don’t want to belabor my point. I will simply put it this way: feminism is not special treatment; it is a fight for basic human rights that women all over the world are not given. And why can’t there be a fight for women’s rights? Why do anti-feminists think that people need excuses to help women? Why is this idea so insidious and so terrifying for so many? We have LGBT rights activists, minority rights activists, and animal rights activists, not because those groups are helpless (well, okay, maybe animals are sort of helpless) but because they are and have been systematically harmed by others. Women are no different. As a white female I know that I am in many ways privileged, but as an intersectional feminist I acknowledge that amazingly brave women everywhere face far worse obstacles due to the combination of their gender with their country, their race, their religion, their sexuality, their economic situation, or some assortment of these factors. The notion that we don’t need feminism anymore–that feminists are actually sexist, imagining women to be helpless victims rather than survivors–is, to be frank, completely absurd. Feminism is all about surviving, about thriving in the face of adversity. Anyone who says differently is wrong, full stop.
That having been said, anti-feminists don’t seem to know this feminism. They cite angry responses from feminists on the Internet (like @Cyborgwolf does here) and examples of feminists who have been cruel to men (white feathers are a common theme, as well as murderers–yes, murderers) to construct a feminism that is basically evil (quite clear in this tweet by @Vosnic, one of many). And although @Nephanor would say I am “the problem” for claiming “not all feminists” are like this, the truth is that it’s really not a claim at all–it’s a fact. Feminism is not a hate movement. Okay, maybe it’s slightly disgruntled by all the accusations flying at it, and saddened by how often women’s hardships are outright denied. But it has never been a hate movement, not unless you’re pointing out some radical outlier. Anyone claiming to be a feminist who isn’t thinking and/or working in the best interest of women–and, by proxy, of men–is simply not doing feminism right. That’s not a cop-out; it’s the truth.
Where feminists go wrong
I do admit, the perception of feminism as hate is helped along by feminists who sarcastically agree that they are misandrists as a kind of inside joke. This is where hashtags like #KillAllMen and #KillAllWhiteMen come from, and although there are some who get the joke, for the most part this helps to give feminism a bad name (check out this account to see a feminist being a little more obvious about the sarcasm). We could also work on our cohesiveness; as Joss Whedon pointed out after the debacle over the rape joke in Avengers 2, “every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed…because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause.” I didn’t really appreciate the rape joke, but it doesn’t rob him of the right to be a feminist, and I can agree with him on that point. There are certainly feminists who are assholes–or, as I’d like to call them, assholes claiming to be feminists–who troll people online, say trans women shouldn’t be included, don’t agree that #BlackWomensLivesMatter, et cetera, sending mixed messages about what feminism really means.
But here’s the part most anti-feminists can’t seem to accept: there are assholes everywhere, and they can be avoided. I will not apologize for them; no self-respecting person should have to. The majority of feminists, online and otherwise, are not trolls. There are women and men who see each other as equals and human rights organizations that help a massive variety of people around the world every day. But all anti-feminists can talk about is how feminism is not actually about equality, because it is called feminism, and feminism is a hate movement, end of story. It’s a self-affirming cycle that never actually brings in any outside information. This is clear enough from an analysis of pro- and anti-feminist tweets: “[pro-feminists] link to external content, [while anti-feminists] link to local and self-created content.”
The “fem” in feminism
And so we return to this one word: feminism. No one seems to like it. Many anti-feminists want to call it egalitarianism, or just equality. Some feminists agree; Joss Whedon himself made an impassioned speech about how we should be using “genderism” instead to denote a form of discrimination we have moved past, rather than a sentiment of equality that we have not yet accepted. But what would this really gain? If this argument is still happening, this tug-of-war over the very existence of gender inequality, is it really something we have moved past?
If you think the answer to that question is yes, you probably haven’t been following along very closely.
The word “feminist” comes from the Latin fēmina, meaning woman. That’s all it is: woman. Femme. Maybe that’s what makes it so intimidating; feminism is a woman’s word. Like the word mankind (an example of patriarchy if there ever was one), it excludes one gender from its ranks–not because men cannot be feminists, and not because equality for women would not benefit men as well, but because feminism means advocating for women, specifically, as a group. If you still think the word should be changed, I invite you to consider this:
No one has tried to change “LGBT rights” to “sexuality rights,” because we know cis and straight people have rights by default; nor has the hashtag #AllLivesMatter gained any traction, as it denies the statement about anti-black racism made by #BlackLivesMatter. Similarly, feminism is about equality, but we cannot call it equality, because women are still fighting for basic human rights.
If our societies had long histories of matriarchy in which women held nearly all government offices, refused to give men the right to property or to vote, dominated discourse in the arts and sciences, sold men as husbands and sex slaves, and mutilated men’s genitals as common practice, and if these histories continued in discrimination and violence against the male gender across the world today, then meninism would be a legitimate movement. But none of that is true, so we have feminism. That “fem” root is what feminists and anti-feminists have in common; this conversation is still about women, about those fighting for the human rights of the female gender, and that’s the way it must be until we can claim that equality is a reality. This is, of course, just one fight for equality among many others. Women are not the only marginalized group. But they are one of them, and this is a fight that is happening, whether anti-feminists see that or not.
During that conversation I had on Twitter, @madbrah_godwin said something that in many ways inspired me to write this post:
I hope I’ve already made it clear that the feminist “actions” to which he refers are examples of radicals, completely unrelated to anything that feminism actually means or does (he gave the white feather example, and probably would’ve mentioned Valerie Solanas or Catherine Comins if given the chance). What I find interesting here is the fact that he does not consider anti-feminism to have a “stigma.” Every single anti-feminist, by virtue of choosing that title, aligns him/herself with a movement whose entire history is defined as being against equality for women. The fact that there isn’t a stigma against such a disgusting philosophy–at least, not a pervasive stigma, not as far as @madbrah_godwin or the conservative media is concerned–really says something to me about the state of public discourse today.
It makes very little sense, in my opinion, that so many anti-feminists seem to think along these lines. Because women are violated, silenced, and boxed into poverty, and here is this group of people who refuse to acknowledge this, saying that everything is awesome, calling the movement for women’s rights “hatred” while aligning themselves with a very real philosophy of hate (whether they consciously agree with it or not), and saying, among other things, that unequal pay is a myth, violence against women is not a significant problem, and feminists are just whining about personal problems. What, I’m dying to ask, is the point? And how is that stance not widely accepted to be completely illogical?
Of course, an anti-feminist might argue that feminists are the illogical ones; feminists trick innocent, unsuspecting people into agreeing that they’re feminists too by asking, “Do you believe women should have equal rights?” Reddit user yesidoes certainly despises this witchery: “Just because someone agrees with one reasonable tenet of the feminist agenda doesn’t mean that person buys into all of the other batshit crazy ideas that go along with it.”
Here’s the thing: feminism is not black magic. There is no conspiracy theory of “batshit crazy ideas,” no band of hairy ogre women plotting the downfall of mankind from caves in the Arctic. The basic tenet of feminism, what all feminists swear by, is gender equality. (Or, in the slightly politically incorrect words of the Oxford English Dictionary [‘sex’ should be ‘gender’], “Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this.”) That’s all; that’s the whole enchilada. The only complicated part is the wide variety of people who swear by this; like any other large group, we sometimes fight, because we come in all shapes and sizes: liberal and conservative, black and white, trans and cis, Asian and Hispanic, male and female and genderless, gay and straight and bi and pan and asexual, young and old and in between…all feminists. All agreeing that we think men and women should have equal rights.
Just like anti-feminists so often do.
This leads me back to what feminists and anti-feminists have in common. I think you can guess what I’m getting at. Of course, I’m not the first person to have proposed this zany idea, and I know I won’t be the last.
When I first read @deanesmay’s tweet, I actually laughed out loud. Unless you’re talking about a big organization (like the UN) that actually fights for women’s rights, I can guarantee you that the number of feminists who have money and power is far smaller than the number of anti-feminists who do. Just look at how many world leaders pass legislation, or do anything at all, really, to try to reduce gender-based violence or discrimination. The number is small, I can guarantee, and the number of leaders who are women, as I mentioned, is much smaller–in fact, as of January 2014, women made up 9/152 heads of state (5.9%) and 15/193 heads of government (7.8%). And this is the highest percentage yet. In recorded history.
(No, really. Think about that for a second.)
Anyway, I understand why anti-feminists are skeptical about this. If I defined myself by the word anti-feminism and I thought all feminists were man-haters, being a feminist would make no sense! Illogical! But the turnaround is not unheard of. Taylor Swift did it. Even Katy Perry did it, sort of. As the wise Aziz Ansari once said, “You’re a feminist if you go to a Jay-Z and Beyoncé concert and you’re not like, ‘I feel like Beyoncé should get 23 percent less money than Jay-Z. Uh, also, I don’t think Beyoncé should have the right to vote, and why is Beyoncé singing and dancing? Shouldn’t she make Jay a steak?'”
In all seriousness, though, agreeing with that statement is only half of being a feminist. There is also a lot of research involved if you want to be a good feminist; advocating for women’s rights is, after all, based on proven facts, and since most anti-feminists adamantly deny that women are put at a disadvantage at all, a lot of research would probably be required there (see, for starters, my sources for this post below). But the fact that so many anti-feminists agree with that sentiment of equality…that’s really half the battle, isn’t it?
Maybe I’m delusional about anti-feminists changing their ways, and I’m not denying that there are many anti-feminists who really do hate women and think they are inferior (I’m not going to cite this…Google does exist). But I maintain my earlier point about the focus on women. Feminism is not going away; these inequalities are real, as are the positive changes that can be made, whether that means fighting back against everyday sexism or supporting groups like the National Organization for Women, the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, UN Women, and Planned Parenthood. If nothing else, the very existence of “anti-feminism” proves just how much the world needs feminism—and, perhaps more importantly, how much feminism needs us (needs you) to define, develop, and defend it.
“anti-feminist, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 23 May 2015.
Are feminists man haters? Feminists’ and nonfeminists’ attitudes towards men, Psychology of Women Quarterly
Argentina is speaking up for its women, we should join them, Amnesty International
Aziz Ansari Is Better Than Most Celebrities at Talking About Feminism, Amanda Marcotte, Slate
Bolivia Struggles With Gender-Based Violence, , Al Jazeera America
Coverage of male victims, Violence Against Women Act, Wikipedia
Data on Poverty & Income, National Women’s Law Center
Emma Sulkowicz and the Benefit of the Doubt, Michelle Goldberg
Feminism doesn’t mean a battle of the sexes, but a common goal for all, Laura Bates, The Guardian
“feminism, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 25 May 2015.
“feminist, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 23 May 2015.
Find your voice against gender violence, Meera Vijayann
Fox News Guests Redefine Feminism And It’s Scary, Catherine Taibi, Huffington Post
History, Violence against women, Wikipedia
I don’t need feminism because…, @Nephanor
‘I was raped as a child, and only now can I tell my story’: How James Rhodes fought the law courts in a battle to be heard, James Rhodes, The Independent
Ironic Misandry: Why Feminists Pretending to Hate Men Isn’t Funny, Sarah Begley, TIME
Joss Whedon Calls “Horsesh*t” On Reports He Left Twitter Because Of Militant Feminists, Adam B. Vary, Buzzfeed
Katy Perry Is Still Confused By Feminism, Despite Her Best Efforts, Huffington Post
Men’s violence against women is a choice … by all men, everywhere, Rodney Vlais, The Guardian
Misandry: From the Dictionary of Fools, Richard Leader
Misandry: From the Dictionary of Fools, Richard Leader
Paraguay Denies Abortion to Raped 10-Year-Old, Center for Reproductive Rights
So That Happened: How One Texas Bill Could Make It Impossible For Minors To Get Abortions, Jason Linkins, Huffington Post
Taylor Swift Reveals She Has Been A Feminist All This Time, Emily Thomas, Huffington Post
War on Women, Wikipedia
What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’?, George Yancy & Judith Butler, New York Times
When the Rapist Doesn’t See It as Rape, Nicholas Kristof, New York Times
White feather, Wikipedia
Why Does the US Still Have So Few Women in Office?, Steven Hill, The Nation
Why It’s So Hard for Men to See Misogyny, Amanda Hess, Slate
Why only 14% of top execs are women, CNNMoney
Woman As Aggressor: The Unspoken Truth Of Domestic Violence, Edward Rhymes, Mint Press News
Women Against Feminism, Tumblr
Women in Politics: 2014, UN Women
Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.: Timeline of Events (1980-Present), Ann-Marie Imbornoni, Infoplease
The World’s Abortion Laws 2015, Center for Reproductive Rights