Many campaigns and initiatives, including International Women’s Day, celebrate women’s achievements throughout history and the progress of women’s rights advocacy. However, to be a feminist in our society still means having to face a plethora of societal judgments stemming from negative connotations associated with that word. This societal prejudice against feminists is mainly perpetuated by incoherent and uninformed arguments put forward by some, and rather than simply dismissing them, we must be diligent in addressing their discombobulation.
I first have to acknowledge some important reasons why people choose to decline from describing themselves as a feminist. For example, a lot of mainstream feminism movements consider women to be a monolith that faces the same level of discrimination, despite the fact that women of different racial, cultural, and socio-economical backgrounds, as well as women with disabilities and different sexual orientations, experience various forms of discrimination across multiple domains. Many of these women refrain from identifying themselves as a feminist as a way of boycotting the brand of feminism movement that focuses heavily on upper-class white women. Another reason could be that one might be working in a heavily male dominated workplace, where a public disclosure of their stance on this issue may result in serious, unfairly negative ramifications. In an ideal society, we would have advanced from an antiquated patriarchal mindset such that these kinds of circumstances would not exist in deterring people from being a feminist. Unfortunately, these examples demonstrate the existing challenges the mainstream feminism movement needs to address for improvement, as well as the notion that being able to identify oneself as a feminist still remains a privilege reserved for few in today’s society.
Having said that, there are two key illegitimate reasons people provide in refusing to be a “feminist,” and they are the misunderstanding of the definition and misinterpretation of the semantics. Although people have the right to refuse this identification, if it is done so under these circumstances, it’s an indication that there’s a gap in knowledge that needs to be addressed.
In a 2013 poll conducted by The Economist/YouGov, individuals readily identifying themselves as a “feminist” increased from 28% to 57% after its definition was given. This poll took place three years ago, and the big jump in this number demonstrates the general public’s lack of understanding of what the feminism movement is about. A feminist is clearly defined as someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. There are those who skew this definition and twist the main purpose and values of the feminism movement, but historically the campaign has always stood for the belief explained above. Nevertheless, the adverse societal impacts brought on by these skewed claims perpetuate the antagonistic connotation of the word and the movement. A way to combat this negative societal attitude lies with furthering the conversation around feminism to a point where the general public has a clear understanding of what the movement advocates for.
Another argument put forward against the word “feminist” is based on the misinterpretation of semantics. People claim that the non-gender-neutral nature of the word does not embody its push for gender equality. For this reason, they advocate for the usage of terms like “gender egalitarian” or “humanist” which do not feature a specific gender. What seems to be a logical claim actually runs the risk of diminishing the efforts of the whole feminism movement in the first place. Historically, women have been discriminated against on political, economic, and social grounds while men have enjoyed benefits stemming from this inequity. The feminist movement was established to specifically address this injustice women faced, and the word “feminism” was purposefully chosen to highlight this discrimination women experienced and still experience today.
No matter how strongly one advocates for gender equality, if they deny identifying themselves as a feminist on this ground of semantics, they are essentially choosing to advocate from a position of privilege; the glass ceiling cannot be broken this way. An analogous reasoning was given when people favoured the expression “All People Matter” over “Black Lives Matter.” Trying to address this issue, Barack Obama explained, “I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. What they were suggesting was, there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities…”. Whether it be race or gender, a fight for equality can only advance when people in places of privilege acknowledge their entitlements and work collectively with those experiencing discrimination.
As a final point, I have to acknowledge that as a male writer I will never be able to fully comprehend the challenges and the discrimination different women face. But I do believe that men have an active role to play in our society in facilitating the push for gender equality. It could be as simple as being engaged and informed about these issues to actively fighting against the institutional discrimination set in place against women. If men are in a position of power to make changes, they should act proactively and work with women to make those changes rather than having women do all the work or actively stopping them from creating change. After all, women’s rights issues are basic human rights issues – men can either sit back and turn a blind eye, or actively take a stance, identify oneself as a feminist, and stand alongside women on this issue.
Banner illustration courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.