There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism. I was having an argument with a guy I know whose thoughts seem to reflect a widely pervasive perception, especially among males. He hadn’t read Claire Chiara’s column, but he already had his preconceived notions: “By ‘feminist’, she was probably just referring to the radical ones. I mean, I believe in gender equality, but whenever I say ‘feminist,’ that’s what I mean.” The more I thought about it however, the more disturbing it became to me. By the end of this article, I hope to convince those who believe otherwise that not only is this definition of “feminist” wrong but also that its continued use and propagation is harmful and should stop.
First, to assume that the word “feminist” refers solely to the radical wing of the movement is incorrect. The official definition of a feminist is anyone who believes in political, legal, economic and social equal rights for the sexes. Like it or not, if you believe in gender equality, then you are by definition a feminist, even if you highly would not like to identify as one and view all feminists as irascible harpies. Feminism isn’t about encouraging women to act like men in order to reach equal status or hating on men or superiority. The goal of feminism is to create a space in which women can thrive, an environment without aggression or sexual violence, an environment in which alpha males are not idolized for taking advantage of women in their moments of weakness. It encompasses many more complex issues globally. There’s a lot of inequality everywhere. Many countries don’t allow women the right to education or even the right to their own bodies. The United Nations reports that approximately 200 million female babies worldwide have been aborted, murdered or abandoned because of their undesirable sex. My own adopted cousin was rescued from a trash bin. And just look at how easy it is to make derogatory sexual insults to women — and look at how often it’s done. Saying that the causes feminism endorses are inconsequential and “whiny” dismisses all of the extremely prominent social injustices today.
“So?” you might ask. “Inequality exists everywhere! I wasn’t talking about that — I was talking about women that don’t have these problems.” So what if the feminist who lives down your hall hasn’t been raped? Does this mean she’s not allowed to decry rape culture? Just because it doesn’t directly apply to you doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect you. It affects your friends, mothers, sisters, daughters, wives and girlfriends. We are all part of one community. An unpunished rapist endangers others and even encourages others to attempt rape. Just because it doesn’t directly impact your life doesn’t mean that it’s any less important or that you are entitled to ignore it, because it is through apathy that tyranny is allowed to continue.
To take a small radical minority of any movement, religion or race and represent it as the whole does injustice to everyone that identifies with the label. To say that all feminists are rabid man-haters is comparable to saying that all Christians are hateful bigots. It’s an inaccurate, uninformed and narrow-minded statement and perception. To make these kinds of judgments discounts the majority of all of these groups, which incidentally probably consist of largely reasonable people.
If one were to write an inspirational piece about female empowerment, one should discuss how the barriers to entry in the workplace for educated, middle-class to upper-class women in developed nations are lower than they have been historically instead of focusing on how whiny such women are because they have no real problems. Let’s not forget the fact that “the miraculous gift of giving birth” has been used for centuries by heteropatriarchical institutions as an excuse to maintain the status quo and bar women from economic ventures or “reaching for their dreams.”
Lastly, the spread of the idea of feminists as obnoxious shrews should stop. Just like the spread of any negative stereotype, it hurts and divides people. Encouraging feminists to shut up reinforces that anyone who stands up against sexual violence should shut up and perpetuates rape culture. Other men who stand up against misogynist comments and rape jokes are told that they’re joy-killing, feminist beta-males. It allows rapists to dismiss their victims who speak up as overreacting. It allows all of the other problems in the world to be swept under the rug.
What can be done to combat this? TED Talk speaker Jackson Katz addresses the issue in a fantastic speech (which I recommend you all watch): “Calling gender violence a women’s issue is part of the problem. It gives a lot of men an excuse to not pay attention … We need more men who have the courage and the strength to start standing up and saying some of this stuff. And standing with women — not against them and pretending that this is somehow a battle between the sexes and other kinds of nonsense. We live in the world together.” A lot of the action of breaking down inequality and stopping sexual violence starts with the men (statistically speaking, the overwhelming majority of rape of women, children and men are perpetuated by men, and rape by women is often disregarded due to the patriarchal view in our society that women are passive and physically weaker, incapable of doing “real harm”). And a lot of it starts with changing the perception around the word “feminism.” Next time someone says that he or she doesn’t need feminism due to not needing entitlement and superiority, perhaps link them to this column. Encourage them to talk about it. Ask them why they think that way. The more exposure this issue receives, the more it will be questioned, and the more change will start to take place.
Victoria Hu is a student at UC Berkeley.