Feminism* and Terminology

I’ve had this argument… well, I won’t say countless times, cause honestly, if I could remember each instance, I’m sure I could count them… I might need to reuse my hands once or twice each. So, more than a handful of times, but not countless times .It is something that keeps coming back though. The argument is regarding the term “feminism” and the ostensible problems with it.

I’m sure we’ve all heard it before. Come on, say it with me. If you believe in equality for all humans, then it should be “humanism,” not feminism. Feminism is unfairly weighted in favor of women, and thereby necessarily devalues men. You can’t call yourself a feminist unless you’re in favor of female supremacy. It’s not just idiots and MRAs who make these arguments and claims. No, men and women whom I love and respect and who are generally reasonably intelligent people have said these things to me, or in earshot of me. It’s a problem because despite the wide availability of literature that defines various flavors of feminism and outlines feminist goals, the image of feminism in the popular imagination all too often comes down to Straw Feminists.

We have to keep saying it until it makes its way into peoples’ brains: The reason it is called feminism is not because it is an ideology that seeks dominance of women. It is called feminism because even the harm caused to men and boys by the gender imbalance of our society is rooted in misogyny. The folks who eschew the term feminism because it seems to imply imbalance, and focuses on women rather than equality? What they don’t understand, is that the lack of equality, even where the advantage seems to go to women, traces back to deeply rooted hatred, mistrust, or paternalism towards women and femininity, and a generally positive view of men and masculinity.

What does this look like? Well, let’s take one of the complains leveled against feminism by MRAs… one of the ones that actually might have some basis in reality, that is. It is claimed that men are at a disadvantage when it comes to custody battles over children. This may be true, I’m not sure. But I have seen men who care for children rendered invisible by a society that doesn’t expect men to be involved in childcare. Let’s for the moment assume that it is true.

If you’ve ever seen Kramer vs. Kramer, it becomes obvious how unfair and painful are the situations that such entrenched social and legal attitudes precipitate and exacerbate, but also where the roots of these attitudes lie. Women are favored when it comes to child care and custody because child care is “women’s work.” Kramer vs. Kramer is set in a world in which men are expected to be the primary bread winners, women in the corporate sphere are still a rarity, and the roles of parents are strictly dictated by social and gender norms. Of course Dustin Hoffman is going to have a harder time taking care of his kid, if he can’t get off from work to pick him up if he is sick. This is not a problem that is in any way exclusive to men, but it is certainly exacerbated by the fact that the corporate sphere in which he works is one built upon deeply entrenched and rigid notions of masculinity.

Kramer vs. Kramer, of course, was made in 1979. It is both sickening and heartening to watch this film, in the same way that it is both sickening and heartening to watch Mad Men. We can see how far we have come, and we can see where attitudes have not changed much or at all. We can also see, more importantly I think, from whence come the attitudes that are now more subtly expressed in our society, and the elements that have flowed with the progress of feminist influence on society, and the elements that remain stubbornly tethered to the androcentrism of the past. Men are not expected to be able to take care of children as well as women are not because women are seen as superior, or more deserving, but because we still cling to the idea that a woman’s place is in the home raising children, not indulging in career goals… while a man’s most valued role takes place out of the home, having a career, building an identity and a reputation in the world, while his family responsibility is primarily to provide for their material needs, and maybe see his children for a few minutes when he comes home from work before they go to bed. A man’s role traditionally is not defined by family the way a woman’s role traditionally is. A wife and family for men is supposed to be an acquisition, like a house or a car. For a woman, the family is supposed to be the meaning of her life and the source of her identity.

This is obviously not how we are expected to live today, at least not in the absolutist way of the past. Women have more choices, workplaces are slowly becoming more friendly to women, to people of color, to people with disabilities, to people of various sexual and gender orientations. Slowly. More slowly for some groups than for others, and more slowly in some geographic regions than others. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on where you stand, not every segment of society moves at the same pace, and the attitudes about gender remain entrenched in certain areas in ways that do harm both to men and to women. However, it is unquestionably an attitude that sees men as independent entities and women as tethered to housekeeping, men as strong and women as weak, men as intelligent, logical, and rational, and women as light-headed, emotional, and irrational, Men as stoic and women as hysterical, that is the genesis of the vast majority, if not the entirety, of gender inequality, regardless of whom it is seen to “favor.”

The term feminism will not be outdated until these deeply rooted attitudes change. Like with institutional racism, you can’t just say “Everyone should be equal” and ignore what lies underneath the current state of inequality, historically, societally, and anthropologically.

* It is important to note that there are more than a few problems within the disparate groups that make up what is understood to be the “feminist movement.” Institutional racism and the resultant silencing of women of color within the feminist world, “rad-fems” who reject trans women as fellow women, separatists (though they are rare these days), etc. all really exist, and are really a problem. While I identify as a feminist because I believe that the term is not and should not be defined by those elements that ruin it for the rest of us, I acknowledge that not everyone who I would understand as a feminist can associate with the term. I do not feel that it is my place to identify personally as a womanist, being a white woman, but I strive to be a womanist ally, as I understand it as part of my feminism, and my duty as a human being striving for general decency to ally with those who are marginalized.


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