We thought that to celebrate the half year mark we would talk a bit more about ourselves and about what feminism is to us – expect to see a post where we answer a question for the next four Fridays. We will share our thoughts and we are hoping that you will chime in with your answers either on your own blog or in the comments.
On July 1st we asked why do you identify as a feminist? We followed up on July 8th asking why do you think it is important that others identify as feminists as well? This week we want to know, Why do you think there is a stigma attached to the feminist label?
Think about it, the only way to get real action is to work together, and those in power are the ones who keep reinforcing the anti-feminism message. Did you know that women never actually burned their bras? Did you know that many (most) early feminists were happily married with children? Did you know that even those feminists who are lesbian or queer usually don’t hate men? Did you know that there are many men who are feminists? Despite the fact that none of it is true, we have this cultural stereotype of the feminist as a bra-burning, man hating, ugly woman who is just bitter because she can’t get a man. It is frustrating to know that the lies and rhetoric actually work. The stigma is there because we are lied to, the stigma is there because those with power like having power and like abusing power.
The stigma attached to the feminist label frankly baffles me. It was only when I first started to question my aversion to the term that I realised how ridiculous the stigma is. What I was trying to say, back when my favourite line used to be “I’m not a feminist, but..”, was really: I don’t want you to associate me with all the prejudices surrounding this term, but yet, I am for gender equality. But when I think about it, it is hard to give even a proper description of this vague notion of the stigma attached to feminism. What is it really? Is it the fact that I don’t want to be a bra-burning person, like the movies we had to watch when we very shortly dealt with feminism in high school? Why do I even mind that people who called themselves feminist burned their bras? Or is it the notion that as a feminist gender equality is your only focus, forgetting other social injustices in the process? But back in high school, I am not sure I even considered that part of the prejudice. I guess for academics, that is one reason they turned to the term gender instead of feminist studies: wanting to take away the idea that other inequalities did not count, as well as the idea that masculinity could not be studied as part of a feminist agenda. But I wonder if the change of term wasn’t a matter of ascending to this dominant “stigma” (whatever it entails, really). I am hesitant to say that this very vague notion of a stigma that so many conjure up as soon as the word feminism is used, that I so often felt the need to defend myself against, is really a way of “structures” in “society” resisting gender equality? Hesitant because structures and society are such vague terms too. But part of the reason that this stigma is still attached to the term must be because it is an easy way to minimize the “threat” feminism poses? And part of it, I think, is part of the history of feminism itself. But that does not mean that the stigma is relevant today – it just means that feminism took different forms in different situations and where we allow for that kind of change in other terms for groups, apparently it is hard to let go of them in this context. See, I have no answers, just questions.
I think the stigma against feminism comes from the misunderstanding that elimination of male privilege means the elimination of men or, less dramatically, that since we live in a gender-binary society, feminism is a zero-sum game which must empower women at the expense of men. This is false. Because we live in a society that understand sex and gender as binary, sexism is a double-sided coin. Feminism doesn’t flip the coin, though: it simply gets rid of it. Feminism liberates both men and women from sexism, not by creating some sex or gender-free imaginary landscape, or post-feminist gender-blind society, or whatever, but by opening up more space in terms of what is deemed socially acceptable so that everyone is presented with more options for self-expression, behavior, and opportunity, regardless of their sex or gender. The process of liberation does take work, however, and people who are privileged by the current system are loath to see it crumble. This is why all outbursts of feminist action are followed by extreme backlash and, unfortunately, anti-feminists have been really effective at negatively branding what they see, rightly, as a serious threat to their positions of privilege. By demonizing feminists on account of their real or perceived looks, career choices, family status, or any number of silly judgmental things, they focus attention away from what feminism is actually about; the dismantling of unfair systems of privilege.
I think it’s a mix of ignorance and fear: some people genuinely fear everything feminism stands for due to their attachment to what is to them a very comfortable status quo; others actually do believe in some if not all the core principles of feminism, but they’re not clear on what the term actually means. There are many myths surrounding the word “feminism” – that it’s about hating men, that it means you have to give up or actually shun anything associated with traditional femininity, that feminists are all humourless, etc. – but perhaps the most insidious and bizarre is the notion that to draw attention to gender inequality is to reinforce it. People often make arguments that mirror the notion of “colour blindness” is discussions about race: they seem to think that if you truly believe in equality and reject gender stereotypes, then you should never focus on issues that affect women, or in any way acknowledge the very real ways in which the construct of gender constrains people’s lives. I look forward to a world where this is possible, but that world, my friends, is not the one in which we currently live.