Why "feminism"?

I’ve seen the argument come up time and time again: “feminism” as a term doesn’t reach out to men (or has negative connotations), so people are uncomfortable using it. Why not call it “anti-sexism” or just merge with equalism or humanism?

The short answer is that feminism has a deep and rich history that is important to the continued struggle for equality. To reject feminism is to cease honouring our feminist foremothers who did everything from win us the vote to help to get legislation passed that broadened the definition of rape to include married couples. To reject feminism, especially now with such a virulent anti-feminist atmosphere that has succeeded in passing off lies about feminism and equality as truths, would be to admit feminism has failed. When feminism finally fades out, I want it to be because its goals have been achieved, not because it was beaten down by a those who are all for an equal society as long as it doesn’t take away the power that they have over others.

The long answer is behind the cut.

I. To merge or not to merge

So why not merge into another movement? Well, the easy answer is that movements like humanism and equalism share much in common with feminism, but they aren’t the same. The three movements share one major thing in common: all of them are based in the belief that all people have the same inherent worth as others.

I didn’t say that all people are equal, because that’s not the focus of Humanism. Humanism tackles the issue of humanity from a “truth”/rational-oriented perspective, rejecting spirituality and the supernatural as determinants of fate in favour of self-determination. There is both secular and religious humanism, but both reject the idea of deriving religion from moral ground. This movement also doesn’t necessarily include equality; one can seek rational truth in a way that gives dignity to all humans while allowing privilege to continue in some areas.

Equalism, like feminism, is outright concerned about equality and egalitarianism. Equalism isn’t confined to gender, but can and does encompass any area in which there are institutional inequalities. In this way it is broader than feminism — which, depending on the movement, either only deals with gender issues, or deals primarily with gender issues while acknowledging the importance of understanding intersections — which can be seen as both a positive and a negative. A positive because it is easier to acknowledge how oppressions intersect, but also a negative because the topic is spread so far it may sometimes be hard to find a focusing point (this, of course, is addressed by the movements within equalism).

So why not sublimate feminism into one of these movements? Because feminism is different.

For one, both humanism and equalism approach equality from the perspective of a level playing field. Meaning that they don’t acknowledge privilege and therefore give equal weight to actions that, in our society, feminism (and other focused anti-oppression movements) sees as not being equal. Feminism rejects the idea of “genderblind” or “colourblind” systems because historically they create the illusion of equality and make it that much harder to struggle for actual equality.

For another, and I briefly mentioned this when I was discussing equalism, feminism is focused on the equality of women. Most schools of feminism acknowledge that other forms of anti-oppression work are important, and many feminists self-identify as anti-oppression in other areas, but when we present ourselves — online, in person, in our written works or other media — as feminists, we’re standing up and saying, “Achieving equality for women is important, and it’s equally important to acknowledge that, despite how far we’ve come, we still have a long way to go and women are still, all other things being equal, not treated as fairly as men.”

II. Why not just “anti-sexism”?

I think using the term “anti-sexism” or “anti-sexist activist” isn’t bad; I might start using it for myself sometimes, as well. I often refer to people who fight against racism as “anti-racist activists” and I know the civil rights movement often uses that term as well. But I wouldn’t use it in place of calling myself a feminist.

The first reason is what I talked about in my short answer: I am of the opinion that we need to stand by the term and honour the roots of the movement. It has been said many times by many different feminists that if we repackage feminism as something else, all that will happen is that the anti-feminist rhetoric will follow us to that term. If it’s not “feminazi” it will be some equally hateful term that is meant to paint those who fight for women’s equality as unreasonable, fanatic, and crazy.

Another problem is that “anti-sexist” doesn’t overtly acknowledge privilege — and, indeed, if you go by the dictionary definition of sexism then it would be very easy for people to apply this term to themselves even if they spent their entire time blaming women for expressing prejudice against men. Of course, there are those who do this even now (they are often of the, “I believe in equality, but…” crowd) but we have the vast, and growing, resource of feminist works at our disposal in order to debunk the myth of a level playing field. If we were to distance ourselves from the term, this resource would no longer be so readily available.

Then there is also the question of erasure, which I talked about in the above section as well. When one announces that they are a “feminist” they are announcing to the world that women’s issues are human issues. Now, many people argue that such a thing is assumed, but feminism’s argument is that women are more often than not seen as “special interest” groups whose issues are given airtime only when there aren’t any other “important” matters to focus on. If we don’t continue to draw attention to the gendered imbalance in our societies, then it’s only a matter of time before we get submerged entirely by the “default” issues of the privileged groups.

III. Conclusion

Feminism isn’t a perfect term, and I do see the problems it has in attracting men to the cause (although if you do your homework on the movement you’ll find that terms like “pro-feminist” and “feminist ally” are available for those who don’t feel comfortable adopting the mantle of “feminist”). But the arguments against the word, for me and many other feminists, just aren’t enough to outweigh the reasons for it.

Feminists are fighters; we see inequality and we aren’t content to just brush it off as nothing, or buy the line that we shouldn’t sweat the “small stuff”. Being fighters, how could we ever face ourselves if we turned tail and abandoned our roots simply because the path got a little rocky? Feminism is important to me, not just because of women’s equality, but because of its history. I want to be a part of that history, not take part in destroying it.

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4 thoughts on “Why "feminism"?

  1. I didn’t embrace the term feminism (for the very arguments you present and counter) until I was in my 20’s and Rush Limpballs started his “feminazi” campaign of ridicule. That’s what made me start using the term – I didn’t want anyone thinking I avoided the term out of concern that some idiot talk show host might think I’m a wackjob.

    Later, I realized the same point you make here about needing to respect the roots of the movement (however flawed) and demonstrate our continuing support of the goal (and recognition that we’re not there yet).

    I would add that there is another trait that distinguishes misogyny/sexism from all the other “-isms”: it applies to a little over half the species, and spans every other -ism. It includes members of every race, class, religion, type of homelife, sexual orientation, disability status, mothers, non-mothers… that’s enough different types of people to try to protect and/or bring together. Throw in all the other -isms and it turns into a 17 ring circus.

    It’s not like feminism denies the other movements or ignores when our interests overlap theirs. I think there’s a need for discreet movements in the struggle for equality. For example, I don’t think that every oppressed race suffers the exact same batch of iniquities, and lumping them all into one movement would likely leave someone without solutions.

  2. ” To reject feminism is to cease honouring our feminist foremothers who did everything from win us the vote to help to get legislation passed that broadened the definition of rape to include married couples. To reject feminism, especially now with such a virulent anti-feminist atmosphere that has succeeded in passing off lies about feminism and equality as truths, would be to admit feminism has failed.”

    Absolutely. I think it even goes one beyond that in that (rejecting or ignoring feminism in favor of adopting some new term or joining a more “non-stereotyped” one) positions itself to really not expose male privilege and sexism with the force that it should. i don’t know, it seems like softening the blow or something…to go out of the way to really not “offend” someone…saying “hey, it’s not that feminism i’m here to talk about…it’s something you haven’t heard of and it’s much more simple!” One thing I really don’t like about going the humanist/equalist route is that you don’t get to, like you said, pay respect to those that paved the way but also to critically think about why the Rushes and Leykises of the world have maligned feminism, how readily it was taken in by the audience and how the term has such meaning.

    Reminds me of when the prof would start out asking all the students to quickly write down what words like “gender” “feminism” and “sexism” meant at the beginning of the course…and then seeing the definitions near the end. the “journey” with the word is as important as anything.

  3. I think alot of people are drawn to Humanism because it appears to be all-inclusive. For me, at least, it holds the initial lure of getting everyone on board, so to speak.

    Interesting piece.

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