Last week, the Harvard Undergraduate Council brought the issue of feminism to the forefront of public discourse through the launch of their campaign Side by Side. The feminist ideal seems simple: it is a movement fighting for gender equality. Its moral code seems as indisputable as the golden rule, and yet people see the feminist movement as controversial. As neutral as its definition sounds, the movement has unfortunately at points been exploited as the female agenda to take over the world. Around the blogosphere, increasing numbers of women and men have come out in opposition to feminism, claiming that it is an unnecessary movement. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Labor, there is a glaring pay gap in which women’s median annual earnings equate to only 78 percent of men’s median annual earnings. This, among many other inequalities and stigmas, is evidence that the feminist movement is still relevant. However, there is a flawed stance many of us take when perceiving the movement, such that we become removed from its core values and goals.
The biggest issue in the way we see modern feminism is that we often conflate it with the feminist movement from the ‘60s. The term is a little outdated and often associated with bra burning and man-hate. The word itself is also innately biased. Maybe we can coin a new term—equalism? Genderism? Maybe we need to do away with the isms all together. Or, perhaps it is easier for us to reclaim the word so that it is a movement everybody can feel comfortable supporting.
The first step would be recognizing the evolution of today’s feminism. Sprouting from the popular form of feminism we saw during the second wave in the ‘60s, characterized by a broader range of issues such as reproductive rights, sexuality, and domestic violence, today’s feminism deals with more complex and diverse issues. Feminism today is no longer a western movement, but a global one. It is important to realize that not all women face the same forms of prejudice, and much of that is due to race. Woman of different races each have a different history for their struggle toward equality that constitutes their struggles today. Gender equality should thus not be seen as insular. Feminism today has to be more malleable to accommodate this diversity so as not to neglect the minority woman’s experience.
Another difference is that modern feminism no longer has a tangible goal to rally behind, such as suffrage or other forms of institutionalized sexism. Feminist thought has now become more nuanced and variable to account for the broader spectrum of personal experiences women face. With this variability also comes a less easily defined goal. In its most basic form, feminism can be understood as gender equality. Feminism hopes to do away with artificial generalizations we create for men and women, especially because generalizations prevent us from recognizing the exceptions.
Yet as obvious as so much of feminism seems, the very practices it rallies against are so ingrained in our history and social interactions, we do not recognize how biased they can be until we hyperbolize them. It is necessary to highlight the more micro prejudices we see on a daily basis. For example, there is a difference in the way two candidates for a job are discussed if one is female and the other male than if both were male, or the fact that we tend to see certain gender-neutral words as more masculine or feminine. We allow contrived gender norms to illustrate so many details of our lives that we become biased without intending to.
In addition, because we have come so far as a nation in minimizing gender biases, we have the privilege of advocating for nations that have not. Despite our progress, we must continue to illuminate the issues that have existed in order to draw awareness on a global scale. Our fight toward accepting females roles outside of the traditional maternal sphere and destigmatizing women’s sexuality and consent can play a large role in affecting these still existing problems around the world. We must use our history to challenge governments that have yet to change theirs. It is through upholding the feminist movement here in America that we can help advocate for similar movements in less gender equal countries, such as Chad, in which only 55 percent of adolescent girls attend primary school in comparison to 71 percent of boys, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report. While this can easily come across as the privileged interfering where we have no authority, it is actually about using our first world privilege to represent the feminist movement as a powerful cause that deserves to be prioritized.
A second flaw in the perception of the movement is how often the word is used incorrectly or hypocritically. At its core, feminism is simply about creating gender equality. Thus, just as feminism advocates that women should not have to ascribe to contrived classifications of femininity, it also advocates that men should not have to ascribe to contrived classifications of masculinity. It is about removing the artificial social divides we place between genders, or even removing the gender binary all together. However, in trying to encourage people to break from the one mold society has constructed over centuries, modern feminism can create another mold that presents the ideal as an independent woman focused on her career, preferably as a boss. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of woman, but there simply should not be an ideal, because in encouraging one type of woman, it also criticizes another, such as the housewife. Often, the loudest feminist voices will criticize femininity as a sign of oppression, thus stigmatizing women who choose to take on traditional female roles.
The feminist movement has for so long focused on the ends that a woman creates for herself, but now the focus should be the means by which she gets there: the power of choice. It is no longer about a singular experience or a particular law. Today’s feminist movement is about changing the general attitude toward all types of women and men. And here is the biggest evolution of feminism—it is a movement for all people. Maybe that’s been the definition all along, but it certainly has not been considered a men’s movement until now.
Before campaigns such as HeForShe, and now Harvard College’s own Side by Side, the feminist movement has always been seen as the women’s movement. But it is not; it is the people’s movement. It is a movement in which everybody has a stake, not because one is a husband or a brother, or because one is a woman, but because one is a human being. So far, feminism has obviously had to focus on women’s rights because women have always faced the brunt of inequality. However, the movement today has evolved to become more than just about rights under the law, but also about removing and equalizing privileges outside of institutions. We cannot be content with laws that on paper are gender equal when their practice or societal connotations are unequal. Feminism today is about the prejudices men face just as much as it is about those that women face. It is not a white problem or a black problem or an American problem; it is the world’s problem, and a grand one it is. It is about breaking molds so that we no longer feel the need to carve ourselves away to fit in one. It is a problem that still matters.
Image Credit: Harriet Kariuki