One morning last year, my year 13 form tutor told us she wasn’t a feminist. Silence descended. Noticing the distinct lack of approving nods and the much more emphatic shiftiness and thumb-twiddling before her, our teacher hastily added “but obviously I believe in gender equality.” She couldn’t have paid us to keep quiet.
In western society today, fortunately, those who vehemently object to the pursuit of gender equality are in the minority. So why, when the dictionary definition of the word ‘feminism’ is ‘the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes’, does the question “are you a feminist?” still continue to elicit such a fractured, negative response?
Much of it has to do with the time-old stereotypes and myths surrounding the word, wrongly adorning it with connotations of anger, anarchy and, of course, misandry. Fearing accusations of hysteria, man-hating, or indeed for men, being deemed too feminine (a misogynistic problem in itself), many shy away from the word – clarifying, as my form tutor did, that it is the word and not the cause, they are against. But should considering the word too politically and socially loaded to use be a reason to abandon it once and for all? Absolutely not. The labels attached to the word are wrong but the word itself is powerful and should be proudly upheld for all it stands for: a history of bitter struggles and, importantly, momentous successes.
Some will argue, however, that the word’s problem lies not in its false connotations, but rather in its inherently gendered nature as a word. Prefixed with the female, how could the word possibly stand for the equality of the sexes? Encompassing centuries of female oppression, however, a huge part of the word’s value lies in its history. It was feminism in the late 1890s when a grassroots movement of fearless activists campaigned tirelessly for the right to vote. It was feminism in the 1960s when the National Organization of Women encouraged a worldwide effort to recognise that aspects of female personal lives had been deeply politicised by a gender-biased power structure. It is feminism today when petitioners help to overturn the ‘tampon tax’, take to the streets with placards to ‘Reclaim the Night’ and campaign for higher conviction rates of abusers and rapists and better systems to care for both their female and male victims.
Feminism is so named because the history of gender inequality is one fundamentally dominated by the subjection of women in patriarchally structured societies. This by no means correlates to feminism being a movement focused entirely on women, to the exclusion of men: such would in fact be a mirror image, rather than a deconstruction, of the binary social framework which has plagued gender relations thus far. The word ‘feminism’ gives fitting acknowledgement and tribute to the movement’s history whilst evolving with the times and continuing to provide us with a vessel with which to categorise the issues facing today’s society. It is a palimpsest of women’s voices and their increasing audibility in a world once built around their silence.
‘Feminism’ is a fine word, a powerful one in fact, that we should all embrace with pride* before laying the semantics to rest and getting back to the necessary work at hand. Allow me to conclude, if you will, with the ever brilliant words of Caitlin Moran: “What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men… Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are.”
*Unnamed teacher, I’m looking at you…