In high school, my brilliant history teacher asked everyone in my class to raise his/her hand if he/she considered him/herself a feminist. A couple hands shot up and some stayed glued firmly to their desks, while others, like mine, hesitantly rose halfway like a limp petunia. My teacher, patient and understanding as ever, explained that being a feminist simply means you support gender equality—that men and women should be treated as equals. That’s it. After considering this tidbit of information, we were all given a second opportunity to form a decision. Guess how many of us raised our hands the second time around.
That class stands out in my memory because it forever etched in my mind the incredible power of both education and ignorance. By remaining ignorant, I was unknowingly perpetuating sexist attitudes and discriminatory behavior. By taking the time to learn a single definition, I felt confident in knowing and describing what it was I stood for.
I’m thankful I had this learning experience in high school and not in college or—even more embarrassing—as a movie star with a wide range of influence. Still, a lot of well-meaning men and women skirt around what should be a straightforward question. Look it up in the dictionary and you will find that the definition for feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” When someone asks if you’re a feminist, they are asking if you believe men and women should be granted equal rights. A simple yes or no will do.
Unfortunately, it usually ends up being more complicated than that. The word has been twisted and manipulated into having an overwhelmingly negative connotation. To shy away from the word is to dismiss the work of women who have fought for centuries to reverse oppression. While some of us may be quick to discredit the work of feminists, I doubt any modern woman would prefer living in a pre-feminist world. And by the way, fear is commonly used by the ruling power structure as a means to gain control.
If you understand what the word means and don’t wish to identify yourself in that way, that is one hundred percent okay. But if you do enjoy the primary features of feminism (equality), please don’t go down the “I’m not a feminist, but…” route. On this point, Mary Elizabeth Williams from Salon writes, “Nobody enjoys it more when a woman says she’s not a feminist than a misogynist. Nobody gets more gloatingly self-congratulatory about it, or happier about what ‘real’ women don’t need than someone who doesn’t like women very much, especially not the uppity, outspoken, wanting pay equity and reproductive freedom types.” Distancing yourself from the label because you don’t like labels perpetuates the ignorance fogging the true definition of feminism.
Let’s make something else very clear. Sexism is real. From blatant misogyny to the subtler effects of everyday sexism, there are countless ways in which women do not share the same rights and privileges as men. In America, women still earn less than men for the same work. Women are still struggling for the right to make decisions about their own bodies. Women have had the right to vote for a measly 94 years. In an attempt to change this oppressive system via compelling arguments and personal stories, women are all too frequently dismissed as “oversharing.” In her article, “The Feminist Writer’s Dilemma”, Laurie Penny writes that, “when men write about their experiences in a political context, it’s never called ‘confessional’—it’s just ‘literature’, or a ‘memoir’. The second is that male political experience is never coded as male—it’s just universal truth.” Uh, yeah, in that case, I’m pretty sure males of European descent have been “oversharing” since the dawn of civilization.
It would still take me all of college to recognize what level of bullshit I could withstand before exploding with rage. I’ve tended to far too many fragile egos and allowed myself to be disrespected numerous times for the sake of avoiding confrontation. I’ve shied away from calling out misogynistic comments for fear of being called “pushy”, “bossy”, or my personal favorite, “dramatic”. This, I have since realized, was not just passive on my part, but harmful. There have been so many moments when I should have said something but didn’t, and hardly ever a time I wish I’d kept my mouth shut.
I write these things while keeping an eye on the eggs I’m soft-boiling for my boyfriend and I. This does not make me less of a feminist. Here are a few other things that will never make me less of a feminist: wearing pink, eating and/or baking cupcakes, watching Clueless for the hundredth time, listening to Lana del Ray, talking to my puppy in a baby voice, having a boyfriend, getting married, etc. I know, it’s mind-blowing. I can do all of these fun things while believing women should be treated as human beings. That’s not something to be afraid of, is it?