International Women’s Day 2015: That Old Chestnut Called Feminism!

128px-Igualtat_de_sexes.svgI had planned to write a blog on Inequality for Women to attempt to dispel the myth that there is none anymore but I found myself writing about feminism instead.


So in honour of International Women’s Day, let’s talk about that old chestnut called feminism.


There is a lot of talk about feminism now and a lot of negative press about it, especially from young women (and especially from the Spice Girls but that’s another story!) Most of the negative press about feminism seems to be based on ignorance.


I only really have one comment to make about this, so here it is – if you want to denigrate anything, you can; if you want to pick holes in anyone’s argument, you can; no view is totally right or correct, no theory covers everything, there probably is nothing that is really THE truth in the social science (unlike the physical sciences).  We put our subjective meanings on objective events and occurrences all the time, there are many different perspectives of the same thing. Feminism has a unique perspective, or rather a set of unique perspectives. It is diverse and complex and as well as promoting social action, it is a serious body of academic thought and probably one of the most exciting theoretical developments in social theory in the past 50 years.


Feminism actually means something – it is not something that you can just make up and pretend you know what it means. It means something in particular. But this is also where things get a little tricky because there are so many feminisms that it is hard to say what feminism means. As a theoretical body of thought feminism is complex, divided and contested such that not even well respected feminists could ever really say what ‘feminism’ is. But I do think it is important to say something whilst attempting to not be dismissive or universalising of other views within the broad banner of feminism.


Feminism is about equality and not just equality of the sexes but equality for all people regardless of their position in society. Feminism explores the complexity within oppressive practices and attempts to challenge the idea that the way things are is the way that things have to be. In effect, feminism argues that much of how we live is designed to serve the interests of those in power (men, white, anglo, heterosexual etc etc) and women’s (and other more marginalised groups) ways of being in the world are judged to be inferior. There is substantial evidence of this and it is hard to argue this away. As well as this, feminism attempts to value and promote women’s ways of being in the world as potential alternatives to our current system.


Those who criticise feminism fall into two categories. Firstly, those who know what they are talking about because they are passionate about social issues and have researched not only those theories and arguments that concur with their subjective views but also those that do not. And in this spirit of deep thinking, critical reflection and investigation, they take a different opinion (hopefully respectfully) and disagree with some or all of the tenets of feminism.


Secondly, there are those who criticise feminism because it is contrary to what they subjectively believe. They haven’t researched it and may not even really know what feminism is and yet they disagree, often with an irrational ferocity. It may well be that this is a reaction to some feeling of threat to the way they live their lives, but again this simply reflects a lack of understanding about what feminism is actually about.


Feminism does not tell anyone how to live their lives, that would defeat the whole purpose of feminism given that it is based on a rebellion against the way that women’s lives have been defined by men for so long. Feminism does not tell us what we can and can’t do, it simply encourages us to think about why we are making the choices we are and if they are really what WE want or what we believe is expected of us by OTHERS.


Interestingly there has been a recent article where a journalist, Adam Mordecai, took to the streets to find out how many people are feminists. He took a definition of feminism from the dictionary (feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”) and presented it to ‘average’ person on the street and – pretty much all agreed that according to that definition, they are feminists!


I have studied feminism, taught feminism, written about feminism and yet I don’t care if people ‘like’ feminism. I don’t have an evangelical approach to feminism where I need to convert non-feminists to the cause. All I care about is that we understand, and hopefully respect, the complexity of ideas in this body of thought (and all others for that matter) and that our opinions are grounded in a well developed understanding of what is being talked about and what is being critiqued.


That’s all.


Then we can all share our views, advance our thinking, learn from each other, beg to differ at times, but still feel respected and taken seriously and heard. If we can learn to celebrate, not even just tolerate, each other’s differences then we can open ourselves up to a whole world that is otherwise not accessible to us. We can really come to understand and appreciate what others are saying and how others are living. You, like me, may find it disturbing to realise that when we thought we knew a lot, we actually know very little. But in the end we will be richer for the openness and our world will be more peaceful because of this.


Happy International Women’s Day for 2015!