When I was in second year, I took a class called Women’s Reproductive Health. In this class, we were told to choose a topic for our group presentation. I chose ‘The Influence of the Media on Adolescent Sexuality,’ a topic that particularly interests me. The day before the presentation, our group of five came together to review the material. While looking through Tom Ford’s advertisements that depict women as purely sexual objects, I heard a fellow group member exclaim, “I mean, I’m not a feminist or anything, but that is disgusting.”
That was the first time I had heard that phrase. I’m not a feminist or anything, but… Wait. Why aren’t you a feminist if you find a photo that depicts women as a tool for the sexual pleasure of others disgusting? I didn’t ask that question that day. But I’m still wondering what the answer is two years later.
It is clear that the word ‘feminist’ has become stigmatized. To many, being a feminist now seems to be something undesirable. Yet, when I look at a very simple definition of feminist, I read “advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” Do we no longer believe that gender equality is worth fighting for?
Is it that people believe that feminism is no longer needed?
If feminism were no longer needed, I would not be afraid that I would be sexually assaulted when I walk home alone at night.
If feminism were no longer needed, the wage gap would not still be 71 cents to the dollar in Canada.
If feminism were no longer needed, media would not hold women to an impossible and unrealistic standard of appearance.
If feminism were no longer needed, eating disorders would not be a serious epidemic.
If feminism were no longer needed, porn would not be teaching 11-year-old boys that violence against women is sexy.
If feminism were no longer needed, survivors of sexual assault would not be blamed.
If feminism were no longer needed, rates of intimate partner violence would not be estimated as close to 20 to 30 per cent in Canada, the US and the UK.
If feminism were no longer needed, young girls would no longer be sold into sex slavery in Canada.
If feminism were no longer needed, there would not be over 600 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.
For those who believe that feminism is no longer needed, it is understandable to refrain from identifying as a feminist. However, for those who believe that we have not yet achieved gender equality, why not identify as a feminist? Is it simply that people believe the name ‘feminism’ needs to be changed?
I believe that the stigmatization of the word ‘feminist’ serves a purpose. By stereotyping all feminists as man-hating, bra-burning rebels, one is able to ignore their actual arguments, thereby delegitimizing their push for equality. Regardless of whether we change the name ‘feminist,’ a movement that fights for women’s equality would likely be stigmatized. That is to say, it is not about the name; it is about suppressing a movement that asks tough questions of society.
Thanks to the feminists before us, women now have the right to vote, the right to control their finances, the right to own property. Women are free to use birth control, to have a career, to have an education. It is hard to imagine now that women were once not allowed to attend university. Why then do so many people feel ashamed to be tied to this feminist history, rather than be proud of it?
I believe that the current feminist movement should challenge accepted social norms and conceptions of masculinity and femininity that limit self-expression and opportunities, and condone harassment and assault. By challenging the way people think, we can ultimately change behaviour.
Like any movement, there is no one definition of feminism. To me, feminism is about enabling people to have choice. From being able to wear any outfit one desires without fear of sexual assault, to being able to choose one’s own gender expression without fear of discrimination.
Of course, feminism is a lot more complex than this. It now intersects with other movements that work to fight oppressions, such as movements against racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia. This stems from the fact that our gender cannot be separated from other aspects of our identity. And like any movement, there is much disagreement from within. Having said that, if we accept the essential ideas of gender equality, perhaps each of us can make feminism our own and reclaim the word ‘feminist’ with pride.
But don’t get me wrong; I’m not a feminist or anything.
This article is not meant to represent every facet of the feminist movement, it is simply one person’s understanding of feminism. Its main purpose is to start open discussion on this topic. Ayla Lefkowitz is a U3 Philosophy and Women’s Studies student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.