This past week, feminism took a short trip to McGill. A campaign to raise awareness about feminism has taken the shape of individuals holding signs that read “I need feminism because…” in a photo for Tumblr (www.wnfmcgill.tumblr.com). While this campaign was well-intentioned in its efforts to increase visibility of an entirely worthy and important cause, it has resulted, largely, in a manipulation of feminist thought. Rather than sparking insightful discourse on the ways in which sexism plays into larger structures of power, it has simply shown us that anyone can be a feminist if they just write twenty words down on a sheet of paper about how they love their mom.
We take issue with the individualization of feminism that is implied by this campaign, most notably in the “I” statements on most of the signs. Structuring a campaign around individual needs allows people to redefine feminism in a way that is convenient for them rather than locating themselves within the broader feminist movement. This is not to devalue individual experience, because experience is crucial to locating oneself and also ensures that feminism remains diverse, dynamic, and inclusive. However, making feminism about “you” rather than about challenging patriarchy and other forms of societal oppression allows people to define themselves as feminists without thinking critically about what that means.
Feminism needs to be accessible, but it should not be easy; feminist practice involves a continuous reconsideration of one’s values and behaviours. By making feminism whatever you want it be, you absolve yourself of this responsibility. For example, cis-gendered (someone whose gender identity corresponds to their societally-recognized sex) men writing posters about how feminism will help them combat gender discrimination that they face (when taking on traditionally ‘feminine’ roles like that of a stay-at-home parent or nurse) trivializes the goals of feminism and puts men at the centre of feminism rather than forcing them to be accountable for the ways in which they are complicit in the maintenance of patriarchy.
This idea of individuality also feeds into the problematic rhetoric of equality that has been an integral part of this campaign. By this we are referring to the conception that ‘equality’ is the ability of an individual woman to achieve equal status with men, in terms of pay equity, political representation, and the like. This assumes (mostly white, mostly straight) maleness as the standard toward which women must work. It fails to recognize the oppression that is inherent to the social structures that are in place. For example, asserting that becoming a woman CEO is fulfilling feminist goals ignores the exploitative nature of the corporate world. Allowing certain privileged women to access positions within these hierarchies does not change the fact that these systems are predicated upon the continued oppression of marginalized groups.
As feminist scholar bell hooks asserts in her text Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, “as long as…any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling-class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others.” Feminism needs to dismantle structures of power, not simply place more women within them.
We are frustrated because we believe that this campaign neutralizes the potential power of feminism and distorts it into a benign and safe belief. When feminism is watered down, the systemic critique of patriarchy and interlocking oppressions that it offers are sacrificed. We need a feminism that can challenge us and call us out on our bullshit, not one that can fit on an 8 ½ by 11 inch sheet of paper.
Isabella Mancini is a U3 Women’s Studies and Sociology student. Joan Moses is a U3 Honours Political Science student and is a former Daily Design & Production and Coordinating editor. They enjoy facial piercings, feminist theory, and shitting on liberalism. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.