What Has Feminism Got to Do With It

A few things exist in 2018 you might assume would be anachronisms. One is the strangely controversial assertion that black lives matter. Another is feminism.

Feminism itself is defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as the advocacy of women’s rights based on the equality of the sexes. I’ve also read it defined as the believing in the social and economic equality of women. 

The definitions are so simple that it is hard to understand why anyone would not consider themselves a feminist, woman or man. But I came of age in an era when feminism was already scorned. Nice men never talked about it, and less-nice men outrightly condemned it. Women, noting its unpopularity and all the unflattering stereotypes that often went with it, began proudly announcing they were not feminists, to the widespread approval of nearby men. 

All the women I have known who were not feminists were living lives built squarely on its efforts. They had jobs. They spoke as freely, frequently and publicly as they wanted to. They wore whatever they liked. They divorced. They had rights to their children. They could own property. They could vote. Not one of those rights existed for women before feminists fought for them. When Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton campaigned for the vote in the mid-to-late 19th Century, people were shocked at the idea of women voting. They needed smelling salts to get through the whole outrageous concept before rejecting it outright. Both women died before their dream came true: women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.

That was 98 short years ago, and it didn’t come until women took the the streets, year after year, protesting and clamoring and waving signs, much like we are doing lately. And two years before the 100th anniversary, many are still confounded by feminism.

Some harbor the bewildering idea that feminists are against men. I have never observed that to be true. However, that the opposite of feminism, which is unquestioned patriarchy, is demonstrably against women. How else would one explain the systemic denial of all women’s rights across the board, along with women’s subjugation codified in law and holy books? Is there any one thing comparable in women’s supposed anti-male sentiments? While the word “misogyny,” or hatred of women, is widely known and used, the word for the hatred of men, “misandry,” is scarcely known and seldom used. The hatred of women is its own institution, rife with tradition and woven into essays, poetry, speeches and, again, holy books for millennia. Women demanding equal pay and representation cannot even begin to rival that ignominious history.

Others, like Sen. John McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain, do not identify as feminists because they are pro-life, and feminists are assumed to be pro-choice. Many are. Many are not. I suppose that could be a divisive line, but part of what feminists fight for is the right to make up one’s own mind about these matters. Conservative women interested in women’s rights seem to view feminism as uniquely liberal, and therefore reject it by association. 

Black women and other women of color have the soundest of all reasons to reject feminism: it fails to properly include or represent them or their experience. Feminism has been a movement of privileged white women since its inception. Though it hitched its wagon to the abolitionist movement of the 19th Century, when black men won the vote before any woman did, Susan B. Anthony’s loud protest was filled with degrading comments about the black race. So you can begin to see a bit of a problem. It is real, and it led to Womanism, a term coined by author Alice Walker. Womanists offer broad and varying definitions, but all pertain to the dignity and support for women to participate fully in every aspect of society. For other black women, if they have to pick a group to fight for — black Americans or women — they are going to choose black first. Frederick Douglass was a supporter of the women’s vote, but would not give up the black man’s vote for that cause. It meant too much to his people.

Just because some reject feminism does not mean they reject women’s rights. But there are also those who do reject women’s rights — religious fundamentalists; people who stand against equality for fun or sport — and there are those who fail to address the matter at all. We return to mostly-nice men, who consider women’s rights an exclusively women’s issue and therefore nothing they would bother themselves about. They would never call themselves feminists. Their friends would laugh. Or you could be Donald Trump, who announced he was not a feminist on national television, sweeping the whole idea away by claiming to be for women, men and everyone, as if it is all the same, or as if any of his policies or Tweets reflected that egalitarian view. 

So we are still clumsily and stupidly debating whether some people are as worthy as others and therefore deserve the same rights. Whether or not women deserve equal pay for equal work remains debatable, when we bother to talk about it at all. Whether women could serve as clergy in the Catholic church or could be president are ideas still, in 2018, hanging out there unanswered in the ether, like balls of mystifyingly contentious energy. 

It is truly hard to grasp, until you remember Jim Crow was alive and well just 54 years ago, and that 50 years ago white, grown men and women lined the streets to heckle and taunt a six-year-old girl for attending a white school.

Then you realize you would better grab a snack, ‘cause the road to enlightenment is long.