“Not Needing Feminism” Makes You Part of the Problem.

Earlier today, a friend of a friend posted a photo in response to the Who Needs Feminism? project, with the disclaimer that “As long as feminism means promoting the dignity and equality of women, I’m fine with it. But be careful with your definition of equality.”

It’s unfortunately clear that this girl, and many others, don’t understand what feminism is about at all. Now, I’ve made a couple other posts about this that pretty much say the same thing, but for those who have arrived from Facebook, here’s the rundown: Just like any movement, feminism’s core principles are subject to interpretation and implementation by individuals, which means that they span a wide spectrum. Hopefully, she and others like her don’t go about vilifying entire causes on the basis of individuals or extremists with whom they disagree. After all, it’s clear they don’t define Catholicism by those who use it in a hateful way or the few priests who have abused their positions of power.

To her credit, most feminists would ardently disagree with the pro-life stance, but it doesn’t mean that feminism as a whole, and all the other issues it addresses, should simply be swept under the rug. Furthermore, save for maybe a few radicals or old-schoolers, nobody in the mainstream modern feminist movement is telling people that equality means sameness in every way or that being a mother or wife, or being loving, caring, and “modest” is a crime, or shameful, or that is makes them any less of a woman, and THAT IS THE POINT.  Feminism is about “championing” a woman’s right to make decisions about her own life- whether she chooses fishnets or floorlength skirts, wants to be a stay-at-home-mom, a software engineer, or a solider, subscribes to Christianity or atheism. It also, however, calls for social reflexivity- for women to be aware of the social structures and attitudes that have historically deprived women of agency in a myriad of ways.

In any case, the most glaring part of this well-intended Facebook post isn’t the ignorance it demonstrates, but the mentalities it espouses. The real problem is that responding to the Who Needs Feminism project by making a poster like this is insulting to all those who have participated, and minimizes their very REAL and PAINFUL experiences of being abused, taken advantage of, or not taken seriously because of their gender.

The poster depicted above and posted to Facebook was made by a student at the University of Notre Dame, a school at which a girl KILLED HERSELF because the administration did nothing when one of its athletes made her feel as though her choices, her feelings, and her body weren’t in her control.

3 weeks ago, 15 year old Amanda Todd committed suicide after she was lured by a stranger on the internet into exposing her breasts, and then pictures of this act were posted to Facebook, shared, mocked, and vilified by her friends, fellow students, and people she didn’t even know.

A month ago, 15 year old Ciara Pugsley, a popular girl who struggled with depression, committed suicide after being “bombarded with hate messages” on Ask.fm, which told her that “she was depressed to attract attention, that she was fat, and that she had no respect for herself.”

5 days ago, 13 year old Erin Gallagher committed suicide after being continually “taunted about her weight and looks” via similar Ask.fm messages.

Countless others are subject to this sort of harassment in silence.

If that’s not relevant enough, consider the girl who has one night stands or is promiscuous in the college scene because she feels guilty for saying no. Her environment conditions her to honestly believe that if a guy buys her a few drinks, if she makes out with somebody, or if a guy lets her crash at his place, she would be rude and disappointing if she didn’t follow through. That “not delivering” on something she’s “offered” (via her attire, flirtatiousness, and/or other sexual acts) makes her a bad person. That there’s a “point of no return” past which she cannot back out. She may not even be conscious of this mentality at work in her actions- I certainly wasn’t.

In the end, the internet user who convinces a young girl to flash the camera, the Facebook users who mock and slut-shame a teenager for her self-proclaimed mistake, the internet users who take it upon themselves to make young girls’ mental health and physical appearance their business, the administration that doesn’t take sexual assault claims seriously, the society which continually reinforces the notion that sexualization and objectification (at younger ages every year) are simply means to validation, appreciation, and self-worth, and those who ignore, minimize, or encourage a culture of female subjugation, all send one message loud and clear: Girls, you, your bodies, your choices, and your feelings are merely sideshows at a circus. You exist to be advertised, scrutinized, commodified, and judged. Fuck your agency. You are not an individual. You are a public spectacle. 

These issues are real, and their effects are devastating. They aren’t going away. So when a girl makes a poster saying “I don’t need the kind of feminism you’re promoting,” this is what she’s standing against:

“Don’t Denounce Feminism…” Follow-Up

Earlier this month, I wrote a post entitled “Don’t Denounce Feminism if You Don’t Understand It.” In it, I argued that feminism doesn’t require women to leave their families, go to war, or dress provocatively. Rather, it promotes a society in which women are allowed to make these decisions for themselves without being perceived as less of a woman, or less of a person. I claimed that no woman should “forsake her individuality for the sake of a being accepted by a system.”

In the comments to this post, Judithann of Why I’m Not A Feminist disagreed with my conclusion about feminism, claiming that “Feminism is about achieving total equality at any cost; it isn’t about supporting individuality.” She cited writers like Simone de Beauvoir and the potential passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would potentially mandate females to be enlisted in the draft, as evidence that feminism is actually just another system of oppression. You can read that particular conversation here.

JudithAnn justifies her disavowal of feminism by returning again and again to one particularly glaring straw man. On her blog, she writes:

…We must judge feminists on the basis of the laws that they are trying to pass. There may be all kinds of different kinds of feminists, but they all have one thing in common: they all want to see the ERA become the law of the land. The ERA has nothing whatsoever to do with letting women be whoever they want to be.

The Equal Rights Amendment, which would explicitly ban discrimination based on gender, was reintroduced in 2011. It applies to everything from health care to employment opportunities, not simply the draft. And yet, she repeatedly equates the entirety of the feminist movement with the support of this amendment, claiming that if feminists disagree with the ERA, “then they aren’t really feminists; if they don’t, then they could care less what other women want.”

Unfortunately, this is a terribly narrow way of framing the issue. There are feminists who support the ERA but disagree with the way it applies to the draft, just as one votes for a political candidate despite never meeting eye-to-eye on every issue. There are also feminists who do disagree with the ERA on the basis of that clause. To narrow down an entire movement to one issue, and make the massive generalization that all the members of that movement think the same way and promote the same legislation, is mindbogglingly foolish.

This is a really good example, I think, of why I don’t think anyone should be “against” feminism. The movement itself is an idea- the idea that we currently live in a society in which women are the constitutive Other, and are commodified, stripped of individual power, held to unjust standards, and subject to absurd scrutiny in areas of appearance, lifestyle, sexuality, etc. It’s the interpretation and application of these ideas that vary widely between individuals. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy so eloquently puts it:

Feminists differ on what would count as justice or injustice for women (what counts as “equality,” “oppression,” “disadvantage”, what rights should everyone be accorded?), and what sorts of injustice women in fact suffer (what aspects of women’s current situation are harmful or unjust?). Disagreements may also lie in the explanations of the injustice: two feminists may agree that women are unjustly being denied proper rights and respect and yet substantively differ in their accounts of how or why the injustice occurs and what is required to end it (Jaggar 1994).

These types of disputes are common to any movement. You’d be hard pressed to find two vegetarians, or anarchists, or agnostics whose beliefs are completely symmetrical, and in each of those groups there are radicals who rock the boat. It doesn’t negate the validity of their message, nor the importance of their concerns. And while you may disagree with vegetarianism, anarchism, or agnosticism, you hopefully don’t do so because of the views or practices of an individual. In that spirit, no particular feminist is the authority on what feminism entails; as my boyfriend observed, the process of making society equal, positive, and safe for both genders is an ongoing conversation.

In all of her comments and blog posts, JudithAnn makes one thing very clear: she’s not a feminist. She “cares deeply” about women, believes “men who perpetrate violence against women must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” and doesn’t “believe women were put on this earth to serve men,” but she’s not a feminist. She vehemently disagrees with systems that impose government force or outside agendas on women, their bodies, and their choices, but she’s not a feminist. She just believes that women should be treated with respect and allowed to make their own deci… wait a second…

A year ago, I wouldn’t have called myself a feminist. But then I discovered a beautiful truth: more often than not, it’s not what you do that makes you a feminist, but why you do it. There is no contract to sign, no explicit terms to which to agree, no laundry list by which you must abide. There is no Feminist Constitution or Pope of Feminism (and it’s certainly not the ERA and Simone de Beauvoir). You don’t have to wear fishnets, or be pro-pornography, or believe chivalry is dead, or stop being a stay-at-home mom. And if anybody tells you any differently, they don’t understand feminism either.

Don’t Denounce Feminism if You Don’t Understand it

Recently, I stumbled upon The Thinking Housewife, a conservative-minded anti-feminist blog with a name so ironic, it hurts. Operated by one Laura Wood, the content of this corner of the web ranges from archaic (“Is College Necessary for Women?“) to downright ridiculous (“Feminism is a movement among men, to indulge women with more authority in the determination of public life”). Through the din of negativity and mind-boggling ignorance, I found a recent post that was not written by Wood, but by one of her readers. In it, the reader explains that her 17-year-old sister received a poor grade on an essay in a class on feminism, supposedly because she expressed views contrary to those of her teacher. Prompted by the semester’s topic, “Gender Oppression in the Modern Age: Is Feminism Still Viable in Modern Society?,” her essay concluded:

…I understand when I hear it said that feminism is no longer viable. I understand when I see that I have to wear tiny skirts and publicly visible underwear to reclaim my sexuality… I understand when I see women stuffed into business suits, irritably peeling the clinging fingers of their wailing children from their pinstriped skirts and ushering them into the waiting arms of daycare staff… I understand that feminism has no place in my life.

Both the student’s mother and the commenters on the article seemed to think that the poor grade was a personal injustice perpetrated because the girl dared to oppose the “teacher’s viewpoint.” They praise the girl for her good sense and accuse secondary education of being an “indoctrination machine”:

After extensive research on the subject (said ‘research’ being mostly whining about the poor, poor women), each student was to write an essay discussing in detail the subject, and what it means to her personally… As my sister has had a traditional upbringing… hers was by far the most interesting, most honest, and, of course, the lowest marked essay of the class. The teacher went so far to suggest that she have ‘catchup’ classes to better comprehend the topic.

Unfortunately, what this student and her supporters failed to divine is that the low grade most likely wasn’t given because the professor was offended by a 17-year-old’s point of view, but because the essay fails to fulfill both the criteria of the assignment and standard expectations for writing mechanics and essay structure at that grade level. Although compelling in language, it has no thesis statement, houses no facts, and neglects to offer even the slightest bit of objectivity in its description of the movement it so vehemently denounces. In a course whose purpose is the discussion of feminism and gender issues, Lucy Cat’s essay is tantamount to taking a class on the culture of Islam and submitting a paper describing the faith as a monstrous conduit of hate and jihad. It’s ridiculous.

Most importantly, it is obvious that she lacks any grasp of what feminism actually entails. She lists endless examples of what she apparently believes it to require: dressing provocatively to “reclaim sexuality,” dancing “like a stripper,” “children eating canned soup alone because Mommy is working late,” and “the downtrodden man” who is the victim of an independent wife’s lifestyle. But the purpose of feminism is not to mandate women to abandon their families, or to enforce a dress code, but to promote the shocking notion that women are individuals capable and deserving of making their own choices. For some, yes, this may mean business suits and long work hours- but they are no more villainous for that than any man who makes the same choice.

In the first half of her essay, it seems like she really gets it. “I understand [oppression] when I read of complaints that women are told how to act to be accepted, and I hate it,” she writes. Unfortunately, she fails to see that she is part of the oppression she rails against. Her judgment against working women, women in the military, women who don’t look feminine enough for her convenience, and even girls who want to play football, is scathing, ignorant, and more aggressively oppressive than any career path or wardrobe choice.

She cries that “Barely a day goes by when [she is] not oppressed, suffocated, smothered and pinned under a stifling oppression,” but she’s not the one being told to leave her job, abandon her personal preferences, passions, and opinions, and forsake her individuality for the sake of a being accepted by a system.

5 More Fascinating Feminism Finds

Here are a few more stories and articles to help you get acquainted with the very real, very relevant feminist issues of today.

  1. I’m a Feminist. I don’t shave my armpits. Or my legs. I don’t have sex with men and I don’t wear a bra. I’m an atheist, am not planning on being a mother, and I never really liked Barbies. And yes, I am a man.” Jeremy Carter-Gordon is not an outspoken political writer or a feminist blogger; he is simply a guy who recognizes the inequality of the genders, and the absolute necessity of bringing about change.
  2. Sex ed materials used in NY schools found to be not only outdated, but often downright shocking.
  3. Empowered women in Hollywood are beginning to get fed up with interview questions that incessantly revolve around body image, diet, and the women-can’t-be-funny trope. See how Scarlett Johansson, Anne Hathaway, and Amy Poehler react.
  4. The Huffington Post examines the infamous split of twilight stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattison as a result of Stewart’s affair, and why the slut-shaming that ensued is dangerous to young women everywhere.
  5. Michelle Obama’s moving DNC speech glossed over her professional strengths and focused almost exclusively on her role as mother, sparking debate amongst those who found her to be “valorizing mid-20th-century gender roles.” What do you think?