As a preface, I would like to direct anyone interested in International Women’s Day to look at the official website.
What is Feminism?
Historically, feminism has been an ongoing movement by women to try to gain political, social and economic equality with men. They have gone through a number of victories but many more upsets. I could go through the usual historical analysis of the term, but I’ll concentrate rather on the method behind feminism.
So what feminism is can be either a stance that is somewhat separate from typical human rights but also co-dependent to them. If you were to make a comparison between feminism and egalitarianism, you could quickly discern differences in discourse. Egalitarians speak of humanity as a whole, whereas feminists speak of gender specific inequality. Their lens is different from an egalitarian, who might not be as keen as a feminist to see gender disparities in everyday life.
Feminism is required to see these disparities, because egalitarians will tend to think in zero sum games, which unfortunately only apply with regards to a universalist stance on equal rights. Instead of being “men vs women” it’s “humanity”. So no “man” can have rights that another does not, otherwise things become unequal. What feminists say, in this case, is that equal rights extends deeper than on mere mathematical grounds. Culture has a lot to do with inequality more so than ailing systems. In fact, “culture” is a word that is very important to feminism, because it speaks more to a humanities’ specialists and anthropologists than it does to a lab technician.
When egalitarians see things in “global” lenses, they believe that their “global” solution will simultaneously fix all these microscopic dents in society. Such is not the case, however, because even if we set up laws or charters, there remains a culture that exists in most of the civilized world, that regards women as second-hand citizens. The bias may not even be immediately available to any one person, but it will be for those who study and research these things.
In a way, feminism often uses marxist theories to explain itself, with regards to oppression and class warfare. Indeed, radical feminists in the past have criticized Marx for forgetting about women and not including them in his concept of “emancipation”, because while men will be emancipated from their conditions, women still end up having to take care of children at home, cook, clean, etc…
A saying that I like to use to portray this is: “Everyone wants to do a revolution but no one wants to do the dishes.” Because it is particularly telling of the double-sided discourse that occurs when one speaks of revolutions. Those who are doing said revolution tend to disregard minute differences among themselves, thinking that this will all be fixed once the revolution is over. Unfortunately, history has shown that that is not the case, and ground gained can be all too easily lost.
No, really, what IS feminism?
I recognize that I may not have properly answered the question thus far, so I’ll try to make a one-sentence definition. This one is my own:
Feminism is a doctrine that brings criticism to established gender norms in a society, with the aim to discover whether there IS gender inequality, and if such is the case, how to FIX that inequality.
The goal of feminism, with such an aim, is to reduce gender inequality so that both genders can serve society to the best of their abilities. It all depends on which gender is currently least equal, but when the movement began, it was women. The analysis, because it lacked its equivalent in men and came entirely from women scholars, was called “feminism”, as in a lens from the second gender, looking into the world dominated by men.
So, in theory, feminism isn’t ONLY looking out for women’s rights, but it looks for the gender that is primarily at a disadvantage, to equalize it with the other. The problem with that, one might say, is that you could call that anything else, like egalitarianism. Wrong: Because in our societies, it is women who are the founders of such a new concept in academia. Feminism ends up simply being the doctrine of equality relating specifically to gender disparities.
So, the questions feminism can ask are many, but let me list a few here:
- Are men and women sharing equal house labor?
- Can inequality among men and women be solved?
- Does equality bring more ails than it brings good, with regards to gender relations?
- Are women in equal representation, proportional to their presence in society, in positions of power? If not, why is that?
- Are women treated as intellectual equals to men, in everyday discourse?
- What is the judgement society passes upon women, regarding their sexual activity, compared to men?
- Are women being camped in specific jobs that discriminate based on gender rather than skill?
- Are men welcoming of women who step out of traditionnally female-oriented fields to join male-oriented fields?
- What is the proportion of domestic violence between men and women? Why?
- What is the proportion of crime between men and women?
- What is the proportion of reported sexual crimes between men and women?
- Are men or women more likely to end up in poverty, suicide, depression, etc?
- What is the socioeconomic condition, in general of men and women, during childhood?
- Are feminine traits seen as inferior to masculine traits when in men? Vice versa?
These are all questions that when answered, can be indicative of evidence leading toward a sexist society. Accumulated together, they create an intricate study of society, which feminism requires in order to provide evidence of its claims. Such can be done through economic and social sciences or the humanities. A historical documentation of the conditions of women across history, comparing them to now can also often be used to figure out whether women are more or less equal today than they were in the past.
In the case of Western society, which is considered as “patriarchal” to modern feminists, women are considered the inferior gender AND inferior sex. Because when it comes to politics, people expect aggressive behavior in politicians, yet when women behave aggressively, they are considered “butch” and “unladylike”, yet if they behave in feminine fashion, they are considered too “passive” and “fragile” for political life.
Similarly, if men show “feminine” traits, like emotional behavior or “catering” to minorities, it is seen as a form of weakness. On the contrary, however, if they are aggressive and belligerent in public, this is rewarded as them being forward people with no fear.
Feminism looks at such dichotomies and points them out, which has the unfortunate drawback of attracting with it the normalizing structures that then attack feminism as being incapable of understanding why these structures MUST be maintained. In a way, we’ve arrived to a point in our society where these structures are necessary to maintain certain things as they are.
We must choose between changing these things, if indeed we are FOR equality or keeping them as they are, if we think equality is not necessary for a society to strive and be prosperous, culturally and in terms of economics.
Why not just be egalitarians?
The problem with egalitarianism is met with the notion of “universalism”. It is the idea everyone must be elevated at the same time, so as to gain universal equality. If you think about inequality as being specific to classes, then you still have a problem.
If I choose to make things equal for everyone, those who are already in the upper classes will still enjoy their privilege and more, while the lower classes move up. You’re thus raising the overall quality of life but maintaining power structures as they are, when you go the way of the universalist. A universalist is much less likely to see the minute differences in inequalities. You can be a gender egalitarian, but in this case, you take both genders as needing the same equalities, whereas feminism notices that women have inequalities that men don’t.
To then suggest that men should be given equal attention as women, is to misunderstand the issue at hand. Feminists already look at how men have things when they see inequality. It is not necessary to point out that when X happens, even if it is generally discriminatory toward women, men sometimes suffer from it too. Your point is not invalid, but in the discourse of inequality, it does not bear the same relevance, and to ask that both issues be taken with the same urgency divides the ressources available to address both and makes equality for women a less pressing issue.
In order to remove the inequalities of men, it is necessary to remove those of women first, because women’s discrimination and oppression by the patriarchal system means they are ill-placed to do what men are doing. For example, if child-rearing is more often done by women than men, women can’t vye for equal representation in labor. This is a sizeable bump in the road for women, which slows their career progression and sometimes grinds it entirely to a halt.
Feminism is what it is today because people don’t see women and their issues, as long as they don’t also affect men. Had they called themselves merely “egalitarians”, the idea that women are discriminated based on their gender would have never come forward. You have to also take into account that prior to the first and second wave of feminism, women had been violently repressed when attempting to join men on the front toward equality.
That war, men won, but women lost. A famous saying I like very much sums this quite well:
“Everyone wants to do a revolution but no one wants to do the dishes.”
Feminism, in the end, is the lens necessary to look at things we don’t see when we apply a universalist lens. It’s like having a microscope with which you can scour deeper layers of discrimination that go beyond universal interpretations. It is necessary for feminism to not be taken lightly, as it is through the elevation of women that men AND women can both raise together to new heights. By continuing the way we have, we are simply maintaining patriarchal societies and continuing the path toward ill-thought revolutions that always favour men, in the end.