‘Me? Oh no, I’m definitely not a feminist.’
Feminism = ‘The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’
‘So you do not, therefore, believe that men and women should have equal rights?’
‘Oh I didn’t say that! I just don’t feel comfortable describing myself as a feminist.’
If I had a pound for every time I have had this conversation with someone, I wouldn’t need to be working full-time right now.
And it does frustrate me, because feminism, at its core, advocates for the complete and total equality of the sexes. Originally established to gain women basic political rights, such as the vote – it has now evolved, and aims for full social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.
I can completely understand where the stigma attached to the word has come from. People hear the word and cringe as they think of man-hating, bra-burning, ‘crazy’ women. Please, it’s 2017. Bras are too damn expensive to burn these days.
And what’s more, this is just quite simply not the case.
But first let’s pause, and consider the history of feminism, and its three waves – as this will help to expand my argument.
(I intend to refer mainly to Britain, not because I consider the feminist movement to be of more importance in the UK, just quite simply because it’s the country about which I am the most educated)
WAVE ONE – We’re talking Suffragettes and Suffragists here. The earliest form of women’s liberation, and the wave which (to date) has achieved the most concrete political success of all time – gaining women the right to vote. Although the involvement of British women in WW1 seemed to ‘prove’ their worth, ultimately – the issue of disenfranchisement wouldn’t have even been on the table without these women.
WAVE TWO – Once the right to vote had been achieved (1928, for all women and men over 21), feminists shifted their attention to social and economic concerns. Childcare, abortion rights, access to contraception, discrimination in the workplace, the list goes on. This second wave of feminism grew from within the New Left student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of young female activists felt issues such as access to contraception, for example, weren’t being addressed by the (primarily male-led) student movements. Thus, they quite simply formed their own groups.
Now – key point here. This is where the ‘bra-burning’, ‘crazy’ image of feminism, I believe, originates. Yes, there were women that chose to destroy their bras, and other items they believed to be symbols of male oppression (high heels, lipstick etc.). But this more radical edge was only one aspect of a huge European-wide movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Like many new social movements, feminism had its radical fringe, and sadly – this image has become difficult to shift.
This is interesting, especially when considering other protest movements of that era. The Civil Rights movement in America for example, also encompassed more radical groups. Those who supported Black Power, and advocated the use of violence, and ‘separatism rather than segregation’, were undoubtedly more extreme in their outlook on the race situation in the USA. Yet the Civil Rights movement is not remembered purely for this aspect.
WAVE THREE (i.e. today) – Women have now achieved their basic political and economic rights, but it is now about changing social norms and tackling historic sexism. I can run for parliament, I can control my own finances, I can learn about women’s history, and I can choose how I want to live my life – either as a single or married woman. But, there is still work to be done. Women still suffer economic inequality (the gender pay gap is around 9.4%/hour for those in full-time employment), sexism is still pervasive in employment (women being asked if they have plans to have a family in interviews) and women are still in the minority within Westminster (only 32% of MPs are female). BUT the situation is far better than it was. This third wave also incorporates the HeForShe movement, whose aims I want to talk about in more depth…
Tackling social equality and societal expectations of men and women – is feminism’s next major challenge. This is a particular focus of the HeForShe movement. It advocates for the release of men from the ever-present, and suffocating, societal expectations of masculinity, and what it means to be a man. There is a reason that the suicide rate is the highest amongst men below the age of 45. Losing the role of the breadwinner, and not feeling able to talk about their emotions (particularly amongst other men), are some of the most common causes of depression amongst middle-aged men. There’s a reason that fantastic charities like Andy’s Man Club, and the Stephen Gartland Foundation, are flourishing – because there is such a need to combat this toxic expectation of manhood. I’ve seen first-hand how damaging this can be, and it deeply saddens me that the reaction to say, my brother or father crying in public, to myself shedding a tear or two – would be very different.
This is what modern feminism is trying to combat. This is what third wave feminism is. It is about achieving complete social, economic, and political equality amongst men and women. I am so proud to call myself a feminist, and always will be. I’m proud of the history of the movement, and I’m excited for the future and what it holds for both men and women. I hope that we will reach a stage whereby young men and women do not feel any social, economic, or political constraints placed upon them by their gender. It’s possible, and it’s happening. Right now. Get excited.