Opinion

Feminism in the 21st Century

By Selena Shifflett
March 17th, 2015

The word ‘feminism’ means many different things to many different people.

To some, the term is a congregation of over-enthused Amazons with short tempers (or, as Rush Limbaugh would say, feminazis).

To the contributors to the tumblr blog “Women Against Feminism”, it is a stifling straightjacket of a term that they are proud to rebel against.

To others, feminism is merely a movement campaigning for equal rights for all women.

To many other women, it is none of these things.

Many men and women will claim that the feminist movement is too extreme, or that it is trying to campaign for something that it is not. Feminism does not involve hating men or making women the superior gender. The feminist movement is not about tearing others down; it is about lifting others up and making sure that all have equal choice.

Dr. Anderson, a math teacher at Monticello with a graduate degree in Women’s Studies, explained what feminism means to her.

“For me, it’s an active, daily position and movement,” said Dr. Anderson, “where I advocate for women and girls and helping them see that they have choices, [and] expanding their choices.”

There are many misconceptions that have formed about the movement, and these have distorted the definition of feminism.

Defining feminism is not easy, especially because the movement itself can be hung over almost any time in history. It is hard to say who the first feminist really was. Some claim the first feminist goes back as far as Ancient times with Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra or the Greek poet Sappho, despite the word ‘feminism’ not having come into being yet. History is dotted with ancient, medieval, or enlightened precursors to feminism. However, as described by Dr. Anderson and Martha Rampton in her article “The Three Waves of Feminism,”  there are three identifiable surges of the feminist movement.

The beginning of the first wave of feminism is officially marked in the tumultuous year of 1848, but the first wave originally kicked off in America during the abolitionist movement. The abolitionists campaigned for the eradication of slavery. During this time, women took a good look around them and realized that slaves weren’t the only ones denied of the rights, including the right to vote, that the United States had always claimed to promote. By the late nineteenth century, the first wave was in full swing with Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) at the figurehead of their self-established National Women Suffrage Association.

Second-wave feminism started in the 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. This wave was more inclusive than the last; second wave feminism not only included white, middle-class, ill-contented housewives, but women of every race and social class. Whereas first wave feminism was mainly a movement within private organizations like the National Women Suffrage Association, the second wave brought feminism into the life of the average citizen through newspapers and books. A main contributor to the second movement was French philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). In her appraisal of women’s position in society, Le Deuxième Sexe (in English, The Second Sex), de Beauvoir offers insight on the aims of feminism.

“It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex,” said de Beauvoir. “The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.”

De Beauvoir goes on to analyze the role of women in literature and everyday life. Her work, alongside emerging feminist periodicals, helped the ideas of feminism spread into everyday life.

Picking up right where the second wave left off, the third wave of feminism started in the 1990s. Third wave feminism was inclusive of all women, including those who identified as part of the LGBTQ community.  Third wave feminists shook off labels of any kind, including those placed upon gender and sexuality. The third wave defied any and all expectations. The girls who participated in this movement demonstrated that feminism does not mean giving up all femininity; they embraced distinctly “feminine” things like lipstick and high heels while pushing for feminist ideals.

Though the motives of the feminist movement have changed over time, at the center of it all, the most important motive is the same. Feminism strives to make sure that all people have the same choices and are free to execute these choices without fear of being met with hate. Choice is at the front and center of the feminist movement, particularly political and economic choice. Choice goes hand-in-hand with power. This is shown in Anthony and Stanton’s persistence as they pushed for women’s suffrage, in de Beauvoir’s widespread writings, and even in Hillary Clinton’s choice to wear lipstick to the 2015 Silicon Valley conference.

“Choice and power and voice and advocacy — those are very important words in the feminist movement,” said Dr. Anderson.

Modern feminism in America has gotten a bad reputation, so much so that many women will proudly claim that they are, in fact, not feminists. The reasons vary; some women feel that they have to trade femininity for feminism, while others claim that the movement promotes women’s rights at the expense of men’s. First and foremost, the feminist movement campaigns for equal rights for all people, including both men and women. Why does it have to be one or the other?

Dr. Anderson explained that many misconceptions around the feminist movement are dichotomous. Many people live with the misconception that pits the sexes against each other: when one gender gains something, the other loses something. But there is no set quota of equal rights to be divided up, and once the supply of equality is out, men and women fight over who gets what. Equality is only as large or small as humans choose to make it, and feminists want to expand it to include everyone. The definition of ‘everyone’ has changed throughout the years, and post-third wave feminism has the most inclusive ‘everyone’ yet.

“Feminism is not grounded in duality,” said Dr. Anderson. “It tries to deconstruct duality from its very nature.”

If feminism was founded upon dichotomy, then it would be reminiscent of a see-saw; when one side goes up, the other goes down. When women gained voting rights, men somehow lost theirs. This is not the case. The feminist movement, at its core, tries to give all people an even playing field so that they can move forward together.

One of the most common misconceptions is that feminists hate men, which they do not. Many feminists are careful to make sure that their points are also fair to men. They are perfectly aware that rapists can be a man or a woman, and they know that abuse and sexualization happens to men, too. Feminism is about increasing the power that women have in their lives, especially economic and political power. It is not about discrimination.

Another fallacy of feminism is that men can’t be feminists. When feminism first emerged as a movement, both men and women considered themselves feminists. This has not changed; there are plenty of male feminists in this day and age. Celebrities John Legend, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Alan Alda, and Aziz Ansari are all self-proclaimed feminists. These are only three of the many men who identify as feminists. The fact that many men are feminists disproves the above argument that feminism hates men — most men wouldn’t call themselves ‘feminists’ if they were arguing for discrimination against their own gender.

Some women seem to have the idea that feminism puts other women down because of their dress or habits. Many people shake their head at the promiscuity of modern women’s clothes. By the aforementioned definition of feminism, these people are not feminists. Women who tear other women down cannot claim to be feminists. Hate cannot be not be a part of the feminist movement.

All misinterpretations aside, many non-feminist women have different reasons for disagreeing with feminist ideals. Many powerful women have opposed the feminist movement. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was very outwardly opposed to feminism and conformed (perhaps grudgingly) to the model of the perfect Victorian woman: a happy marriage and nine children. However, it is said that Queen Victoria grew weary with the model, and harbored a distaste for the institution of marriage and pregnancy.

Author and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (b. 1924) is a more modern woman who has spoken out against feminism. She is most infamous for her campaign to stop the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In her 2011 book The Flipside of Feminism, Schlafly writes that feminism is actually degrading women and encourages them to be more “masculine”. This view echoes those held by Queen Victoria, and comes out in many modern-day anti-feminists

“The feminist movement taught women to see themselves as victims of an oppressive patriarchy,” said Schlafly. “… self-imposed victimhood is not a recipe for happiness.”

Some posts popular tumblr account ‘Women Against Feminism’ agree with Queen Victoria and Schlafly. Many of these women oppose the misconceptions about the movement, not the ideals. It is much more likely to find a woman who opposes feminism because the movement makes her feel less feminine than it is to find a woman who believes that men and women should not have equal rights. It is hard to find a true anti-feminist who believes with all her heart that women should speak when spoken to and subordinate themselves to their husbands.

A movement of any kind calls forth its counter, and the feminist movement is no exception; however, many feminists would argue that they are fighting for women’s choice, including the choice to oppose feminism. It’s funny how often opposing groups want the same things, despite what they label themselves as.

When it comes down to the feminists’ approach to their opposition, enlightened thinker Voltaire (1694-1778), whose views on equality could not have been called feminist-friendly, said it best: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

In its simplest form, feminism is the expansion of women’s choice and power. It is about men and women moving forward together. Many young girls feel that their choices are limited, and feminists want to curve this feeling of conformity. A woman should be free to express herself in whatever way she wants. She should be able to walk down the street in whatever type of clothing she wants to wear without fear of assault or judgments. She shouldn’t be called a ‘slut’ when she wears revealing clothes, and she shouldn’t be called a ‘prude’ when she chooses to cover up (see “Assault Stereotyping and Victim Blaming” by Sophie Condron).

Economic and political power are two of the biggest goals for modern-day feminists. Economic freedom constitutes as giving women more power over property and helping to lessen the pay gap. Political power has to do with say in government and equal rights.

Despite the fact that feminism has come in three waves, many countries (including the United States of America) are miles away from a society where men and women are politically and economically equal. The pay gap between men and women, while it is more complicated than the seventy-seven cents to a dollar ratio, has not improved since the 1970s. Women in Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden are the top four places in the world with the most equality for women. In 2013, the United States didn’t even make the top twenty.

Dr. Anderson, along with most of the feminists, realizes that the United States has a long way to go. She said, “We are not, by any means, on a forefront.”

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