Equality on All Fronts

Kristen Wangsness

Kristen Wangsness

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women, it is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians,”

-Pat Robertson, 1992

Feminism is a highly controversial, frequently misrepresented term. In attempts to define the movement, the agreed-upon definition has changed a lot since the first use of the word ‘feminism’ in 1937 by the French philosopher Charles Fourier, who used it with the simple goal of improving the status of women in society. Feminism never promoted the idea of equality between the sexes until it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1895: “advocacy of the rights of women (based on the theory of equality of the sexes).”

The definition continued to expand with the Women’s Liberation Movement, resulting in the one given by Merriam-Webster Dictionary (and read by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie on Beyoncé’s track **Flawless), “the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” This is the definition used by Emma Watson in her recent speech at the UN concerning the role of men in feminism.

Where other celebrities have actively distanced themselves from the feminist movement (Lady Gaga, Madonna, Bjørk, Baby Spice, among others), celebrity endorsements like Watson’s may bring positive attention to this often misconstrued movement.

Watson spoke as a representative for an organization called ‘He for She,’ a campaign trying to bring men into the fight for equality. Her speech centered on dispelling today’s most common misreading of feminism, the idea of the man-hating feminist, by explaining why men would also benefit from equality between the sexes. While this is certainly a good clarification to make, her explanation of feminist issues was incomplete and did not go much deeper than the idea of inequality by way of gender stereotypes.

… the systems of power that enforce inequality, not only sexism, but also racism, transphobia and others must be dismantled.

Equality is a broad term with a multitude of facets, but one of the most frequently quoted illustrations of inequality is that women are paid 77 cents to the white man’s dollar. While this is true, it’s generally left out that it is a white woman who is paid that 77 cents. Black women make 69 cents, Hispanic women make 54 cents, and transgender women receive roughly 66 cents in the same comparison.

This disadvantage does not stop at an economic level, but is an integral part of today’s society. More black people than white experience police brutality, more women than men are victims of domestic violence, and there is a dramatic political underrepresentation of every demographic except straight, white male. Gender, identity, skin color or sexuality, among other identifiers, often dictates the opportunities open to a person and the setbacks they face.

In order to remedy the statistics to bring an equal dollar to everyone as well as treat the other social maladies, the systems of power that enforce inequality, not only sexism, but also racism, transphobia and others must be dismantled. This is feminism: the tearing out of the roots of privilege to foster equality, including the dissolution of gender expectations as mentioned in Emma Watson’s speech and much more.

… listen to the voices of those who do not have the same privilege, do not speak for them or over them.

The definition of feminism has certainly changed since its first use, and this is a good thing. It has expanded to recognize that the issues of its original beneficiaries- middle class, white women- are not the same issues experienced by others who must be included in the movement as well.

Yes, feminism benefits men, too, but they are in a position of privilege in today’s society. As said by feminist theorist Kelley Temple, “men who want to be feminists do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need to take the space they have in society and make it feminist.” She is talking about the issue of patriarchy, but the same idea applies to any situation where one is given privilege over another: ask not what feminism can do for you, but what you can do to further the movement for equality. Listen to the voices of those who do not have the same privilege, do not speak for them or over them.

Both the negative tropes of man-hating feminists and the effort it takes to rebuke them, like Emma Watson’s speech, can perpetuate an incomplete picture of the basic premise of the movement. When the misconceptions are cleared and everyone has an understanding of what exactly feminism advocates, we stand a better chance of making real change.