Why Do We Love To Hate Feminism?
About a year ago I was at a small party sitting on a couch with my friend Peta. She was telling us about her trip home from work or uni or something in the city by train. She was reading, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, We Should All be Feminists. She kept glancing up to see if anyone was glaring at her or sneaking sideways glances or purposefully keeping their distance. She was self-conscious because she felt like she was making a loud political statement. A little red book with the word ‘feminist’ in the title felt precariously close to a public declaration. I nodded in agreement; I knew what she meant. How awkward!
It was at this point another friend, a girl, said she didn’t want to be a feminist. She didn’t get the whole aggressive man-bashing movement and she didn’t want to be a part of it. She asked us why couldn’t men be feminists? And why do we still need feminism now anyway?
Peta and I quickly jumped up to defend feminism. We told her it didn’t have to be angry, it was about equality. Men could be feminists too and we knew men who were. We talked about pay differences and power differences in relationships, and our experiences with sexual harassment and abuse. We said feminism aimed to change all that, to empower women to feel safe and have equal opportunity.
But the stigma surrounding feminism meant that this girl was wary of it, no one wants to be a man-hater, and our stories didn’t do much to change her mind.
I can see now that Peta and I had been affected by the stigma too. Peta was self-conscious of everyone knowing she was a feminist on the train and I felt the same. I was afraid that people would think I was loud, obnoxious and angry.
This kind of distancing seems to be a familiar story with public figures too. Many have come out saying they are against feminism. Lilly Allen in a 2014 interview for Shortlist said, “We’re all equal, everyone is equal. Why is there even a conversation about feminism? What’s the man version of feminism? There isn’t even a word for it.” While still others, including Katy Perry and Madonna have admitted they think the word is too strong.
Even Taylor Swift, the poster girl for a teenage role model, now open about her feminist beliefs, has revealed her previous misunderstandings. Speaking about Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign (more on that later) Swift boldly said, “I wish when I was 12 years old I would’ve been able to watch a video of my favourite actress explaining in such an intellectual, beautiful, poignant way the definition of feminism because I would’ve understood it, and then earlier on in my life I would have proudly claimed that I was a feminist because I would have understood what the word means.”
Upon reflection, what my friends expressed and what I’ve seen amongst these celebrity figures – this self-consciousness at one end and dismissal of feminism at the other – is a key indicator of our wider cultural distancing to feminism as a whole. To me, this social distancing culminated in the 2013 Internet explosion: WomenAgainstFeminism. Since then a growing community of young girls are filling social media feeds with seflies holding handmade placards inscribed, “I don’t need feminism because” followed by whatever reason they deemed necessary. An early analysis of a week’s worth of posts grouped the girls concerns into four categories. 46 per cent identified as egalitarian, 19 per cent were concerned with men’s issues, 12 per cent criticised feminists attitude towards those who disagreed with them and 23 per cent offered traditional values and gender roles as their main offence.
So, what are we to make of this culture of young women who are dismissing feminism, but not necessarily equality? Is this a representation issue that can be fixed or are we as a society simply moving on and choosing not to support the movement any longer. To understand these questions I strongly believe we need to give context. Feminism is a historical movement that has always involved opposition as well as internal disagreement about what methods to use.
When Marsha Lear coined the terms first and second wave feminism through her infamous 1968 New York Times Magazine article titled, “The Second Feminist Wave,” she opened up dialogue framing feminism as an evolutionary practice. She distinguished the two waves as separate unique expressions. They did not have the same goals and were not facing the same challenges. Enfranchisement and the gains of the first wave acted as a launching pad into the social and cultural issues second-wavers were attempting to navigate. Lear’s view of feminism presented it as multifaceted, allowing different approaches, understandings and necessary meanings.
As a movement, feminism dates back to the Victorian era, where women rallied against the restraints of the role of women in the ‘domestic sphere.’ The Langham Place Circle was started in 1859 as the first organised group of women standing for gender equality. These women helped prepare ladies for the workforce, campaigned for women’s rights to property, education and custody of children after divorce. The suffrage movement gained momentum in the last years of the Victorian era too.
It took nearly 100 years for activists to win the right to vote. Many women were involved in anti-slavery campaigns and realised they were fighting for rights they did not have themselves. At the end of the civil war, feminist activists were split into two camps. The National Woman Suffrage Association refused to support the 15th amendment until it included females too. They allied with the racist South who wanted to give women the vote in order to neutralise votes by African-Americans. Meanwhile The American Woman Suffrage Association were pro-15th amendment, believing it unfair to endanger the black enfranchisement by tying it to women’s suffrage. Eventually the groups merged to create the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
New approaches arose, some women now arguing that women should have a vote because they were different to men, not the same. They could use their vote to create a more moral and maternal America. Other political agenda’s affected feminism during this time too, such as the rise of communism. This produced a sector of feminists with a definite socialist slant, focusing on the working-class women and class struggle.
By 1910 some states began to extend the vote to women but even at this point there was resistance. It took yet another blitz campaign in 1916 by NAWSA to keep the momentum going. At this time radical offshoots were gaining publicity for the movement via hunger strikes, parades, marches, and picketing the White House. And finally on August 26, 1920 the law that allowed women to vote was passed.
Anti-feminists in this time included both men and women who came against changing gender roles. They argued feminism was detrimental to conservative religious beliefs.
Even in the early stages, women were concerned with other areas of equality and the implications of their own movement. Different groups had different ideas about methods, which caused tension. These tensions and concerns can still be seen within the WomenAgainstFeminism placards.
Second-Wave Feminists broadened their scope from just women’s legal rights and entered into the murky waters of social and cultural change. Originating in the 1960s in the United States, the movement later progressed to other western countries. Wide ranges of issues were addressed within this time frame including sexuality, the workplace, reproductive rights and de facto inequalities. Women’s lives have been changed socially, economically and politically as a direct result from this wave of the women’s liberation movement.
Collective societal memory and recorded history of these times are still points of contention. Jennifer Hall Lee, an independent filmmaker in LA released her documentary Feminist: Stories from the Women’s Liberation in response to this disparity. She describes on her website the moment this became clear for herself, “Seeing the need to fill in the gaps of my visual knowledge about the women’s liberation movement, I decided to make a film.” In an article published in Time magazine she refers to another moment, reading her daughter’s fourth grade history book. Within a six-page chapter titled “A Call for Equality” the women’s movement is reduced to a single sentence, “Women also spoke out against unequal treatment in the 1960s.”
This issue, says Lee, is epitomized in the bra burning myth. In 1968 women marched in protest of the Miss America Pageant. Women brought an array of items including bras, pots and pans, mops, hair curlers, false eyelashes and Playboy magazines that represented the male-dominated culture that was promoting rigid ideals of femininity and beauty. These items were thrown in a “freedom trash can” on the Atlantic City boardwalk, outside of the pageant. There was an intention to burn the items in the bin but due to restrictions they chose not to. In reporting the events, a New York Post article titled “Bra Burners and Miss America” drew comparisons between the women’s liberation movement and the Vietnam War protesters who burnt their draw cards. The organizers of the protest event welcomed the comparison as the two movements were very closely correlated. However, it has now become synonymous trope for the entire women’s movement, pointing to the fact that we do not remember or have not learned the true facts of the time.
During this event, pamphlets were passed around to onlookers. “No More Miss America!” by Robin Morgan listen ten aspects of the Miss America Pageant that degraded women. The pamphlet has now been canonised within the field of women’s studies, as it was the first published work to share the movement’s ideals and consequently presented the numerous problems that women had to overcome at that time. These included unfair gender roles, stereotypical and degrading beauty standards, issues with racism, capitalism and war, oppressive standards of success and the favourable representation of oppression.
Though it was a solidified movement through the 60s and 70s, the subsequent years saw it diversify again. Sarah Banet-Weiser, a post-feminism theorist, has said, “It is abundantly clear to me that how old you are will dictate the conversation you are having about feminism.” This statement was understood in the BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour conversation with Germaine Greer and Julie Burchill in 1999. They made it clear that this inter-generational debate is nothing new. “Differences in class, education, opportunities and generation will shape different kinds of feminisms,” said Stephanie Hodgson-Wright. Still others have called feminism multi-faceted and chaotic, a creature with many faces. And all the while opposition has never really gone away.
So where are we now? Current feminism is the product of this long, bendy history, full of contention and struggle as well as many parallel movements and offshoots. And yet there is still that social distancing – the uncomfortable associations and issues of awkwardness and shame. The word feminism can scarcely be brought up in conversation without a knowing eye roll or smirk. People don’t want to know about it – women included.
Stigma is a big problem; I see this not only in my own friendships but also in the fact that prominent feminist women are talking about it too. Engaging with feminist voices whether through reading or talking helps to give context and form understanding and meanings. It promotes self-reflexivity and openness and plugs you into ideas that are constantly evolving with time.
Currently, one of the biggest campaigns interested in combating the stigma is Emma Watson’s UN Women campaign, HeForShe. Watson made headlines in September 2014 after the speech that launched this campaign went viral. Vanity Fair dubbed her speech as “Game-Changing” and many others followed suit as YouTube clips filled social media feeds the world over.
Watson explicitly entered into the conversation of representation by addressing inclusivity as a main feature in both her keynote speech and subsequent campaign. She boldly declared, “Fighting women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating” before reciting a definition of feminism as simply gender equality. She added, “Feminism has become an unpopular word, women are choosing not to identify as feminist” because of this poor representation, feminists are seen as, “too strong, too aggressive, isolating and anti-men.”
Her entire message focussed of nullifying the problematic image of feminists. Presenting the movement as inclusive and open – it’s not what you think! She even went so far as to say the word feminism is not even important, but the meaning and the idea behind it. She ended her speech with this, “If you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists that I spoke of earlier and I applaud you, we are struggling for a uniting word but we have a uniting movement. It is called HeForShe. I am inviting you to step forward to be seen and to ask yourselves if not me, who? If not now, when?”
Watson was very carefully chosen for this speech; she already has a huge, loyal and passionate fan base and is seen as an ideal role model for young women. Aspirational figures are extremely important in framing the views, stances and understanding of feminism. Put simply, if the sweet-natured and well-loved Emma Watson is declaring she’s a feminist – you should too. By all accounts Watson has been very successful in mobilising a new generation of feminist supporters, who are following suit in discussing the representation of feminism and what it means to them.
One of these new generation recruits is Ellie Munro, a photographer and artist based in Glasgow. Munro recently launched her latest portrait series through an article in In Bloom titled The F Word. She commented positively in her article about what Emma Watson has been accomplishing saying, “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from Emma Watson … it’s that fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself” a quote from the infamous Hermione in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Munro’s contribution to feminism though this project is largely focused on the idea of representation and stigma. “There’s been a lot of negativity surrounding the word feminism. I’d like to change that. I’m offering a portrait to anyone who considers themselves a proud feminist,” she said. Through the series she hopes to showcase a wide variety of people in order to prove there are no rules, “It is important that those unsure of, or intimidated by the word, know who we are, and what we stand for.” In the end, she just wants to share what feminism really means to her “within this surge of positive online influence, misinformation is being spread like wildfire,” said Munro.
And she is just one of the many young people pouring their skills into the mission of setting things straight, redefining feminism, educating the masses. A quick Google search will reveal a wealth of articles with titles, “Five Young Women That Are Redefining Feminism,” “Feminism Redefined,” “Redefining Feminism for the Modern Day” and the list goes on.
In a 2014 panel on International Women’s Day, Lisa Markwell, the editor of UK journal The Independent, said the most important step for feminism in the previous year was, “the quiet, ongoing evolution from feminism being a cap-F ghetto, perceived as being populated by shrill ‘sisters’, to it being a solid supporting wall for women everywhere.”
Amy Dobson, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Queensland who works with social media and gender studies said, “If feminism needs rebranding for a wider audience, I think this might be more to do with the way feminist ideas have been misappropriated, misrepresented, over-complicated, and commodified. Public representation of political movements and what they stands for is always a worthwhile conversation and is actually ‘constitutive’ of movements, rather than a separate activity.”
Clearly people are talking about the representation of feminism, and its public stigma. Clearly this is affecting people and the way they interact and engage with feminism.
But does conversation mean it is inherently important?
Not everyone thinks so.
Many feminists believe it’s a time waster. Taking over valuable time and energy that can be used for causing effectual change. Criticism and anti-feminist movements have always been predominant within its history, it’s not necessarily important to individually address each one.
Clementine Ford, a freelance writer who has written for The Age, The Daily Life and is a frequent guest on ABC 774, posted on her blog about defending against the man-hating label. She said, “It is distracting and circular – we are kept defending ourselves against the label, no matter how many times we prove it’s not true, and we will keep being forced to defend ourselves because it’s a convenient way to keep women afraid and to stop them from actually organising and getting shit done.”
However, in an interview with Right Now, Ford revealed that she too had at a time been fearful of the label of feminism. “If I called myself a feminist then I wasn’t the right kind of woman – I was a scary woman, I was a threatening woman, I was unattractive, all those kinds of things. I realised that was all the stuff I wanted to fight against,” she said.
Unfortunately, this kind of story seems overwhelmingly familiar now.
Interestingly, Ford also wrote for The Age criticising Emma Watson’s campaign. She wrote, “Whatever benefits Watson’s speech may have in regard to inspiring a new generation of young feminists (and that is unquestionably an achievement), it is offensive and farcical to suggest that equality and change will come for women “as a natural consequence” of men being supported to get their feelings in order.”
She was also critical of the lack of statistical evidence in both the speech and on the corresponding HeForShe website. It is telling of our current interests that we as part of the Internet feminism age will participate in conversation about social justice when a well-known, almost nostalgic, actress presents and empowering speech lacking any real substance or statistical evidence.
And she’s not the only one.
Helen Razor, an Australian journalist and author, has posted repeatedly on the meaninglessness of popular, contemporary feminism. In an article for Ideas at the House, she posed the question, “What if nothing happens? What if revulsion for my gender is embedded so deeply in us that a few changes to the culture industry — an empowering pop song here, a fiery politician there — do nothing?” Pointing to the fact that there is no “proof” that presenting feminism as suitable and welcoming will have any real effect. On the current trends in Internet feminism she said,“I think “Internet feminism” is fucking useless and not most because it tries to be nice. But because it foolishly believes in its own power.”
Importantly, Razor is concerned that the label feminism has become flimsy and superficial, claimed by women as publicity stints. For example Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech could be seen as quite meaningless when in the same afternoon, the Social Security Legislation Amendment affected 100,000 sole parents who are overwhelmingly female. Razor dubbed this as nothing more than “a pitch that worked, temporarily, to elevate her approval” In light of this, and other examples, Razor is concerned that the reality of feminism “that comes before the symbol, is something that has been eclipsed by contemporary feminism.”
This concerns me too. I am wary of a movement so closely acquainted with social media. Have we become so focused on including everyone, that we’ve lost the very thing that made us feminists in the first place, namely desire for change? What are the implications of a generation who have made their pledge on an Internet site stating “I am HeForShe” and yet are not rallying in real life? It is certainly hopeful that men are identifying in this way, but how far does this hope go? I have similar reservations about trending hashtags, which have become increasingly popular through campaigns like the everyday sexism project.
This project has its own website and live feed cataloguing any instances or sexism experienced in day-to-day life. The hashtag has taken to other social media outlets as well. Overwhelming amounts of women reported sexual harassment from all over the world. Ryan Bowles Eagle from California State University said in an essay on the topic, “The effect of reading so many similar stories in such sheer numbers, different voices testifying to similar experiences from diverse places, serves as powerful evidence for the pervasiveness of violence against women—evidence that cannot be easily silenced.”
Of course I think raising awareness and creating a space for conversation are incredibly important and useful aspects of the Internet and hashtags are extremely helpful in achieving both. However, the simplification of issues by this medium is concerning and I don’t think activism should be simplified down to a re-tweet. These are the main two issues raised by critics of hashtag activism, particularly in campaigns undertaken by privileged onlookers, rather than those directly affected.
The 2015 volume of Feminist Media Studies included six essays that emphasised the potential of feminist hashtags for exposing gendered violence and oppression, creating space for discussion and challenging commonplace understanding. To my surprise the critiques were overwhelmingly in support of this phenomenon.
Sherri Williams said, “Social media hashtags bring attention to black women’s issues when traditional mainstream media newspaper articles and television stories ignore [them].” In another essay titled, #JusticeforLiz: Power and Privilege in Digital Transnational Women’s Rights Activism, Eleanor Tiplady Higgs shared the story of ‘Liz’, a sixteen-year old Kenyan victim of gang-rape and serious physical abuse. Despite her formal police report and naming three of her six attackers, Liz’s case was not taken to court. The three named offenders were given a punishment of cutting grass outside the police station. Terry Kunina at the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW) and Nebila Abdulmelik at the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) caught wind of the story and immediately gave ‘Liz’ physical support. They started an online petition for justice which was shared along with her story around the world via #JusticeforLiz. More than one million signatures were obtained. A protest in Nairobi was also a part of the campaign that led to ‘Liz’s’ case being taken to court.
These successes are evidence that hashtag activism has a place – as a tool for prompting meaningful conversation and action that can be successful. However, we should be mindful of the implications of the tool.
The Internet has always afforded diversity and accessibility like no other “real-life” community has. It is full of niche communities, all with slightly different views and opinions on gender, feminism and representation. And with this freedom comes the freedom to oppose.
While there are of course conservative anti-feminists groups and those who are standing for men’s rights, such as the Independent Women’s Forum and antifeminist.com, WomenAgainstFeminism is the most interesting niche to me.
Many feminists branded this particular group of opposition as particularly ignorant as their claims seemed unfounded and ill informed. Most responded with attempts to inform them, saying that feminism is the belief in social, economic and political equality that the WomenAgainstFeminism are declaring they want.
It’s true, I find myself scrolling through the endless stream of selfies wondering how they can be so confused. Many of the girls are examples of the kind of collective misunderstanding I experience with my eye-rolling friends. They seem ignorant of the purpose of feminism and even the very definition of it. For me, feminism answers many of the questions raised by these women, it isn’t the reason for them. And yet, what I find interesting about this group is that many of them do understand the dictionary definition of feminism. They even sarcastically respond to feminists trying to correct them with a big, fat, I know. To them the real-life meaning of feminism has overtaken whatever dictionary definition a well-intentioned feminist can conjure up. To WomenAgainstFeminism, feminism has become the vilification of men and the presentation of women as victims rather than empowered. They still stand for equality; they just want to leave the mess behind, which is why many claim egalitarianism instead. They are the ultra-modern postfeminists.
And though I’m sure many of my friends would never post on this site, I think some of them have a similar understanding to these girls. The image of feminists, the bra-burners, the angry picketers, the incessant socialists, those who joke about hating men ironically, has turned them off the movement.
Instinctively I want to dismiss this anti-feminist movement as silly, but in the end I think its very existence is saying something about the state of feminism, and the reason campaigns like HeForShe exist, and must continue. These concerns need to be engaged in order to make meaningful changes to the action of Feminism in the future, not dismissed or judged. Not only because of its very public nature but also because of its common one. The same issues present in a movement like this are present in feminists who are afraid to read literature on the train and talk about it with their dads. They are present with my friends and they are present in me.
Postfeminists in the 90s got this too. Armed with their current, post-modern, and neo-liberal tendencies, they questioned cultural paradigms – even radical ones. It empowered women to choose to engage in activities generally seen as oppressive by the feminist foremothers. Generally pop-culture references are used such as Sex and the City and Bridgette Jones’ Diary to describe what a post-feminist looks like. This is because generally what it constitutes has always been a little uncertain. The movement can be described as a backlash to feminism, a shift within feminism or as the fulfilment of feminism altogether. This contradictory and unfixed meaning points grew out of the evolutionary nature of feminism as well as the struggles women were having relating to it.
In lots of ways I grew up in the freedom that earlier feminists fought for. I didn’t have a sense of pride for being a feminist as it seemed quite normal to live in equal opportunity for me. My parents had created a feminist environment without telling me it was one. It was just normal. Both my parents worked for most of my childhood but there were periods where either one of them would stay at home. I never felt as if either of my parent’s careers were more important as we alternated moving cities for each of their job opportunities. First my father, then my mother, then my father again and so on. And in terms of my development, I was treated individually, different to my brother because we are different. My parents encouraged us both to go into areas that we wanted to go. They never said we couldn’t do something because of our genders.
For me this speaks only of success of what first and second wave feminists have accomplished. I feel privileged and thankful to be living in the fruits of their sacrifice. It is from this place that post feminism has its merits for me. So much has been accomplished for so many people and there is real tangible freedom. However, I am of course wary that this may be an experience only true in the west. But even here it’s not finished yet.
It’s hard to believe that there are people out there who would truly say that equality has successfully been achieved. But it’s not too hard to understand that people have outgrown the construct that is feminism, whether that is reflexively by offence or thoughtfully by aligning with different frameworks.
Angela McRobbie, a critic of postfeminism in practice, says that the very name ‘postfeminism’ seems to undermine the strides feminism has made in achieving equality as well as give the impression that it has already be achieved. However, she does think it can and does simultaneously appear to engage “in a well‐informed and even well‐intended response to feminism.” This is similar to the thinking I have surrounding the WomenAgaisntFeminism movement. It is clear they intend to undermine feminism as a movement whilst simultaneously offering their own response and call for change.
Through postfeminism there was feminism reflexivity. The assumed binary opposition of femininity and feminists, the stance on sexuality and the essentialist traits of the second-wave were all being explored.
McRobbie originally saw this “distance from feminism” as one of potential, where a lively dialogue about how feminism might develop. However, over time she recognised the “non‐identity with feminism [had] consolidated into something closer to repudiation rather than ambivalence.”
And here after a time of repudiation, we find ourselves in a mishmash, myriad of competing thought. A generation who grew up in postfeminist society, estranged from our foremothers who fought for our freedom and yet still faced with crushing statistics of violence and oppression for our sisters overseas and at home. This hyper-sexualised world that we are active free agents in is still constraining us to roles and limits. Our collective memory of feminists put them on equal (though potentially opposing) standings as bible-bashers and door knocking salesmen. Yet, feminism is still here.
Responding to all of this in order to move forward is exceedingly difficult. By accepting that feminism is evolutionary and choosing to engage with all areas of thought and contention as they arise we maintain the multi-faceted, hard to define enigma. We must become more representative of other cultures and nationalities but at the same time be aware of outsider privilege and only speak about issues that concern us directly. We must now encourage women’s right to have pleasurable sex but at the same time fight for protection from sexual abuse and objectification. We mustn’t confine feminism to anti-beauty but at the same time argue that beauty standards are oppressive. Just as each of these issues is intricate and complex, so must the conversation be about moving forward.
Watson’s HeForShe, Munro’s art project and the multitude of articles, projects and movements addressing representation are steps in the right direction. But they aren’t everything, how could they be? They are addressing one aspect of this multi level conversation. Misrepresentation isn’t the only reason women are choosing not to identify with the word feminism. Postfeminism and its current expression of egalitarianism and other streams through the WomenAgainstFeminism campaign speak about real concerns with the system of feminism, and its true cultural meaning. These need to be addressed too.
It is important to say that I do not think any of these concerns or shortcomings takes away from the incredible need for feminism. We are currently still in a world where women are discriminated against based on gender, economically, socially, sexually, physically and culturally to varying degrees across the globe. We still need feminism. We still need equality. There has not been universal success. But we should be open for discussion about how to achieve this. And I think largely we are. The Internet affords a huge open landscape for the development and sharing of ideas however opposing, different or unusual. But we have to be willing to listen. We have to actively engage with the discussion in order for feminism to make its next evolutionary move.