Why Feminism Is Still Important (or, why I hate the word “equalist”)

1 Nov

Last night I was flipping through Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips (which, by the way, is probably her best book of short stories). In the middle of Uncles, I came across a brief exchange between two characters, one of whom is trying to convince the other to write a guest piece on feminism for his newspaper:

“This would be a different angle.” There was a pause; she imagined him polishing his glasses. “It would be – now that the women’s movement has accomplished its goals, isn’t it time to talk about men, and the ways they’ve been hurt by it?”

“Percy,” she said carefully, “where do you get the idea that the women’s movement has accomplished its goals?”

I feel like this is a conversation that I’ve been having for most of my adult life. For someone who came of age in the 90s and early 2000s, it can be hard to explain to other people why feminism is still necessary. Many of our bigger, more obvious goals – voting rights for women, the ability to own land, equal education for girls, and more control over our own reproductive systems – have, in the western world, largely been achieved. The landscape of third-wave feminism, which began in the early 90s and continues today, is often confusing and tricky to navigate. Some third-wavers question whether “feminism”, a term that might be limiting and can seem as if it’s promoting oppressive gender roles, should even be used. On top of that, it often feels like the current incarnation of the feminist movement has devolved into petty bickering about whether or not mothers should stay at home, or how a “real” woman is supposed to give birth.

So why even call yourself a feminist anymore?

I know a lot of women – smart, strong, progressive women, women that previously self-identified as feminists – who no longer use that label. People want to distance themselves from the negative connotations that surround the term “feminism”, or else they don’t want to seem as if they’re only interested in women’s rights. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that they’d prefer to be called a “humanist” instead; in fact, this past weekend, a good friend said wistfully to me, “I wish society was at a place where I could call myself an equalist instead of a feminist, but I guess we’re not there yet, huh?”

On the surface, these arguments seem to make sense. I mean, you catch more flies with honey, etc. If using different terminology means that more people are willing to work towards equality, then that must be a good thing, right? I mean, let’s be honest – the term feminist conjures up images of angry women burning their bras, or intimidating women stomping around in army boots telling men what’s what. Feminism is often equated with hating men, or with the idea that women are the superiorsex. In contemporary mythology, stereotypical feminists only make up for their lack of a sense of humour with their surfeit of untamed body hair.

Here’s the thing, though: calling yourself an “equalist” slides you right back into all those traditional gender roles that society wants you to be in. Being an “equalist” ensures that you won’t intimidate anybody, that people won’t see you as someone who goes against the grain. It turns you into a smiling, apologetic woman who says things like, “but I just want everyone to have equality – men and women.” It makes you totally non-offensive, and as such, takes away a lot of your power. Women who describe themselves as equalists strike me as people who are afraid of conflict and who, above all, want to be liked; men who call themselves that strike me as people who want to deny all the challenges that women still face.

When we talk about equality, in a lot of cases men are already hold the standard that women are trying to achieve. It was only last year that women working for Canada Post won the right to equal pay – and this, by the way, stemmed from a case that was filed in 1983. The New York Times recently reported that a a heavy and persistent bias against women still exists in the scientific community; most troublingly, this bias is upheld and perpetuated by just as many women as men, which goes to show you how deeply misogyny is ingrained in our culture. Women still have to be afraid when walking alone at night; hell, we have to be afraid when out at a bar with a friend, or out on a date, or in almost any situation when we encounter a man alone. We live in a culture where women have to fear for our safety in ways that I don’t think men will ever understand.

And, of course, our reproductive rights are always, always in jeopardy.

All of that is only the stuff that’s happening here at home – what about the challenges facing women in other parts of the world? Countries where women have to fight for the right to drive, or work outside the home, or walk around in public with their hair uncovered? Countries where terrorist organizations shoot little girls in the head just because they want to go to school? There are places where just being a woman is treated as if it’s a crime.

This isn’t to say that there are no issues facing men – to the contrary, gender stereotyping certainly affects men as well as women. But when we start talking about equality for men, it often comes to dominate the conversation, derailing any attempts to discuss the ongoing inequalities faced by women. We need our own space to talk about what’s happening to women today; we need our own conversation about issues that are unique to us. We need feminism.

Look, I’ll be honest: I wish we lived in a world where just talking about concepts like equality meant promoting the rights of women everywhere. I wish that we didn’t have to use labels like feminist or pro-choice; I wish that we could just trust people to be sensible human beings and look out for each other. We don’t live in that world, though. Not even close. In spite of the progress we’ve seen over the last few generations, the feminist movement still has a long way to go before it achieves its goals.

Maybe someday we will live in a world where half the world’s the population doesn’t have to suffer simply because they’re women – I mean, I guess anything’s possible, right? That’s what we’re fighting for, right? Until that time, though, I plan on being an intimidating, humourless (though admittedly body-hair-free) feminist.

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23 Responses to “Why Feminism Is Still Important (or, why I hate the word “equalist”)”

  1. annie November 1, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    “Women who describe themselves as equalists strike me as people who are afraid of conflict and who, above all, want to be liked; men who call themselves that strike me as people who want to deny all the challenges that women still face.” – yup, i hear ya there.

    there was a study done on the patriarchal bias in professional theatre as well, just a couple of years ago. everyone’s always talking about how there aren’t enough good female parts being written, resulting in a higher unemployment rate among women actors – so, there was a survey into why this is still a fact today. the findings showed that the vast majority of artistic directors, editors, and producers – INCLUDING the women – were much less likely to give the time of day to a new script written by a woman… in fact, just changing the playwright’s name to a male one instantly got the scripts twice as much attention. isn’t that sad? how are we supposed to make a difference to the way our stories are told, if we’re willingly playing ourselves down?

    feminism. not equalism. we haven’t earned that label.

    • bellejarblog November 5, 2012 at 2:32 am #

      Oh man, that is BANANAS. Also, really sad. I think that one of the hardest pills to swallow is how much sexism colours the way women see other women, too.

      Man, this frigging world. I tells ya.

      • annie November 6, 2012 at 4:03 am #

        i know. i think about this constantly. i think about this and try to check myself because, by god, i’m just as fucked up as everybody else.

        did you read this? http://roxanegay.tumblr.com/post/28510427080/how-to-be-friends-with-another-woman
        i posted it a long time ago, i can’t remember if you commented or not. i think everyone who grew up female needs to refer to it as a step-by-step guide in weaning oneself off inherited sexism.

    • Jordan February 5, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

      Have you seen this?

      Bechdel Movie Test:

      1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
      2. Who talk to each other
      3. About something besides a man

      http://bechdeltest.com/

  2. shannon November 1, 2012 at 11:32 pm #

    I have heard this so many times in my circle, and it’s always rubbed me wrong, but I’ve never been able to articulate why. And as someone who DOES want to be liked and who IS afraid of rocking the boat (especially with men), I have been prone to head nod and think, “Damn, maybe humanism is a better way?”

    Thanks for writing this. I am the most eager pupil in the schoolhouse of Mme Theriault. 🙂

    • bellejarblog November 5, 2012 at 2:33 am #

      Haha thanks! I wish I had a real schoolhouse, and old-timey clothes and a giant bouffant hairdo. That would be awesome.

      I think it’s also important to note that people can be both feminists AND equalists/humanists. They’re not mutually exclusive! I just think we really need our own space to talk about our own issues.

  3. sarahdaigen November 3, 2012 at 1:50 am #

    I’ll admit to preferring the term equalism or humanism – but for different reasons and from a different perspective than others. I am not afraid to rock the boat or stand up for what I believe in – and you’re right in the big picture, women still have a lot to fight for, and within strictly that paradigm I will still use the term feminism. But more in the sense of I don’t think any one oppressed group holds a grip on oppression. I don’t want to speak of women’s rights at the expense of black rights, or LGBT rights, or Native rights … and yes; while I will never argue even today that women are further ahead than men (the fear of walking anywhere by oneself alone is enough to acknowledge that), there are some (very unique, individual) circumstances where boys/men have it a BIT rougher than girls – it is more socially acceptable for example, to be a tomboy, than to be a boy who plays with dolls. I guess my point is, in areas large and small, I tend to embrace the equality concept more than straight-up feminism not so much out of fear, or wanting to be liked, or to avoid an argument, as a desire to take a bigger picture view and ensure we’re lifting everyone up, not just ourselves – not just as a fig leaf to also speak of the poor oppressed menfolk. I think you make a compelling case that as long as women are in a uniquely difficult situation worldwide, ‘feminism’ is still an incredibly important term to be embraced; I just don’t think it’s the end of the story, nor is it a sign of over-niceness, to want, as you do, a world in the bigger picture where terms like “feminism”, or for that matter “gay marriage” (isn’t it just plain old marriage? as long as we use that term, it’s inherently seen as different), or what have you, are just rendered obsolete in favour of ‘live and let live’ in harmony.

    • bellejarblog November 5, 2012 at 2:41 am #

      Yeah, that’s fair, I just feel like we’re not far enough along to say, “well, I’m an equalist, I support everybody”. Also, I should mention (should’ve mentioned it in the post itself), that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can define yourself as a feminist AND define yourself as an equalist. Just because I’m passionate about women’s rights doesn’t mean that I don’t fight for the rights of anyone else, know what I mean?

      I often find that the term “equalist” is used as a way to shut discussions of feminism down, and I think that at this point in time it’s still important for women to have their own space to talk about their own issues. And I think that gender equality will go a long way to solving the problems that you’ve mentioned men have to face – the fact that any kind of feminine trait is seen as lessening their status. I think that dismantling gender roles will go a long way towards not seeing women as “lesser” and men as “greater” (and thus not seeing playing with dolls, etc., as “lesser).

      Plus I kind of like it that people find the term feminism intimidating. There aren’t a whole lot of times in my life when I get to intimidate other people 🙂

      • Jordan February 5, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

        It’s an excellent point and I feel compelled to expand upon it a little bit in case its weight might be missed…

        Girls are allowed to dress like tomboys because masculinity is the ideal. It’s the same reason that it seems admirable when a woman is, for example, cold and aggressive with executive decision-making in a business context. I use this example because I feel that, though men have been culturally assigned the traits of aggression and the suppression of empathy, I don’t think it actually belongs in either gender, and certainly not both. There are many problems with our definitions of masculinity that I think need to be addressed head-on, and when women strive to be equal in that sense, I don’t think it does anyone any justice.

        That’s just my opinion, though. And of course it doesn’t extend to “dressing like a tomboy,” aka, wearing pants, I guess? It’s just an example of the same bias with more drastic consequences. Any thoughts?

  4. The Syed Atheist August 8, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Syed Atheist.

  5. Ejhorne April 8, 2014 at 4:16 pm #

    Reblogged this on Miscellaneous Me and commented:
    This puts it a lot more eloquently than I could. It is well worth a read, and interesting food for thought.

  6. genderneutrallanguage April 8, 2014 at 7:35 pm #

    I disagree with your assessment. Simply put your version of feminism, the majority version of feminism, has become all about rocking the boat and getting in peoples faces and causing controversy. It has become so much about filling the role of stereotypical feminist that you have lost sight of the actual goal.

    The goal is to move us toward a more equal society. If this causes the boat to rock, so be it. The goal is not to rock the boat but to improve gender equality, if the label “Humanist” or “Egalitarian” does a better job of moving us closer to gender equality than these are the best labels to use. While changing course will cause the boat to rock, changing course is the goal, not rocking the boat.

  7. paulalindo May 14, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

    Reblogged this on Paula Lindo and commented:
    “Here’s the thing, though: calling yourself an “equalist” slides you right back into all those traditional gender roles that society wants you to be in. Being an “equalist” ensures that you won’t intimidate anybody, that people won’t see you as someone who goes against the grain. It turns you into a smiling, apologetic woman who says things like, “but I just want everyone to have equality – men and women.” It makes you totally non-offensive, and as such, takes away a lot of your power. Women who describe themselves as equalists strike me as people who are afraid of conflict and who, above all, want to be liked; men who call themselves that strike me as people who want to deny all the challenges that women still face.”

  8. Eny T. Zett May 16, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

    I fully agree with you on the fact that the women’s movement still has a looong way to go, as well as that our issues and struggles need a separate arena to be heard and should not be euphemized by being pigeonholed in the same category as men’s struggles. Most of the issues that specifically call for feminism are institutional and structural by nature.

    I do think that it is important to emphasize social and cultural norms, and on these terms I do believe that men’s struggles are very comparable to women’s struggles: All of us are subject to gender stereotypes, and since among women this is generally more know and fought against (although of course not enough) – I do dare to suggest that in this category it might be men who have a longer way to go.
    It is still hardly acceptable for them to cry, to be week, to be emotional, to stay at home and let the woman earn money and have a career – although all of these things are or might be very desirable to either gender. Men have hardly a chance when it comes to child custody after a divorce, it is often not even considered who of the parents has a closer emotional bond (this is anti-feminist as well, because it assumes that naturally the mother must have a closer bond with the children than the father).

    I am saying all this not in order to undermine the struggle of feminism – but I do want to argue that our fight is not one of ‘us’ against an ‘other’ – what we’re fighting against is marginalization, stereotypes, and social norms and expectations.
    On those terms, I love your idea of being a feminist and an equalist at the same time, but I believe that a more inclusive society can only be achieved by fighting against any type of gender stereotype.

  9. sammykur May 17, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    “”Here’s the thing, though: calling yourself an “equalist” slides you right back into all those traditional gender roles that society wants you to be in. Being an “equalist” ensures that you won’t intimidate anybody, that people won’t see you as someone who goes against the grain. It turns you into a smiling, apologetic woman who says things like, “but I just want everyone to have equality – men and women.” It makes you totally non-offensive, and as such, takes away a lot of your power. Women who describe themselves as equalists strike me as people who are afraid of conflict and who, above all, want to be liked; men who call themselves that strike me as people who want to deny all the challenges that women still face.”

    So your goal is to intimidateing people into doing what you want instead of having a real disscussion on what is fair and reasonable

    So infact your goal is to intimidate people into doing what YOU want. But by overreaching all the minority rights activist in the US have ensured every group large enough to gain fincial status will need to have a rights advocate group on its behalf.

    The real shame in all this is the real minorities that are oppressed are drown out by dumasses hollering about bullshit.

    for example off the top of my head pick any native american tribe or even them together as a whole.

  10. George Gillett May 18, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

    I think this article slightly misrepresents the arguments for using the word ‘humanist’ etc instead of feminist. Many people believe that the obsession with equality between men and women doesn’t really help the debate about gender discrimination.

    People are unique and individual and therefore suffer from gender stereotypes in often equally damaging, but different ways. To strive for a situation where men and women suffer equally from gender stereotypes seems disappointing when such energy and campaigning could be channelled into preventing the harmful effects of gender stereotyping which effect EVERYONE. To pitch ‘mens” and ‘womens” rights against each other resembles a divide and rule strategy more than anything – I just wish everyone could agree on ending gender stereotypes instead of ensuring that they affect men and women equally,

    If anyone wants to check out my article on this; http://georgegillett.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/lads-its-time-for-some-meninism/

  11. imadeiyamu August 27, 2014 at 1:10 am #

    amazing… i think that equalism and feminism are synonyms, it’s just the distortions that a lot of overzealous and misdirected feminists have given it. Feminism is about everybody having the same opportunities and no discrimination against men or women on any basis of gender. But a lotta feminists just think it’s about men vs. women & how girls can ‘reign supreme’. It’s co-operation, not competition.

  12. Natasha Kudryashova October 13, 2014 at 6:18 pm #

    Hate? Really?

    You “hate” a word that literally stands for equality for all, regardless of biological sex, social gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity?

    The word equalist is not apologist and does not promote or condone patriarchy. Equalism is about eliminating ALL forms of discrimination, not just about the discrimination against women. Discrimination against women does exist – so does discrimination against pretty much everyone else. In today’s world, you can face prejudice, harassment, violence and persecution for your country of origin, for the language you speak, for the colour of your skin, for your romantic and reproductive choices, for your faith and heaps of other things. And that is not right, and that is why we need equalism not just feminism.

    As an euqalist, I don’t hate feminism as a word or as a movement. I think we should be allies, and it saddens me when I see feminists get offended by the existence of a movement of which feminism is only an integral part.

    • Bradavon October 22, 2015 at 11:17 pm #

      Agreed. Very well put.

  13. Reina May 2, 2015 at 4:04 pm #

    Hahahahah like FUCK I won’t stand up for what I believe in! I fight EVERY single day about equal rights because I AM AN EQUALIST. This isn’t about men and women being equal, it’s about everyone. Colour, race, religion, age, gender. So if you want to tell me I’m going to conform to the old rules then you are just as bad as the extremists everybody hates.

  14. Bradavon October 22, 2015 at 11:16 pm #

    “Being an equalist ensures that you won’t intimidate anybody, that people won’t see you as someone who goes against the grain. It turns you into a smiling, apologetic woman who says things like, “but I just want everyone to have equality – men and women.”

    men who call themselves that strike me as people who want to deny all the challenges that women still face.”

    This is utter BS. It really doesn’t. It makes it clear you disagree with inequality in all it’s guises, not just one guise. Like it or not, male inequality absolutely exists too. Like when women attack their husbands. There’s plenty of youtube videos watching people laughing.

    As someone who believes in equality (feminism), why shouldn’t you speak out when inequality occurs no matter the source?

    I’m under no illusion that the world isn’t equal for women, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the times men are treated wrongly too. I’m not even suggesting, given the equality scale is tipped in the man’s favour it should be 50/50.

    p.s. The correct term is egalitarianism.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] for all of my friends who cringe at the word feminist, this one’s for you.  Anne explains, with her usual grace and style, why Feminism is still important, why […]

  2. Feminism as Religion: Proselytizing Through Oppression | Drink Deeper - January 30, 2015

    […] I then began to wonder, why not be an equalist? Isn’t that the same thing? Many feminists say no: the real issues are suffered by women, and the focus should remain there. I bring this up because […]

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