You can be a feminist

What pops into your head when you hear the word “feminist”? Do you conjure up a mob of angry man-hating women clad in something akin to Nazi garb? That seems to be the image in the minds of many Americans. It’s not, however, how most feminists see themselves.

Author Cheris Kramarae once defined feminism as “the radical notion that women are people too.” When Radford University students were asked to define the term, they gave a wide variety of responses.

“To me, feminism is a social movement towards mutual understanding and cooperation not only for women, but for all human beings,” said Caci Higgins, a senior at RU studying sociology. “We have a biological imperative to grow and adapt, but often don’t do so because it’s hard to stand against norms. Feminism gives me the personal courage to lead my peers into a new revolution of tolerance, understanding, respect, and above all, love for one another.”

The female symbol. Image from Creative Commons.

However, English major Justine Jackson voiced concerns that feminism creates divisiveness and distracts from achieving universal equality.

“I’m for equality for everyone. I think the term feminist doesn’t quite convey the idea of equal rights for everybody, but many people would disagree with me and say that it does,” she said.

Production technology major Kenneth Thomas said that feminism is confusing at times.

“I try to be chivalrous,” he said. “But it seems like some women take that the wrong way, and I don’t see why chivalry makes you a bad guy. At other times, it seems like some women prefer to be treated with respect, rather than as just one of the guys.”

Each of these viewpoints raises a valid point about feminism, and highlights a different facet of the movement. To some, feminism is a way to help people connect and to make the world a better place. To others, feminism can seem like an exclusionary club.

Like any movement advocating social change, feminism is going to annoy, offend and confuse people. It’s also a very powerful and very necessary vehicle for messages about gender equality.

To do the most possible good and get this message of equality out to the most people possible, feminism needs to be inclusive. It needs to be made clear that feminism is not only for women, and not only for women focused on their careers. Men, as well as women who choose to be homemakers, should be welcomed into the fold. But it’s important to note that inclusiveness should not mean tiptoeing around people who get offended.

Men have traditionally occupied a place of privilege in Western society (and still do, to a large degree) and this has to be recognized in order for progress to be made. It may be unpleasant to be called privileged or to have it insinuated that one’s behavior is (even unintentionally) sexist, but it’s nowhere near as problematic as the discrimination that continues against women in the workplace.

Only by welcoming everyone who wants to help, and helping people learn to avoid their mistakes rather than jumping to condemn them, will feminism attract those who haven’t personally felt the sting of gender discrimination. The other side of the coin is that only when these people are willing to take action will these gender issues be confronted and conquered. Only by showing the world that feminists come in all ages, ranks and serial numbers – in other words, that feminists are just normal human beings – will society stop stigmatizing those who dare to suggest that women are people too.