What does feminism truly mean to you?
With Women’s History Month in full swing, it is imperative that we take an honest look at ourselves and the society that we live in. The influx of the #girlboss identity has taken Millennial social media into a chokehold. Between adulting, deciding which Harry Potter house they are a part of, or being confused by Gen Z and our trends, Millennials surely have a knack for taking one trend or phrase and creating an identity from it.
The issue with this theme is that while the intention is based on fun, the overall effect can be damaging. Reducing topics such as feminism to that of a catchy hashtag detracts the importance of it. Therefore, we need to clear up a few things.
To put it simply, feminism is defined as advocating for women’s rights based on equality among the genders.
It is the belief in women’s equality among other genders, based specifically in politics, culture and economics. It does not mean that those who identify as women are superior to other genders; it works towards equality among all of them. While feminism did not have its technical name until around the 1890s, the fight for women to have equal rights began years prior.
Similar to other movements in history, feminism is broken into three waves. Each of these waves analyzes the overarching issue within society at that specific time.
The first wave centered around property rights and women’s suffrage. When looking at the latter, think back to Seneca Falls (1848), where women advocated for their right to vote. Women famously earned the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment. This time period is also marked by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a culmination of years of work to grant women the ability to not only seek greater participation in the workplace but also be paid at the same rate as their male counterparts. (Spoiler Alert: This is still a battle today. But I digress.)
The second wave aimed to tackle discrimination and overall inequality. Betty Friedan famously addressed these issues in her book, The Feminine Mystique. She, like many of her counterparts at the time, argued that the progress in the first wave of feminism was not enough. Specifically, women were continually being pushed into jobs typically associated with femininity such as child-rearing or secretarial roles. This wave is notable because it birthed both the Equal Rights Amendment and the SCOTUS decision of Roe v. Wade. While the Equal Rights Amendment did not gain enough Congressional support to be signed into law, the decision of Roe v. Wade marked the option for women to choose whether or not they wanted to seek an abortion.
The third wave began in response to the doctoring of the feminist movement to appeal most heavily to white, privileged women. While the remnants of all three waves can be found in today’s discussions, this one is the most prevalent. For centuries, minority women have been left out of the conversation when it comes to equality. For reference, although Susan B. Anthony is often credited for advocating for women’s right to vote, she is also a documented racist. She attempted to distance herself from Frederick Douglass (a formerly enslaved man who came to be known in the fight for suffrage and abolition) and their work together, playing into the idea that if women earned the right to vote, they could help their male counterparts stifle the Black vote.
This wave also includes the Me-Too Movement and women’s marches, specifically tackling the parameters placed on women to quietly accept their oppression in society. The work is ongoing, and it is necessary.
While each of these waves was pivotal in their own right, they ultimately bring up my next point.
Your feminism means absolutely nothing if it lacks intersectionality.
As I mentioned before, feminists such as Anthony worked on behalf of women who looked like them, rather than for the benefit of all women. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a celebrated law professor, said that intersectional feminism is “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.”
This quote, in its bare bones, exposes the existence of many individuals. As a society, we tend to think of minorities fitting into one box, rather than holding multiple identities in their person. For instance, one of my friends is a racial minority, while also being in the LGBTQIA+ community. Both of these portions of her identity may be different, yet they are woven together through her. Separation is impossible.
Beyond the acknowledgment of different identities, there also needs to be an honest look at the historical oppression faced by different groups. My oppression as a Black woman will be distinctly different from my white counterparts, and even still from my fellow women of color. This divergence must be applied to other minority labels as well, whether it be LGBTQIA+ issues, disability rights, religious identities, etc.
Intersectional feminism can be looked at even further when it comes down to the equity and inclusion portion of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). While most people (and let’s be honest, corporations) prefer to aim for diversity, intersectional feminism calls on us to engage in equity and inclusion. Not all injustice is the same, and not all inequality is made equal. Equity teaches us to take into account the specific struggles held by different groups, rather than handing down a blanket solution for everyone and calling it a day. When looking at inclusion, we must acknowledge disparities that might make an experience contrasted from everyone else.
All in all, intersectionality forces us to not be lazy; it means that we must work that much harder to right the wrongs of the past. This leads me to my final point.
If your feminism is based on judging other people, then you need to reanalyze your place in the movement.
Contrary to the narrative pushed by so many, being a feminist does not mean that you have to be the boss of a Fortune500 company. It does not mean that you need to become President of the United States or an award-winning doctor. Feminism means that you get to exist in whatever realm of identity that you are comfortable with.
Most people equate being a strong woman with having no personality. It means “knowing what we want,” being headstrong, and having small quips in order to dispel our femininity. Personally, I blame a lot of this image on movies. We need to understand that this tired trope only serves as the push against feminism. It pushes the idea that someone can only be worthy if they are taking on traits typically associated with masculinity.
Women should have complete agency to decide the path they wish to take in their lives. Regardless of whether or not this means becoming the boss or becoming a stay-at-home mom, their decisions and stories are just as worthy as the next.
I am committed to fighting for this right.
Before I end this, I would just like to insert a quote from Meg March, one of the sisters at the center of Little Women.
“Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.”
My version of feminism is one where women have total autonomy over their lives and the people that they wish to become. What about you?