March is Women’s History Month – and if you’ve been paying attention you might’ve noticed a lot of history being made, for better or worse. While a variety of different causes pertaining to women’s rights have been under attack, there has also been a significant emphasis on women’s empowerment and feminism. If you’re not sure what feminism is or if you are a feminist trying to learn how to be better, here are some things to know.
A (very brief) history of feminism
Feminism is defined as the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. For the sake of this article we are going to focus primarily on feminism in the scope of women’s rights. Feminism actually has a long history, stretching back to the 1800’s when Charles Fourier originally coined the term “feminism.” There have been three significant “waves” of feminism throughout history; the first began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and emphasized suffrage and legal rights for women. “Second wave” feminism began in the 1960’s and focused on the women’s liberation movement. “Third wave” feminism started around the 1990’s and worked to amend the perceived failures of second wave feminism.
Keep in mind that this is a very brief history intended to give you an idea of how the movement started and to give you a starting point. It’s important to recognize that feminism didn’t always fight for all women – for example, the women’s suffrage movement gave women the right to vote in 1920, but this was overwhelmingly white women. While the 19th Amendment gave voting rights to all women, women of color still faced discrimination that prevented them from exercising their right to vote. If you continue to research the history of feminism make sure to look at it from various viewpoints.
Feminism today and its critiques
Feminism, to many, seems to be at an all-time high nowadays. We’ve seen celebrities like Beyoncé and Emma Watson identify as feminists and use their places of power to draw attention to the feminist movement. However, feminism has also come under fire as some use the term more as an accessory and less as an identity. We’ve seen this from brands and celebrities, an example being Taylor Swift. For years she denied that she was a feminist until it was convenient for her to “become” one. While one might argue that she learned the error of her ways (which is a valid argument – human beings are not infallible and we are all capable of learning and change), that argument falls short as Swift has done very little to use her position of power and privilege to speak out about feminist issues. Swift is a commonly cited example of “white feminism.” This form of feminism focuses mainly on the oppression of white women and fails to acknowledge the forms of oppression that go along with the intersection of various identities. Nowadays, many have started identifying as feminists because it’s become a cool new buzzword – meanwhile they don’t acknowledge what the feminist movement is actually about. This brings us to our next point.
What feminism actually is
Let’s start off with what feminism isn’t: it’s not about hating men. In fact, feminism recognizes that things like gender stereotypes can be harmful to men, too. But it also calls upon men (specifically straight, white, males) to recognize that they have a certain amount of privilege in society that is absent from other genders. Feminism is not about convenience. You wouldn’t say you were a marathon runner if you never ran a marathon. Likewise, if you aren’t doing something to promote the equality of all genders, you’re more of a feminist-in-training. Activism does not need to be some huge feat. It could range anywhere from calling out a friend for using sexist or racist language, to attending a march, to calling your senator, to simply listening to a marginalized group and allowing them to be heard – without speaking over them.
Similarly, if you fail to include all women in your feminism – this includes women of trans experience, women who have disabilities, and women of various sexual orientations – your feminism is flawed. Feminism is not exclusive to straight, cisgender, white women, nor can we allow it to be. To be effective, feminism must be intersectional. Intersectional feminism recognizes that one’s overlapping identities have an effect on how that person experiences oppression. For example, the oppression a white, bisexual woman faces is not the same as the oppression that a black, bisexual woman, nor is her oppression the same as what a bisexual, disabled woman faces. Each experience is unique, and it is impossible to fully understand how without talking and listening to the other woman.
bell hooks, a well-known feminist, social activist, and author wrote, “Feminism is for everybody.” This is absolutely true. You can be a feminist regardless of gender identity, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or ability – in fact, you should be. We cannot progress unless we support each other and work to advance interests in which we directly might not have a stake, but acknowledging those with different identities are personally affected by these stakes. If you find yourself at the end of this article thinking, “Well, I don’t feel oppressed so I don’t need feminism,” this is a sign that you need to check your privilege, or to look at where you come from. If you have never faced oppression, that is an amazing feat but not a reality that everyone else faces. Feminism isn’t just about helping yourself – it’s about helping others, too. Just because you don’t feel like you need feminism doesn’t mean everyone else has the same luxury. Privilege isn’t a criticism or an insult, but it’s something to be aware of and important to acknowledge that not everyone comes from the same privilege that you do. But by recognizing privilege, listening to each other, and supporting one another without speaking over other groups we can work to promote feminism based on intersectionality.
Images courtesy of: Alexa Caruso