“I don’t want to get into it! No, not me.”
Very recently, after a long conversation about everything ranging from Paganism to Masculinity with some very articulate people, I was offered to put my words to use in talk of feminism. I didn’t know what to make of the instantaneous rejection that came out of me, I recall thinking I don’t want to dip my feet into that pool. One of the conversationalists (a very openly-proclaimed feminist) took it upon herself to tell me that I was welcome to voice my opinions, that ‘they’ are open to one and all. I never did talk about whether or not I identified as a feminist, however, her welcome led me to think about why someone would not want to be a part of this ‘them.’ The new F-word in the market that people are so scared of had, I think, tied me up in knots too. Not believing that you could be a part of this movement of feminism would be absurd, right? How can I, a woman, remove myself from a movement of and about all women? I am not here to tell you which way to tilt or which fashion to conform to. This is just me talking about what I’ve dug up in relation to the aforementioned conversation. My attempt here is only to explore one simple question: why do some women not want to be ‘feminists’?
As the #MeToo movement barrels forward, as record numbers of women seek office, with the #everydaysexism trending, feminism is reaching a level of cultural relevance it hasn’t enjoyed in years. It’s now a major object of cultural discourse–which has led to some very confusing conversations because not everyone is familiar with or agrees on the basic terminology of feminism. The Oxford Dictionary suggests that feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. But when the term feminism entered the English language, towards the mid-19th century, it meant “feminine qualities or character”, a meaning no longer in use, obviously. However, the late 19th century unfolded and feminism unambiguously took on its modern meanings. Moreover, one of the most basic and most confusing terminologies has to do with the waves of feminism. I don’t know of one person who is sure of what wave belongs to which specific timeline. The wave metaphor, over time, has become a way to describe and distinguish between different eras and generations of feminism. However, the metaphor can be reductive, it can suggest that each wave of feminism is a monolith with a single unified agenda, when in fact the history of feminism is a history of different ideas in wild conflict.
Generally speaking, the first wave (1848-1920) refers to the West’s first sustained political movement dedicated to achieving political equality for women: the Suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The second wave’s (1963-1980) focus was on changing the way society thought about women. The second wave cared deeply about the casual, systemic sexism ingrained in society, fighting it by proving that women were no less than men. It cared about racism too, but it could be clumsy in working with people of colour . The image of feminists as angry, man-hating and lonely would become canonical as the second wave began to lose its momentum, and it continues to haunt the way we talk about feminism today. It would also become foundational to the way the third wave would position itself as it emerged. It is almost impossible to talk with any clarity about the third wave because few people agree on exactly what the third wave is, when it started, or if it’s still going on. “The confusion surrounding what constitutes third wave feminism,” writes feminist scholar Elizabeth Evans, “is in some respects its defining feature.” Early third wave activism tended to involve fighting against workplace sexual harassment and working to increase the number of women in positions of power. While a lot of people believe we’re still into the third wave, a new vision of feminism as an online movement has caught on as the “fourth wave”. This wave is seen to have begun to hold our culture’s most powerful men accountable for their behaviour. It has begun a radical critique of the systems of power that allow predators to target women with impunity.
Now, with all of these great accomplishments (despite the confusions), why then, would a person, especially a woman, not want to be a part of this movement? Remember those women I talked about: Several were keen on their identity as feminists, explicitly so. But the ones who weren’t, their answers held my interest. The top answer would usually be: “I prescribe to egalitarianism and not feminism.” But saying you’re not a feminist and an egalitarian may come off as moot from the outset because there’s not one without the other. Feminism is verily the mechanism and egalitarianism, the goal.
A close second was the idea that a feminist corresponds to a man-hating, lesbian, non-shaving, free-the-nipple woman. Of course, when put in this manner, it sounds abhorrent, but a large part of the world believes that every feminist has to hate men or that feminists need to shirk away from being feminine. This viewpoint is hardly new. In the 1920’s, feminists were called spinsters, and speculations on their sexuality were rife. The fact that this view still holds sway is very telling. To put everything in categories is human nature, but to understand a spectrum is just as important. The scapegoating of femininity might as well be the albatross around the feminist movement’s neck. The idea of women wanting to stay at home and caring for their children, wearing a pink dress, while serving their husbands breakfast is said to portray a woman who cannot be a feminist or a bad one at that. These categorical notions make people not wanting to be hitched to the identity of a feminist.
There’s another reason—that being God. Some suggest that God didn’t want women and men to be equal. Which is why he made them different. I quote from one of my acquaintances, “That’s why ideal women are dainty, while men are hunky.” On this, all I could say was a living, 4-5 kg organism (sometimes, multiple) comes out of a woman’s most vulnerable area, well, they sure are made to be dainty and fragile! Again, this is not me trying to fight against someone’s beliefs–I’m aware that, physiologically, we’re different, but the concept of what our physicality has to do with our rights still confounds me. Other reasonings included the idea of ‘Feminazis’. How can a term signifying the systematic genocide of millions of innocent individuals get conflated with a term that in all its spirit aims to demolish social hierarchies? You may ask. Well, just like that the Bra-Burning-Woman imagery was born.
Google made me aware of how Katy Perry, the year she received the Woman of the Year award, showed an unwillingness to be called a feminist. Her reasoning, from what I could gather was how it’d affect her fan base. Or perhaps, she was scared of its radicality. Yahoo’s CEO also doesn’t abide by the concept. With the reasons placed above, and a great multitude of others, one can see how it’d make sense to be happy to live in a neutral place than to choose somewhat of a position that may make you seem extremist. The way one may see feminism, now, in this very moment, is so far from how it was supposed to be. But that’s a very small percentage. Or, is it? If you’re a part of the magical world of Tumblr, you’re already aware of the womenagainstfeminism tag. And all the other subtags.
Come to think about it, if a man proclaims himself as a feminist–he’s applauded, even favoured. He carries the stereotypical image of being understanding of women’s dilemmas and struggles, of him being by their side. But a feminist woman is seen as someone who’ll lecture you at turns, go on rants about issues at the drop of a hat whilst wearing androgynous clothes. The duality of what we’ve been taught is traced in every stitch of our social fragmentation. I read something a while back, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, and women are afraid men will kill them.” Hold me wrong if you may, but the issue may not be in how all of us see feminism, but how we perceive it. The fear of being called a feminist really rests in the assumed social consequences and implications of being called one. It is difficult to undertake the personal accountability required to trace out one’s own position in the multiple systems of domination and oppression.
All, I, as a laywoman, can say is that we should see the aversion as a sign, not of feminism’s failures, but of its continuing relevance. It would be better if feminism were more widely accepted, sure, but failing that, the least a movement for radical social change can do is to freak people out a little. Feminism still provokes resistance; it still has enemies; it still makes many people in the mainstream nervous. And that, in itself, seems like a victory. Just like the feminist who welcomed my aversion, feminism too welcomes us all. After all, you don’t have to understand everything, you just have to try to not be a d*ck!
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