Monday, August 20, 2012

Feminism, and Why It’s Not That Popular

In my lifetime, there may be no ideology more misunderstood than feminism. It has some stiff competition from the likes of socialism, environmentalism, and even atheism, but I think feminism is arguably high in the running.

It’s particularly strange when you consider the demographics involved. The civil rights movement is easily more respected, as is perhaps the gay rights movement, and this is despite the comparatively smaller populations which benefit. How does a movement like feminism become so maligned when half (actually slightly more than half) of the population is female?

There’s quite a few factors. For one thing, there aren’t any feminist leaders. I mean… there are feminist leaders, but no one knows who they are, except those who go looking for them. I can name a handful of black leaders off the top of my head… Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton… but when it comes to feminist leaders, those I know of are not very well known by others.

I guess Susan B. Anthony comes to mind first, but she’s been dead for over a hundred years. I’m personally fond of Gloria Steinem and Camille Paglia, but most people aren’t familiar with either. I know it may seem strange, but I think this is a very important factor. This lack of charismatic public figures makes it hard for the average person to relate favorably to feminism. People relate to other people, not cold ideologies.

Feminism also has gone through many distinct phases, or “waves.” Sadly, I am afraid some of the later waves of feminism have been fundamentally ineffective in their aim and methods. I think most people can say that the Suffragette movement, which empowered women with the vote, was important. However, most feminism since the 80s seems to have been vague and easily distracted by nitpicking language, not actual policy, and this has not helped the reputation of feminism.

If feminists want to be taken seriously, we need to focus our efforts on tangible problems which can be legislated. Pay discrepancy, workplace discrimination, maternity (and paternity) benefits, birth control access, reform of rape laws… there’s no shortage of problems facing women today, and many of these can be solved in our lifetime. These are not lofty goals, but realistic and simple ones which can make a serious difference.

But it’s clearly not just a failing of feminism itself which has resulted in the poor public opinion of the movement. There has been a very vocal and concerted effort among conservatives to demonize feminism. While the civil and gay rights movements have received quite a bit of criticism, I don’t think it has risen to the same level as faced by feminists.

Part of this may be due to the fact that feminism is seen as being more intrusive. Once white people got (mostly) used to sitting near black people in restaurants, there wasn’t much that changed for white people. Gay marriage, when it is legalized, won’t affects straight people. But feminism may be seen to invade every family.

For whatever reason, a lot of people cling to traditional gender roles. Never mind that some of these roles are 20th century fabrications (like the myth of the “stay at home mom,” which has never been the true normal for anyone but upper-middle and upper class families after WWII). There are, for some reason, still plenty of people who think women shouldn’t get an education or have a career.

Perhaps because feminism has such far-reaching implications (as there are very few family units that have no women), feminism might be seen as threatening.

Not even all women are on board with feminism. It still pains me when I see women who have allowed themselves to be duped into hating feminists, as if feminism is telling women they need to have a career, rather than simply wanting to ensure that women have a choice. I’ve seen a startling number also be thankful for what feminism did, but feel its usefulness has run out, as if everything now is perfect – or not worth fixing.

At this point, then, the first thing feminism may need to do is to justify itself, which is sad. This may be easy now, however, thanks to the actions of Republicans. “The war on women” may be the best marketing campaign for feminism since the 1960s, and to anyone paying attention, it really rings as true. Ironically, it may be the actions of Republicans that ultimately galvanizes feminism for its next push for equality.

If anything, as feminism makes these next leaps towards complete equality, the harsh vitriol of critics may be vital for creating a narrative. Opposition to feminism only feeds it, because such opposition only further justifies the existence of feminism.


  1. You seen kind of dismissive of second wave feminism which isn't really accurate. Besides the right to vote, almost all policy changes have come out of second save feminism. The Equal Pay Act, title VII, birth control laws, labor laws, founding of NOW, the end of marital rape. The list goes on and on. In fact, that was one of the problems some people had with second wave feminism. Radical feminists felt mainstream feminism was too eager to work within the prevailing system in order to gain their own power instead of actually changing what they considered to be an oppression based system of domination. Also, feminists are comprised of so many people and interests, its always suffered from a lack of leadership.

    I agree with most of what you said, but I just wanted to point out that the dip in the 80s and 90s was actually a likely result of the earlier accomplishments of second wave feminism. Also, I'm doing this from my phone so excuse any wonkiness lol

    1. I didn't particularly mention second wave here because feminism remained largely active and productive well into the 70s. It was really third wave feminism that dropped the ball, and this is largely due to third-wave feminism being less a reaction to societal inequality and more a reaction to the flaws of second-wave feminism (notably their opposition to pornography, though there are others).

    2. I should clarify: it was second-wave that was against pornography (or at least many prominent feminists were). Third-wave feminists often saw pornography, sex work, and sexuality in general as being empowering to women.

  2. Well, I can only speak for Sweden, since it's the society I'm familiar with, but the "demonization" of the feminists movement over here is only their own fault, no conservatives needed (though honestly, our conservatives would probably be considered communists by the US ones).

    I mean, in 2005 it's not like anyone forced the newly formed "Feminist Initiative" party, with the feminist elite in the top, to have a music group go on stage on their first congress, singing songs about how much they hated "fucking men" and were going to chase them and "rip them to shreds".

    Nor did anyone force some of their leading figures and supporters to say stuff like "Women who have sex with males are gender traitors", "Men are animals", "Men are worse than animals", "I'm surprised more women don't hate men!", or openly praise Solana's SCUM manifest.

    When all it took to demonize them was to give them a stage and a microphone, to reveal to much of the general population that (their kind of) feminism really wasn't about real equality but more about hating men... all I can say is that I'm happy their kind of feminism, and party crashed and burned.
    (They even had high support in the first ever opinion poll after their creating, getting a whooping 7% of the votes, after the congress, in the real election, they got 0.6%)

    As I said, this is for Sweden, I'm not familiar with the details of other feminist movements, but I do know that the Swedish feminists did get inspired by a lot of US radical feminist, that were or are important profiles.

    That's kinda a problem for feminism, as long as there are these kind of extremist feminist around, that other feminists doesn't distance themselves from, you will have people like me who simply doesn't want to call ourself feminists, because we don't want to be associated with the crazies that think that castration of male babies should be mandatory.

    I'm completely for equal pay, no discrimination, etc, I'd just rather call myself a "everyone"ist, humanist, or egalitarian, or something along those lines, rather than having anything whatsoever to do with those crazy feminists... ;)

  3. I think feminism is not popular because it tried to polarize society in a "woman victim, man perpetrator" dichotomy that doesn't work in reality.
    And before you tell me feminists don't hate men and they want equality, ask yourself how many feminists have fought for inequalities that affect men, or how many of them even accept those inequalities exist.
    The issues you mention are not big issues anymore, and people see that. Feminists just keep trying to find windmills to fight because they ran out of giants (Even taking into account that feminists didn't have a lot to do in getting the right to vote, but was the work of the suffrage movement).

    "women who have allowed themselves to be duped into hating feminists"

    I find it amusing that a professed feminist has to think that women are not able to form their own opinions and have to be duped or brainwashed, because it's impossible that women are seeing that feminism is a divisive movement, that seeks perpetual victim status for women, and tries to make them dislike the men in their lives who they love. They also are seeing that as wives, mothers, sisters and friends, they want to care about men's rights as well, and feminism doesn't give them that.

  4. Interesting and somewhat surprising for me to read your take on Gloria Steinem. I'm older than you, but she's one of the first names that comes to mind, and she was an incredibly public figure who was a household name.

    Women my age saw huge changes taking place due to feminism. I mean, when I was born, only 3% of lawyers were women but 20 years later, half of my first-year law class was female. I'm wondering if those born later really understand just how dramatically things were changing during a relatively short period of time. I'm also guessing that public schools no longer show Free to Be You and Me constantly.


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