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.