Feminism is the only real way to challenge sexism; when we reject feminism, we play right into its hands.
You would be surprised at the amount of messages I get from women (writing to say they so agree with something I have written) which begin with ‘I am not a feminist, but…’. There are some others which begin with, ‘I am a feminist, but…’ These are usually to disagree with something I’ve said, or to tell me, I could have said it better; I could have been less angry.
I try to feel both the encouragement and the discouragement; I try to understand both my own reactions and the subtext of the messages themselves.
In some way, I read both kinds of messages as rejections of feminism and therefore, they are upsetting. I hate to hear young, modern women rejecting feminism in this day and age, though I understand now it is for reasons more complicated than it simply being an ignorant, selfish choice. I understand this rejection itself is a part of the insidious success of patriarchy.
I hate it because it’s not only political, of course, it also feels personal – it feels like a rejection of something I work hard at every day, for all of us, and thus a rejection of who I am. So it upsets me but it also hurts me.
But as I said, many of those messages are usually fundamentally supportive, and go on to say that they agree with something I had written, and they are glad I wrote it. These statements of mine that they wish to champion are clearly feminist statements – so it has me asking all the questions we’ve been asking women who reject feminism for a long, long time: ‘If you believe all that, then why do you not consider yourself a feminist?’.
Sometimes, women go on to tell me, they never felt affected by sexism, but they just became mothers, and are now severely worried about the state of the world. The message will perhaps say: ‘I am not a feminist, but since becoming a mother I have really started to worry about the kind of world my daughter/son will grow up in, and the awful sexist ideas being presented to them in this world as normal.’ This is where I start to worry about how self-centered we have become.
But this is no longer a mystery. Neoliberalism has taught us to be consumerist, self-serving and competitive. Many of us women of the middle and upper classes are content with the perceived ‘benefits’ of its systems afforded to women: economic independence, entrepreneurial confidence, rewards for merit and commitment, the possibility of rising to power within its structures, and most of all, the illusion of liberation from domestication. Neoliberalism, like all ideologies shaped by patriarchy, is effective in its invisiblization of systemic power – the key ingredient in sustaining existing power structures. We don’t realise we – our bodies, our minds, our labour – are merely trapped in another kind of patriarchal machine. It offers itself up as the solution to our problems, convincing us to see our problems as individual, and not related to systemic power relations and structural injustice.
And so we reject social justice movements like feminism; because we think our problems with injustice are really problems of our own inadequacies, or the inadequacies of our colleagues, bosses, partners. We see them as isolated incidents we just have to put up with if we are to ‘get ahead’.
But the machinery of patriarchy has been discrediting feminism for as long as feminism in any shape or form has been around; from even before we ever used the word, even when there were other words – witch, suffragette, whore – women who fought for their autonomy or in any way refused to conform or be controlled by men and their institutions were demonized, incarcerated, ridiculed, killed. The silencing of feminists and of feminism has a violent history. The war against women has been on for centuries.
And it is very much ongoing. We only need to look today to the entire spectrum of hurt that self-identifying feminists or every women who challenges male power in any way, have to face, in life, on the internet: from being mocked to being abused, from being shunned to being ostracized, from being threatened to being assaulted, from intimidation to violence, from bullying to revenge porn, from shaming to condescension. Women who dare to live differently are still being killed.
These campaigns erase the richness and depth of feminist discourse from our collective consciousness; it erases feminist perspectives from popular culture, from media, from public spaces by simply silencing women or obstructing women from ever reaching those spaces. Most frustratingly, it shapes us culturally to dismiss these perspectives when they appear in the public domain.
Over decades, feminist discourse has been deliberately subjected to context-blind, reductionist revisions: ‘Feminists are man-haters’, or ‘Feminism is reverse-sexism’, or ‘Feminism’s agenda is so narrow, it only cares about ________, it never addresses __________’, ‘Feminism has never achieved anything for anyone’, or worst, ‘We don’t need Feminism anymore because everything it fought for has already been won.’ We are told, feminists are angry, hysterical, unreasonable.
So we do the work of patriarchy ourselves, and we dismiss feminists and reject feminism. Every time we reject feminism, we give sexist power a little more space to thrive. There is nothing novel or radical about the rejection of feminism. It’s just us, signing away the only ideology and movement which fully supports our autonomy and humanity.
The truth is that feminism is the vast collection of decades, maybe even a century, of the hard work of countless activists, academics, thinkers, writers, teachers, doers. It is a holistic, emotional, political response to – and attempt to understand – the denial of the full humanity of women. It is the opposite of the narrow, rigid, hardened ideology that it is so often made out to be: it is deep, rich, historic and contemporary. It is complex. It continues to thrive and grow with the challenge of deep self-critique and self-interrogation – feminism has never been closed to intra-movement criticism and has constantly moved forward as an ideology, with time, old values questioned and new ones adopted. It is an ideology of profound humanity, solidarity and compassion. Feminism has opened up so many countless discourses for us. Nearly every imaginable topic has been enriched by feminist critique and perspective: from gender and sexuality, to capitalism, consumerism and economy, to war and militarisation, to art, cinema, media and popular culture; history, epistemology, science, medicine, technology, environmental justice. I would argue few other social justice movements have provided us as extensive, diverse and vibrant a discourse through which to understand ourselves.
More tangibly, it is also all of us – it is a great network of sisters-in-arms spanning time and space, women before and after us, in all the world around us, who have made monumental changes to our world, for the greater benefit of us all. It has been and is often feminists at the forefront of the fight for so many of our human rights. Feminists have fought for and fought beside countless marginalised communities for decades.
But it has been more than a fight for practical social changes – the right to vote, to be elected, to work and earn, the right to control our own bodies, the right to protect our land and livelihoods, the rights to education and health; the rights young women now take for granted when they reject feminism – but it is an ongoing ideological fight, to broaden our knowledge and worldview, to deepen our humanity; a fight for a paradigm shift; a fight to have us imagine the world better, differently. There will never be a day when we don’t need feminism, unless we want to stop growing altogether.
Many women are disturbed by the continued impunity with which sexism seems to function in our 21 century world. We are all tired of street harassment. We don’t like being told what we can and can’t wear. We all agree that rape is wrong and that to blame victims for their assault is wrong. We are frustrated when we are treated like ‘silly little girls’ in serious forums, or are passed over for promotions at work. We all mostly agree homophobia is bigotry. We all want to be able to make choices about what we do, whether we have children or not, who we love. We are mad when men mock us for getting emotional about the daily injustices we face, and we are mad about the daily injustices themselves. On public forums, women very earnestly ask, ‘So what do we do about sexism?’
The answer is, simply, that we need to give our fuller engagement and commitment to feminism. Feminism is the answer. Feminism is the only real way to challenge sexism, and we are all going to have to accept that.