"If, as the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright once put it, “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”, what are we to make of Women Against Feminism, a group which began on Tumblr and is now spreading and gaining traction elsewhere?
Members hold up signs explaining why they are not feminists. “I don’t need feminism because I am not a victim,” runs one. “Because the men in my life care about and RESPECT me,” runs another. There are plenty more: “I don’t need feminism because I respect all humans, not just one gender”, “Because I don’t need to grow out my body hair to prove I’m equal to men”, “Because [feminists] trivialize rape by broadening its definition into the grounds of consensual sex”, “Because a lot of them are Marxist socialist vegans”.
To the last, I can only say – my God! If you ever come across a Marxist socialist vegan, don’t wait to find out if she’s a feminist or not. Just start running. She won’t catch up with you. She’ll be too weak from a lack of protein and staggering under the burden of 200 years of capitalist oppression.
As for the rest, they really only need one sign. One that reads, “I don’t really understand what feminism is.”
So let’s look, briefly, at what feminism is. Mainly because if I try to answer each of the members’ placards individually I’m going to have a stroke and that will make the ironing – which, despite feminism’s many gains, I’ve STILL got to do this evening – much harder.
Feminism is a political and social movement that aims to furnish women with the same rights as men. That’s basically it. Confusion – some of it genuine, some of it wilful – often arises from the fact that sometimes “equal rights” means “equal but different” or “more rights” like maternity rights, for example, to counteract a few specific, additional ways in which women are disadvantaged to ensure that they are indeed as protected as men.
Waters get muddier around issues like domestic violence and rape. The fact these are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women can be misconstrued – again, sometimes genuinely, sometimes wilfully – as meaning All Men Are Bastards and All Women Are Victims and that feminism proceeds from this assumption. It does not. But it does have to deal with the facts as it finds them. It would very much like all the men who are raping and beating women to stop. But it knows that those men are not all men. Feminism is very clear about that, actually. If it were not, feminism would have thrown itself off a ledge by now.
What feminism does instead is to work to make some things visible that might otherwise remain invisible. Not just huge things, like the estimated 70-90% of rapes that go unreported every year, but the smaller things, like a newspaper that refers to an 11-year-old (Cindy Crawford’s daughter) as “a leggy beauty”, or toy manufacturers that brand items as specifically for boys or girls, or why everything from having sex to a bar of chocolate is laden with guilty associations for women and not for men.
It highlights these small inequities to give us more insight into the world in which we grow up and ask how they might be affecting us – women and men. How much of ourselves and our relationships with each other are “natural”? Who is shaping or corralling our choices?
The concerns of feminism are everywhere. Sometimes, like any movement, it picks the wrong battles or goes too far. It’s not perfect (to quote Albright again, “I’m not a person who thinks the world would be entirely different if it was run by women. If you think that, you’ve forgotten what high school was like”), but then you don’t have to sign up for every tenet. By all means, pick and choose. If none of it seems worthwhile, if you truly have a cogent, persuasive argument against the pursuit of a level playing field for all, fine.
But it’s worth asking, as it seems that none of the sign writers have, that even if you don’t need feminism now – whole or in part – might you in the future? Have you already benefitted from a world feminism-shaped before you even got here? If you’ve ever voted, worked, used contraception, the chances are yes, you have. And even if you still think you don’t need it, maybe other women – poorer perhaps, less lucky, more vulnerable women – do? And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some ironing to do.”