Reports of Feminism’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?

Ellen Page, actor

If the word ‘feminist’ has negative connotations, running away from the word won’t fix that. Whatever new word you come up with will eventually take on the same negative connotations. Because the problem isn’t with feminists; it’s with those who demonize feminism.

Rebecca Cohen, cartoonist

7635226864_734b07106a_zWith such an onslaught of pressing issues facing those concerned about gender justice today (for starters consider the recent actions to severely restrict women’s reproductive rights by the legislatures in North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, and by Clear Channel in Kansas), the current debate about whether it’s still appropriate to call oneself a “feminist”—or in the case of the magazine I edit, Voice Male , a “pro-feminist”—seems to me to be a huge, politically divisive distraction.

In our 24-7-365 online culture, there’s a tendency to overlook history, if not an outright attempt by some to rewrite it. The current debate about the usefulness of the word centers around concerns that feminism has been poorly “branded,” including having been irreparably smeared by conservative commentators. (What else is new? The effectiveness of a movement can in part be judged by the actions of those trying to squelch it). It is disconcerting to think some would abandon the word at a moment when rape, both in military and civilian culture; the sex trafficking pandemic; and the mainstream  “pornification” of sexuality are such an ongoing threat. If ever there were a time calling for an explicitly feminist response it is now.

The fact that some longtime proponents of the ideas embodied in feminism are now shying away from identifying themselves as actual “feminists” is disappointing and contributes, perhaps inadvertently, to erasing the history of the feminist movement (including men’s supportive role in it)—a history that stretches at least as far back as the struggle for suffrage. For someone to proclaim they are articulating a vision of “gender equality” (the term some prefer), while distancing themselves from the “F word” by name, seems to me both nearsighted and shortsighted. It obscures the legacy of male privilege and helps erase one of feminism’s greatest contributions to social justice: creating and sustaining a space for ongoing dialogue and questions, self-critique and internal conflict in the service of a more nuanced understanding of all systemic oppressions. It also ignores, undermines—or both—the rich gender-justice history that’s been at the forefront of much profound social change, the impact of which is still being felt today with gains from Middle America to the Middle East.

On the wall in my office is a copy of a handbill announcing a meeting, “What is Feminism?” scheduled for the People’s Institute at Cooper Union in New York City. Nothing unusual about it except, perhaps, for the date: February 17, 1914. Among the dozen scheduled women and men speakers was Frances Perkins, first woman to serve in the president’s Cabinet when she was appointed Secretary of Labor in 1933, and the novelist, playwright, poet, literary critic and editor of The Masses, Floyd Dell. His July 1914 article (which appears in the current issue of VoiceMale magazine begins with these words: “Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free.” That was a century ago and it’s just as true today as it was then.

From my vantage point in the pro-feminist men’s movement—a movement active on every continent (see MenEngage)—a steadily growing number of men recognize the truth in Dell’s century old observation. Our lives are better since embracing feminism—as sons and brothers, partners and husbands, fathers and co-workers. Encouraged to leave the constraints of the “man box” that seeks to impose a rigid definition of manhood, more of us have begun to access a range of feelings—from finding our tears to accessing our hearts. I am particularly proud to see how many younger men are identifying as pro-feminists on college and university campuses. (I’m fortunate to have three serving as summer interns).

As I went to return the old handbill to my wall, I noticed more text describing a second feminist meeting scheduled as a follow-up to the initial “What is Feminism” gathering. It featured seven women speakers addressing a range of issues, including “The Right to Work,” “The Right of the Mother to Her Profession,” “The Right to Her Convictions,” “The Right to Her Name,” “The Right to Organize,” “The Right to Ignore Fashion” and “The Right to Specialize in Home Industries.” And the name they bestowed on that meeting? “Breaking into the Human Race.” It’s 100 years later and women still recognize its truth—from the state house in Austin to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s not a branding problem that needs addressing; it’s sexism.

Perhaps some of the people who profess to be more comfortable with the term “gender equality” than the word feminism will rethink their position and step forward to recommit themselves to the cause. Imagine them joining a crowd filling a cobblestone square at dusk as the town crier calls out into the darkening sky not about the passing of a monarch but instead about an egalitarian movement growing stronger and stronger. “Hear ye, hear ye,” the crier intones. “The Feminists Are Alive. Long Live the Feminists!”

Men can join Voice Male in its http://voicemalemagazine.org/i-support-feminism-because/“I Support Feminism Because …” campaign by posting a short statement, photo or graphic on your Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram or Twitter account beginning with the phrase “I support feminism because …”

Rob Okun’s new book, Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement, will be published in October by Interlink. He is the editor of VoiceMale magazine and can be reached at rob@voicemalemagazine.org

Photo by flickr user Laura Forest under license from Creative Commons 2.0

 

Comments

  1. Here we go again. I’ve been writing about this for decades. DECADES. It’s not new. The enemies of women’s progress have continuously succeeded in linking “feminism” with all things negative and “scary” (as in unfeminine, lesbian, man-hating, angry, bitchy…) when to those of us who happily embrace the word, it means embracing and advocating for social justice and equality for all people. I love the evolution of that word in my lifetime to a social justice connotation. My generation loves to self-identify as feminist — and when I teach about gender at the college level, by semester’s end, I not only have a majority who self-identify as “feminists” but I have several male students, including male athletes (football players) who happily self-apply the label. See my blog (which includes my essay on this topic from “Sisterhood is Powerful”): http://www.stealthfeminist.com. In fact, I coined the term for all those women/men/people who live the feminist ethos in their daily lives.

  2. David Forman says:

    I am a feminist because we are equal; because women ought to be respected and treated equally; because no human can be complete and free until their male and female sides are accepted wholeheartedly; because where women are not safe, children are not likely to be safe, nor to be understood and well nurtured; because the condition of women both reflects and predicts the condition of all; because if we are not in harmony with our nature as sexual beings, we cannot live in harmony with nature on a larger scale; because all the suffering along the full range of gender-linked psychiatric problems will not be relieved until we understand power dynamics that contribute to these problems; because in a world with pressing threats and huge opportunities, we need everyone’s intelligence, work, and creativity to be honored, developed, and used; and because I can’t f***ing believe that, in the year 2013, this conversation still needs to happen.

  3. Absolutely the feminists are here, they have not gone away, they are increasing in numbers, and it is a very cool thing to be a feminist these days. (Just ask Patrick Stewart and Alan Alda) Politicians that are feminists and speak out for women’s rights will get elected. Those that do not, will disappear from politics. Equal Rights for all. Sign the MoveOn.Org petition at http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/ratification-of-the-equal or join our group on facebook http://www.facebook.com/groups/ERANOWGroup

  4. Stephen McArthur says:

    If you have a male friend or partner or family member, subscribe to Voice Male for them. They will discover an entire world of men ( and women) working for equality, ending sexism and violence against women, and for healthy masculinity. Thanks to Ms. Magazine for publishing Rob’s article. As a subscriber to both Ms. and Voice Male, go ahead and subscribe to both!!

    http://voicemalemagazine.org/

  5. The feminist movement needs to have a feminist education and anti-defamation organization in the same way that the Jewish community has an anti-defamation group. We need to stand together against people who trash feminism. Running away from the word, feminism, weakens the movement and keeps men on top.

  6. I guess I also get annoyed by the sense of backing down and defeat that a relabeling would suggest. Besides, last I heard, more and more women were taking on the label.

  7. While I do agree that feminism’s history should be maintained, I also am simply used to things changing names in the public eye to become more accessible and more inclusive. It’s the exact same thing as “marriage equality” replacing “gay marriage” or even “same-sex marriage”, because the latter terms are too specific. For feminism gradually becoming “gender equality”, not only does it take away some of that 1970s militant stigma that people still associate with it, but it refers to ALL genders being equal – and let’s make no mistake here, I’m talking about more than just men and women. Look around and you’ll find all sorts of gender variations in society, and I feel that the “fem” prefix can actually exclude people sometimes.

    Unless your argument is that feminism should remain its own separate set of values in society and shouldn’t include all genders equally, why not open the door to shine a spotlight on all gender issues in society as a whole? Would you also try to convince the LGBT alliance to take some of their letters out in order to maintain their historical roots?

  8. Stephen Sharper says:

    “In our 24-7-365 online culture, there’s a tendency to overlook history, if not an outright attempt by some to rewrite it.” I am afraid that feminists are just as guilty of this as any other group. We can begin with a history of the suffrage movement and observe the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the Revolution “If the nation gives the vote to black men but not to women, it will encourage ‘fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the southern states.’ “. She added further that “‘persecutions, insults, horrors’ will descend upon her.”. Together with Susan B Anthony black men were “more hostile to woman than any class of men in the country.” Let’s jump ahead to Alice Paul who told NAACP field secretary Addy Huntington that the problem of black women being threatened with violence as they attempted to vote after suffrage was granted was a problem for a race organization not the National Women’s Party. We can jump ahead once again to the second wave when despite the reality of acquaintance rape by white men being the biggest threat to white women’s bodily integrity radical feminists like Susan Brownmiller, Jean McKellar, and Diana Russell maintained that black men were public enemy number one. This is so much to the point that Angela Davis referred to RF as a racist movement. Point in case there are those of us who are skeptical of feminism not because we opposed gender equality or because we are unfamiliar with history but because we know it far too well. We know that there are legitimate reasons to be skeptical when we hear the word feminism.

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