Feminism tends to take one of two forms when depicted in the media: Angry, scary bra-burners and vague declarations of "Girl Power". Of course, in reality, feminism is a much more complicated movement.
A good comparison to feminism's hierarchy is a major religion like Christianity (at least at the human level, since feminism has followers of various religious beliefs). They've both got one essential message, but there are many divisions and subgroups with different views on how to interpret/act on that message, and some of them don't get along so well. There are literally dozens of different factions within the feminist movement, which split off of each other due to disagreements over everything from abortion rights to the pairing of feminism with racial/gay/whathaveyou rights movements to how big of a problem gender discrimination really is in the first place.
There are pretty much only three general concepts you can count on any mixed group of feminists to agree on:
- That women should have legal and economic rights equal to those of men, such as the right to vote and to manage their own finances.
- That women should be able to pursue any career they choose, and should get paid the same amount as a man doing the same job with the same level of competence.
- That mutual consent is a must for all sexual activities.
...and even then, there are no guarantees. As with religion and politics, everyone brings a little bit of their own experiences and prejudices along with them.
Feminism began as a response to the status quo within human societies. That status quo, seen in most cultures throughout history, is that Men Are Better Than Women. The exact reasons tended to vary from culture to culture—stronger and better at warfare, morally superior, smarter, better providers, sexually aggressive (or sexually restrained), or even that nobody important seems to disagree. However they all add up to an inherent assumption that men are the superior gender. They also resulted in a number of Double Standards towards male and female behavior, not to mention a firm distinction between "Always Male" and "Always Female" tropes. Feminists have a name for this entire kit-and-kaboodle, and that name is "patriarchy."
Additionally, feminists contend that patriarchy is a lot more pervasive and subversive than folks generally give it credit for. This adds another layer to feminism: the fact that it's insulting to men for men to insist that they are required to be certain outwardly superior but still limiting things, like a strict gender role that still has remnants of the Standard '50s Father or at least some form of The Stoic because Men Don't Cry. Patriarchy is harmful to men and women both. The extent to which a feminist is obliged to fight against Double Standards that hurt men is... well, it's still somewhat controversial, with some claiming that they might as well fight the good fight and others believing that women are still oppressed a lot more than men, and therefore that should be the priority. What's not controversial is acknowledging that patriarchy can and does hurt men; this is basically accepted canon within most branches of feminism.
A History of FeminismIn one sense, feminism is truly ancient. You can find women asserting themselves as independent and equal as far back as the sixth century BC (the poet Sappho), which might make feminism Older Than Feudalism. You can also find works that are unmistakably feminist in many times and places, such as the Arthurian Romance Silence, from 14th century France, which features a female protagonist with a distinctly subversive name (as a girl she was given the name Eufemie by her mother, which not only means "Alas! Woman!" but also "euphemism", or a way of speaking around a subject rather than directly to it), which might make feminism Older Than Print. You also find notable feminists involved in the American Revolution, such as the iconoclast Thomas Paine and Abigail Adams (who was quite upset that her husband, future president John Adams, didn't follow her advice and make sure women were given decent representation in the Constitution), although they, of course, didn't call themselves feminists. There were also writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges who wrote early feminist essays and criticized the Enlightenment thinkers and radicals of the day for usually ignoring women's rights; De Gouges even proposed giving all women the right to vote, possibly the first prominent call for women's suffrage. She was guillotined for criticizing the French revolutionary regime.
In the end, feminism is agreed to have begun as an organized and self-aware movement in the second half of the 19th century. In the United States, it grew out of, among other things, the tradition of women's open involvement in politics (as moral leaders and teachers) and drew on the long tradition not only of women political activists, but also women writers, poets, and philosophers. Historians generally agree that feminism per se began with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in upstate New York. There was still some progress prior to Seneca Falls, though - equal education for women had already been a major issue for a few decades, and property rights for women had been pushed a number of times.
As one should expect of a philosophical, political, and social movement with more than 150 years of history, feminism has evolved since its beginnings. It has grown, developed, and responded to changes in politics and culture. Feminism has also simply learned as some of the brightest lights in the world have studied gender and its relationship with the rest of the human experience, exploring ideas and building a vocabulary to better understand them. As such, feminism is usually divided into three waves.
- First Wave Feminism: The Seneca Falls Convention included a Declaration of grievances modeled on the 1776 Declaration of Independence, which outlined a number of ways in which the laws and society of the United States were unjust toward women. Feminism arose in part from the growing urbanization and industrialization of the US at the time. Not only that, but feminism was tightly bound up with religious revivalism sweeping the United States (New York's upstate was known as the 'Burned Over' district due to the waves of religious fervor that regularly swept through the area) and the moral issues of the day such as temperance and especially abolition. As such, the first wave was largely focused on women's rights in the workplace, on equal treatment under the law, and especially on suffrage. Whereas in the early days of the United States women were expected to form a key part of the household and form a model of virtuous womanhood as part of the moral underpinning of America and the rearing of its youth, the women of the first wave were particularly vocal and active, engaging in dangerous jobs (Nellie Bly had herself committed in order to expose the atrocious conditions of insane asylums) and political activism, even being imprisoned for their "unladylike" behavior.
- Second Wave Feminism: Beginning in the 60s, the second wave developed in the midst of the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. Believing that women had achieved political equality but nothing else, feminism became more "radical", and indeed called themselves "radical feminists", although that term has a very different meaning today. As part of a culture bursting with ideas about social, political, and economic structures, feminism too began to look into different issues, often through a Marxist lens. This wave gave us such things as "patriarchy", "oppression", and "normative heterosexuality". Women's role in the home, in the workplace, in sexual relationships were all put under the microscope, as was the culture that took these things for granted. Second wave feminists focused on the more subtle forms of discrimination, such as the wage-gap, discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, spousal abuse, barriers to the access of contraception and abortion, and demonization of divorce and single-parenthood (especially for women). These were the feminists who allegedly burned their bras and stopped shaving, the feminists who aggressively moved into male-dominated professions, the feminists that Fox News can't seem to forget. The first wave was dominated by white women of means (albeit with significant black voices here and there), but the second wave drew increasingly from the other movements that were also powerful at the time, drawing not just ideas, but actual voices from the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement.
- Third Wave Feminism: The third wave began in the mid-90s, with what are known as post-modern and post-colonial strains of thought. Drawing on the growth and development in ideas throughout the prior three decades, feminist thinkers recognized many flaws at the core of the second wave. Although the second wave was born in the cultural ferment of the 60s/70s and sought to include the voices of gay women and women of color, the fact was that second wave feminism was heavily dominated by straight, white women. Further, there had been a strong "us vs. them" mentality in the second wave that tended to alienate potential allies and feminists alike, as well as foster division within feminism itself. For example: the refusal of some feminist thinkers to accept any alternative forms of sexuality as anything other than objectification, particularly bondage and submission; refusing to believe men could ever be allies, but only patriarchal oppressors; refusing to believe that other women could have had different experiences, and that those experiences could form part of a larger, more nuanced picture of oppression. The third wave encompasses both "girly feminism" and "girl power", in that the third wave seeks to empower women by acknowledging that, when you're free to choose your own path, your choice is a valid expression of your values and desires as a woman. Third wave feminism derides objectification while promoting self-expression; it actively opposes the danger and injury of sexual assault while promoting sex-positivism and "enthusiastic consent"; it fights patriarchal oppression and in so doing notes that that same patriarchy harms men, too. Finally, the third wave intentionally strives for inclusion and intersectionality, recognizing that oppression can take many forms and will affect different people in different ways (race, disability, sexuality, being transgender, class, religion, etc).
- Fourth Wave Feminism: A phase of feminism that began around 2012 and is characterized by a focus on the empowerment of women and the use of internet tools, and is centered on intersectionality. The first, second, and third waves of feminism fought for and earned women greater liberation, individualism, and social mobility; the fourth wave continues the push against problematic gendered norms that cause the oppression and marginalization of women in society, the intersectionality of these and other interlocking systems of power, and how these contribute to the stratification of traditionally marginalized groups like women of colour and trans women. Fourth-wave feminists advocate (like earlier feminists) for greater representation of these groups in politics and business, and argue that society would be more equitable if policies and practices incorporated the perspectives of all people. Fourth wave feminism additionally argues for equal pay for equal work, and that the equal opportunities sought for girls and women should extend also to boys and men to overcome gender norms (for example by expressing emotions and feelings freely, expressing themselves physically as they wish, and to be engaged parents to their children). Fourth-wave feminists use print, news, and social media platforms to collaborate and mobilize, speak against abusers of power in seeking for the empowerment of women and seeking justice against assault and harassment, and for bodily autonomy.
Different Schools of FeminismIn addition to the three waves, which are divided by time periods, feminism is also divided internally over which issues are of most importance and what is really at the root of gender inequality.
- Radical feminism: A term encompassing the more militant forms of feminism and also the most misunderstood. Conflating the more activist forms of radical feminism with fanatical "abolish men" and quasi-religious 'anti-sex' movements has resulted in this being the source of many of the negative stereotypes surrounding feminism as a whole. Radical feminist movements see the problems women face as resulting from patriarchy (social power relations being slanted to favor males over females) and most of them see all other social struggles as a facet of or as a subordinate of it (where as most other feminists tend to see the patriarchy as a component of a larger system of inequality); and thus, equality can only be achieved via the complete dismantling of the patriarchy and its attendant gender-constructs. Most radical feminists oppose pornography, which they see as inherently oppressive towards women, and other forms of sex work such as prostitution, with most radical feminists today supporting the ‘Scandinavian model’ of criminalizing the buyer of sex but not the seller. While once very popular, the anti-pornography movement has gotten a lot of flak in recent years for being not so different to the opposite side of the political spectrum in their view towards porn and sex, while that is not the point of many of its campaigners. Other radical feminists have been caught seemingly ignoring issues of class, race, and sexual orientation. Other still have expressed opinions viewed as transphobic (anti-transgender), viewing MTF (male to female) trans people as appropriating their oppression (or simply using their transition as an excuse to invade women-only spaces) and FTM (female to male) trans people as 'switching sides' to become the oppressors. Another anti-transgender argument commonly used by radical feminists is that, according to them, all transgender practices stem from gender stereotypes, and, since radical feminism aims to eradicate those stereotypes, transgender practices are inherently harmful to their goals. The terms TERF or TWERFnote are often used to distinguish the latter from other radical feminists.
- Marxist feminism: Sees the source of women’s oppression not being due to the concept of patriarchy as such, but due to the unequal structure of a capitalist economy. For this reason it sees struggles for gender justice and economic justice as inseparable. They hold that only by getting rid of capitalism can gender equality be achieved.
- Socialist feminism: A fusion of radical feminism with Marxist feminism. It sees capitalism and patriarchy as mutually reinforcing systems with one making the other possible.
- Liberal feminism: Agrees with Marxist feminism that the source of women’s oppression is economic, but isn’t anti-capitalist. Instead it focuses on breaking through what they call the ‘glass ceiling’ in economic institutions that concentrates men at the top of corporate and political professions while keeping women in subordinate positions in companies. Many Liberal feminists argue that eliminating sexist values in the workplace would remove sexism from other areas of life.
- Womanism: Shifts attention towards the experiences of women and girls of African descent. Argues that feminists need to take account of racial problems in addition to gender problems. The writer bell hooks is a prominent voice in this tendency.
- Lesbian feminism: Shifts attention towards LGBT women and incorporates elements of queer theory into feminist discourse. It’s also tends to be heavily inspired by postmodernist philosophy and tries to deconstruct ideas of what it means to be a woman. Judith Butler’s 1990 book "Gender Trouble" is a pretty good summation of lesbian feminist ideas and queer theory as a whole, although the high levels of academic jargon have made it notoriously difficult to read. There's also a minority of lesbian feminists who despise queer theory and embrace "political lesbianism"; that is, separating themselves from males for political reasons. This section has more overlap with radical feminism than with queer politics.
- Ecofeminism: Emphasises the woman’s relationship to nature and champions the supposedly feminine values of ecology while attacking the androcentric worldview that allegedly treats the earth as something to be used and dominated in the same way patriarchal men treat women. Other environmental philosophies — especially Social Ecology — have criticized ecofeminism for claiming that women have an essentially deeper connection to nature than men, given that many of the ‘feminine’ traits of nature are merely coded as such rather than innately gendered. Plus the fact that many ecofeminists are close to New Age thinking with many even worshiping a Mother Earth Goddess.
- Anarcha-feminism: Sees the domination of women as one form of power-based social hierarchy among many along with racism, homophobia, transphobia, capitalism, and statism. It opposes all of the above and argues that a fight against any one of them is incomplete without seeing them as part of a mutually reinforcing network of different oppressions. This idea is called intersectionality and also has applications outside of gender issues. The Russian-American writer Emma Goldman is considered the grandmother of this school of thought.
Common Myths and Misconceptions About Feminism
All feminists are women.By and large, the answer is no; basically every feminist will agree that men should forward the cause of feminism, or at least not obstruct it. However, the extent to which they should forward it will differ, depending on who you ask.
- The most popular perspective is that, just as it's possible for straight people to be in favor of same-sex marriage, or for non-Jews to be against anti-Semitism, it is very much possible for men to identify as feminist. Some well-known men who identify as feminists or have expressed feminist ideals include Alan Alda, Joss Whedon, Kurt Cobain, Hayao Miyazaki, Henrik Ibsen, John Stuart Mill, Linkara and most of his male colleagues, Frederick Douglass, L. Frank Baum, Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, and former US President Barack Obama.
- The competing school of thought says while men can (and should) support feminism, they shouldn't be feminists, because feminism is (or should be) fundamentally about women solving their own problems, without looking to men to do it for them. According to this school, being a feminist is a little like having N-Word Privileges: unless you have been oppressed the way women are, you don't have the background to be a feminist. Men in this school tend to describe themselves as "pro-feminist" instead, and are called "male allies" by the viewpoint's women. Like N-Word Privileges, this is acknowledged to be a Double Standard in and of itself, but people who keep this philosophy believe the hypocrisy is worth keeping the Know-Nothing Know-It-All types out of their movement.
All feminists are lesbians.Lesbians have been an important part of the feminist movement pretty much from day one — prominent lesbian or bisexual feminists include Andrea Dworkin, Valerie Solanas, Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, Julia Serano, Camille Paglia and Mary Daly. However, many feminists are straight women—in fact, it's likely that most are, if for no other reason that homosexuals are believed to make up only 10% of the population. There are also male feminists and/or feminist allies (straight, bisexual, gay and asexual), asexual feminists, transgender feminists, and feminists of any other sexuality and gender identity you can think of. There have been a few feminist writers — especially during the 1970's, before the movement had made as many gains as it had today — who suggested that it might not be possible to have a truly egalitarian heterosexual relationship as long as sexism remained pervasive in society. This was fiercely debated even at the time, though, and it was certainly never mainstream feminist dogma that feminism carried a moral obligation to swear off sex with men.
All feminists are hairy-legged, makeup-shunnin', boot-wearin' brutes.As much as feminists dislike the "women must be dainty and pretty" messages that society/media blast at them, for most, it's the must part that they object to. Some feminists choose to avoid or reject mainstream beauty ideals as a statement of protest, and there are some who adhere to a Real Women Don't Wear Dresses philosophy. There are others who argue that valuing traditionally masculine behavior (like being unconcerned about looks) over traditionally feminine behavior (like wearing dresses and makeup) is ultimately pretty anti-feminist in itself. Most modern mainstream feminists just think men and women should be equally free to decide for themselves how much effort they care to put into their appearance.
Feminism was invented in the 1970s.The movement first gained coherence in The '70s, yes... But go back to any place and time where there has been widespread discrimination against women (namely, all of them), and you will find feminism—or, at least, something that looks like feminism if you squint hard enough. The word "feminism" dates back to 1895; the entire "suffragette" movement, in which British women campaigned for the right to vote, began in 1865; and Christine de Pizan was writing feminist works as far back as the early 15th century. If you believe that men can be feminists and that one does not need to describe oneself as a feminist to be one, then the very first might well be Euripides, which would make feminism Older Than Feudalism. (On the other hand, some of his contemporaries called him misogynistic even by Ancient Greek standards.) As for feminist action, you might as well talk about Ancient Romans getting disgusted by how Ancient Greeks treated women (this too is Older Than Feudalism).
Feminists think men and women are 100% identical.Most feminists would agree that there are overall differences between sexes. While sentiments like "men on average have two thirds (or 60 to 100%) greater muscular strength in the upper body" can lead to arguments if stated/interpreted wrongly, the majority of feminists would concede that, yes, most men have most women beat in raw physical strength. Some argue, though, that women have different kinds of strength, e.g., strong hips and legs, and the ability to endure things like childbirth. What really grinds a feminist's gears are suggestions that:
- Something that applies to one gender is universal and cannot apply to the other gender. "Any man is physically stronger than any woman, ever, period."
- Differences between the genders are an excuse for discrimination. "Women are not as physically strong as men, and thus no women should ever be allowed to have jobs that require lifting heavy objects." Or, even worse, "Women are not as physically strong as men, and thus no woman should ever be allowed to have jobs."
- Failure to adhere to expectations about one's gender is an excuse for ridicule. "Any man weaker than a woman is a loser; any woman stronger than a man is a freak."
Likewise, feminists often wonder how much of certain purported differences - say, girls being better at reading and boys being better at math - are actual innate differences, versus how much they might be a result of socialization (e.g., girls are scared away from pursuing math/boys refuse to spend time reading because they don't want to behave "inappropriately" for their gender and/or they're already convinced they'll be bad at it due to their gender). Most feminists don't deny that it's possible there are some real, innate psychological differences between the sexes, but what exactly those differences are is a matter of heated debate even among experts who make it their life's work to study such things.
Feminists also have a problem with attributing to gender individual character traits that could have originated from other sources, like natural human reactions. For example, if Jenny is crying because her father died — which surely warrants a good cry — but people observing her assume that she's emotionally distraught because she's a giiiiirl. If you're about to protest that this sort of behavioral mis-assignment could happen to anyone, well, you're right: it's a known psychological bias called the fundamental attribution error.
And just to complicate matters further, there's a whole school of thought (though, again, not the mainstream these days) called Difference Feminism, which argues that there are real, significant, biological differences between men and women, and that feminism should be not about treating men and women as the same, but about making sure feminine traits aren't devalued in comparison with masculine ones.
Feminists are frigid, hate sex, and want to stop anyone from enjoying porn or fanservice.Feminists have a problem with porn tropes that promote a degrading or hateful view of women ("Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization, Sex Slave, the "Rape Is Love" trope that ran afoul of The Content Policy, etc), and with the ways the porn industry exploits a lot of the women who work for it. Some (again, this was a more popular position in the 1970's than it is today) do think porn inherently objectifies women and is therefore always misogynistic. Other feminists, though, think what the world actually needs is better porn — porn that presents sex as something where both partners' desires are equally important; Gloria Steinem uses the terms "pornography" and "erotica" to differentiate between the two.
There's more of a consensus on fanservice: feminists generally claim not to be against seeing sexy ladies in media, but don't like how often this leads to objectification, in the sense of Character Development being deferred in favor of the Male Gaze. That said, while objectification and sexualization do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, there is a tendency to conflate the two terms with one-another, with objectification being interpreted in bad faith arguments as "Any fanservice aimed at heterosexual men is misogynistic and degrading towards women in and of itself, by default." This is why Ms. Fanservice characters in fiction can often create a Broken Base, with disagreements over whether such characters are necessarily anti-feminist regardless of how the work portrays them, and whether blatant sex appeal is a flaw that ruins them wholesale.
Additionally, feminists challenge the justification of fictional women being sexualized under the logic of being "her choice", particularly as a Hand Wave that only serves to deflect criticism (such as a Stripperific outfit being worn in combat, while male characters boast more practical ones). note Obviously, fictional characters cannot "choose" — the creator does. Some creators respond that they are simply telling their characters' stories while the characters themselves act on their own; however, the counter-argument is that no story is made in a vacuum and that everything in a work is formed by a creator's base assumptions, and the creator likewise chooses exactly how and when the audience sees it.
As for sex in general, most feminists enjoy sex like anyone else in any case, and those who don't typically don't care what other people like. There's even a whole faction of the movement, called Sex-Positive Feminism, that focuses on working to promote positive and empowering views of sexuality. Likewise, feminists who work in the sex industry consider their work to be empowering and advocate for feminism (and the world at large) to be more open-minded about sex work.
Feminists hate men, think women are better than men, and think women should have more power than men.There's a logic to this sentiment. Since feminism sets itself up as the opposite of patriarchy, and since patriarchy holds as its central tenet the idea that Men Are Better Than Women and that women should be oppressed, it is easy to assume, through transitive relation, that feminism must espouse a Persecution Flip from No Woman's Land to Lady Land, from "men oppressing women" to "women oppressing men."
However, this logic is bound up in what Wikipedia calls kyriarchy, the overall idea that every society must involve persecution. Both patriarchy and matriarchy are subtropes of kyriarchy. It is true that most societies in human history have been kyriarchies, but it does not follow that all societies must be kyriarchies. This is the Third Option feminism actually strives for: the opposite of kyriarchy and patriarchy and matriarchy all at once, a utopia where nobody is oppressed.
There are certainly a few women who seriously blame men for everything. They are known to academics as "misandrists", and to most mainstream modern feminists as wrong. Most feminists don't think sexism is primarily something all individual men do to all individual women. The problem as they see it is that patriarchy is nebulous, widespread and intangible. Just as men can, and do, fight patriarchy, women can, and do, act in ways that support it. (Notice how the page quote for the "Slut-Shaming" trope involves a woman doing the shaming.) The point of feminism (as much as such a vast and highly fragmented movement can be said to have a point) is to raise women to the level of rights/respect that men have had for centuries. The ideal goal is to render men and women equal by strengthening women, not to drag men down lower than women as some karmic act of revenge.
Note that this has not always been the case: feminism goes in waves, and there have been times in which open hatred for men has been common among feminists as opposed to a radical fringe position. Even today, it is all-too-easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because women have traditionally had less power in many situations, it is therefore always appropriate to deliberately divest men of power and invest it in women instead. But in modern feminism, at least on paper, this is less a core tenet of the movement and more an excess that feminists are accused of and indeed some are guilty of.
Admittedly, while not all feminists hate men, they will certainly give priority to issues facing women.
Feminists burn bras.Back in The '60s, there were some public demonstrations in which feminists threw bras, high heels, and other fashion-related items into trash cans to protest unrealistic standards of beauty. A newspaper headline compared these actions to men burning draft cards during The Vietnam War. The two ideas got jumbled together in the public consciousness, and the myth of bra-burning continues to this day. Some individual feminists almost certainly did this on a smaller, local scale, but there are no records of mass, well-publicized instances of bra-burning (as there are with men burning their draft cards), and it does not seem to have been a common demonstration tactic.
Feminists are angry, bitter harpies.In a Venn diagram, the circle of angry, bitter harpies and the circle of feminists overlap but are not identical, and the one doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the other. Correlation does not prove causation.
There are places and times in which feminists can come across as a sort of "Stop Having Fun" Guy: you're going about your day, making a joke about some acceptable targets, and suddenly a feminist says, "Hey, that's not actually funny." To a truly intersectional feminist, there are no acceptable targets to mock, which says positive things about their mentality but sure makes it hard to crack jokes.
Also, feminists can come across as angry at everything in general, constantly railing about the things that are wrong with it and acting as though we live in a Crapsack World. While some fit the bill of a Windmill Crusader, and some champion causes that may or may not have arisen due to misreading information (such as the wage gap) there are several good points feminism has raised.
One example is the issue of convictions of sex offenders; according to this article ninety-seven percent of sexual assaulters in the UK get away without conviction or punishment. Feminists get angry about this because it's an entirely fixable Crapsack World, if people actually cared enough to do it (the aforementioned article stated a key problem was victims not identifying their attackers). Add in the fact that feminists often devote time and energy to pursuing areas of concern (such as Double Standards, gender & sex politics, etc) and it's honestly no wonder that they can come across as being pretty irritated.
Also, many feminists point out that patriarchy makes it difficult for women to express anger, even if they have legitimate reasons for it, by labeling them with this stereotype.
Feminists think women are the only ones who are hurt by sexism, and don't care about men's problems.The first part of this statement can be answered with "No." It's pretty uncontroversial in feminist circles to point out that sexism does hurt men in plenty of ways.
The second part sparks more controversy. What exactly should be done about this? Will men's issues resulting from sexism sort themselves out as the patriarchy fades? Or is a concerted pro-men effort called for? There are feminists who specifically focus on the ways men's oppression and women's oppression are linked; for instance, many argue that companies need to start granting paternity leave both so that fathers can have the chance to bond with their kids, and so that women aren't automatically assumed to be responsible for child care. On the other hand, there are also plenty of feminists who, believing that women are more harmed by sexism than men, can be ambivalent, dismissive or even obstructionist toward efforts to address men's issues.
One particular problem area is when feminist blogs and websites have mocking rules against "what about men?" discussions. These rules are typically placed due to hard experience. When feminism became a thing in the 70s, a pro-feminist counterpart movement sprung up called the "Men's liberation movement," which made the (again, not controversial) claim that sexism also hurts men in plenty of ways (cited examples include the double standards in Divorce Laws, treatment of Domestic Violence and women's privileges such as their exemption from the Draft; see here for more information). This movement eventually became a mostly academic discourse and/or was partially absorbed by feminism itself, since their goals do not conflict. Later, a breakaway group, called the "Men's Rights Movement", went a step further and campaigned actively against feminists, believing that feminism has gone too far and left women more privileged than men. Some put forward contentious ideas such as asserting either that men and women are harmed equally by sexism in different ways, things have gone the other way and now feminists are covertly oppressing men and that society promotes female privileges at the expense of men. The problems began when some Men's Right's supporters began to smear all feminists by association with those feminists who are misandrists and gave the reactionary view that society should undo some of feminism's achievements (yes controversial; please do not discuss it here). For obvious reasons, "Men's Rights Activists" tend to find plenty to disagree with on feminism-centered websites, which has resulted in Flame Wars, trolling and worse. This is partially why feminists tend to be cautious about how much of that viewpoint they allow into their discussions.
For terminology reasons, some feminists ascribe the term "masculist" to people who ascribe to the ideals of the Men's Liberation Movement (i.e. men who focus on male issues but are not hostile to feminists) and "masculinist" for MRAs (anti-feminist men who see the movement as dangerous to gender relations, society and/or their self-esteem).
Even when masculist or pro-feminist men are involved in a feminist discussion, there is also an ideological point to be made. Though it is not controversial to point out that sexism hurts men, it changes the tone of a discussion centered around feminism when a man makes that point since, as mentioned before, feminism gives more of a priority to the issues women struggle with. It is all-too-easy to infer that he doesn't really care about women's problems unless he is personally affected by them... which, in addition to being a pretty lousy attitude, is the whole point of why feminism began. It's part of why the Men's Liberation Movement emerged in the first place; to give men a space to talk about their issues without seemingly derailing discussions centered around issues facing women.
Finally, there is the notion that modern feminism is (or should be) inclusive of non-binary people, and that gender is a spectrum with extreme masculinity on one side, extreme femininity on the other, and a lot of room in between. To feminists who subscribe to this view, saying that only women get oppressed because of patriarchy is a way of ignoring all the non-cisgender people, people who already get thrown under the bus in other circumstances and could probably do with a bit more acknowledgement.
Frequent Complaints Against FeminismWhen discussing the topic of gender on the Internet today, the mere mention of the F-word can create catastrophic flame wars that can go on for (literally, not figuratively) weeks and leave newcomers to comment threads wondering why on Earth it has so many rape and death threats directed at people. For the purpose of navigating this rhetorical minefield, some common complaints frequently voiced today are as follows:
If it’s about equality between the genders, why is it called feminism, and why does it only focus on one gender?Because the movement originated at a time when women were clearly considered inferior to men socially and institutionally. It focused on the female sex because most men were already in positions of power in society relative to women of comparable socioeconomic class. It was women that needed to be brought up to the level of men, who were perceived to already have power.
As for the accusation of being sexist for only focusing on one gender, a counterargument would be that this would make the black civil rights movement bigoted because it only focused on black people, or the gay rights movement bigoted because it didn’t also focus on the problems of straight people.
Okay, so classical feminism may have been about genuine equality, but modern feminism is full of misandrists who hate all men and privileged women who only care about superficial problems.There's no such thing as "modern" feminism in the sense of a unified movement with the same aims and ideas in the present day, and the same was true in other eras. As noted above, while the different waves of feminism are divided by time periods, feminism as a theory is more accurately divided by its different political tendencies. What critics tend to think of as 'modern' feminism is actually just one of those contemporary tendencies and not necessarily its most numerous. In fact, many feminists from other schools of thought have criticized radical and liberal feminism for the exact same reasons.
Furthermore, there has been a trend among anti-feminists to describe themselves as "second wave" feminists under the impression that older feminism was less hateful and more down to Earth, despite the fact that hardcore anti-male attitudes were dominant among second-wavers rather than the intersectional third-wavers.
This thing feminists claim to oppose, "patriarchy," doesn't exist. Surely most men have lives just as hard as most women.This is a somewhat understandable criticism given that the word 'patriarchal' is used colloquially to refer to male power. If we take power to mean 'control over one's own life,' then men are just as deprived of power as women are. The counter-argument is to draw distinctions between kinds of power.
When feminists talk of patriarchy they do not mean that all men have more power than all women as a whole, but that men tend to have more institutional power; i.e.: that decision-making ability with regard to the running of societies is chiefly held by men and that this ends up perpetuating this hierarchical division between male and female. To use a buzzword that even The Other Wiki has heard of, feminism contends that men have more "privilege." Power as defined as 'control over one's own life' is something feminists refer to as "power-to." But there is another kind of power, which is control over the lives of others, referred to as "power-over." Feminists mean "power-over," not "power-to," when discussing patriarchy.
Feminists also do not agree about what causes patriarchy. Marxist and socialist feminists believe that its roots lie in the early division of labor between men and women that private property gave rise to, while anarcha-feminists argue that it coexists with several other intersecting hierarchies, and that there exist contexts where men may be disadvantaged relative to women.
If it’s about equality, shouldn’t it be called "egalitarianism"?One problem with this is that, to many feminists, it is not just about equality. Many, like Germaine Greer, are also concerned with women’s liberation from the concept of fixed gender roles, not simply economic/social equality with men. The term egalitarianism, if adopted, would leave out a crucial theoretical aspect for many feminists. As a case in point, second-wave feminism was originally called the women's liberation movement, not the women's equality movement. The reason that the word equality tends to be used more often is that equality of the genders is seen as an essential feature of the wider goal of gender liberation. Many feminists will also argue that the term "egalitarianism" or "equalism" trivializes individual forms of discrimination by covering all forms of discrimination (sexism, racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, religious bigotry, etc) under one umbrella. This means that specific attention won't be given to individual issues, even if those issues intersect or come from a single framework.
If it’s about equality and liberation for all people, shouldn’t it be called "humanism"?Already taken. Humanism had its origins in the Enlightenment era, emphasizes empiricism and human agency (freedom of action), and has never had anything specifically to do with gender issues, which is what feminism has always been concerned with (although most humanists today do support feminism).
Can I really trust that feminism, a movement which defines itself solely in relation to women, actually gives a (redacted) about men's problems?Actually, this is a valid concern, and it's part of why the Men's Liberation Movement sprung up in the 70's.
The key to understanding this conflict is the fact that feminists (typically) do not object to people who focus on male gender problems, as long as they view themselves as complementary to feminism rather than antagonistic to it. Indeed, some feminists also align themselves with masculism (although they may not don that label) and do actively discuss men's issues, both independently and in relation to women's issues. As the feminist writer, Laurie Penny has said, "men and boys are discouraged from talking about their pain. Thinking in a new way about sex, gender and power - call it feminism or 'masculism' or whatever the hell you like as long as you do it - can help men to process that pain."
It should also be pointed out that gender relations are a closed circle. Consider the quote by the author Margaret Atwood, when a male friend of hers answered in response to a question about why men feel threatened by women "They are afraid women will laugh at them." to which she responded, "We're afraid of being killed."" The quote is often simplified to “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Regardless, this is not an exaggeration; a third of murdered women are killed by an "intimate partner" and 61% of women murdered in the UK in 2018 were murdered by their current or ex-partner., and that's even before we factor in rape-and-murder crimes inflicted on strangers. What men do affects women, and since feminism is concerned with the fates of women, it is concerned at least by association with the fates of men.
Feminists generally are opposed to men's rights activists who believe that feminism has gone too far.
But hold on. Isn't the rise of "Cancel Culture" and the "#MeToo" movement proof that feminism has gone too far?
First of all, that's two seperate discussions.
Legitimate concerns around "Cancel Culture" are based around people either becoming social pariahs based on a mistake they have long since changed from or from a mere accusation.
But this issue is not exclusive to, nor even rooted in feminism, and goes back to a general attitude that has also negatively impacted women throughout history, even today (i.e., the flip side of cancel culture, where the accuser is likely to receive death threats, ostracization and a life-long reputation as a liar even if they are 100% telling the truth).
If feminism is about dismantling male privilege, doesn't that mean men will have less opportunity than before?
Yes... but at the same time, no.
First off, one way of looking at privilege is that it's an opportunity you have even though you shouldn't; it's life being unfair in your favor. To put it in trope form: if a man and a woman are both up for an inheritance, and both are equally qualified for it, they both have a 50-50 chance to get it. However, if the Heir Club for Men is in effect, then he has a 50% opportunity plus 50% privilege for a total of 100% chance, while she has a 0% chance. note Giving the woman equal opportunity will mean taking away that extra privilege, but only that extra privilege, the extra chance that he didn't deserve.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Patriarchy, the thing feminism wants to dismantle, is defined as the entire system of privileges that no one deserves. The thing is, though, this includes the entire Mars and Venus Gender Contrast. Under patriarchy, all facets of life are either Always Male or Always Female; anything that is ambiguous or non-binary needs to be controlled or destroyed. But what if we did away with the categorization entirely? Because that's what feminism is going for. No facet of life will be off-limits to anyone. No one will get in trouble for Masculine Girl, Feminine Boy stuff, and no gender will resent the other. Instead of privilege, both men and women will have opportunity. The ideal is a meritocracy where everyone can use their talents, whatever those talents are, to best effect.
There's also the fact that patriarchy sees "rights" and "privileges" as a zero-sum game, one in which any gain on the part of one party is balanced by loss on the part of the other. In other words, anything a woman can do, a man can't do, and giving too many rights to women means Upsetting the Balance. This is Insane Troll Logic at best, since it's empirically false. Women and men can both have jobs; women and men can both vote; women and men can both have sexual agency. But, if you're in denial of that basic reality, then naturally you'll resist any voice which attempts to take things from men and give them to women. (And, to be sure, if rights were a zero-sum game, that would be a valid point. It's just that they're... not.)
A core goal of feminism's is to push the Venn Diagram of "male tropes" and "female tropes" together until there is nothing in the Always Male and the Always Female page. It has already made a lot of strides in that direction, particularly by taking things from Always Male and putting them in the "mutual" area. But if you're the kind of person who insists that people and cultures must be Always Male or Always Female — in other words, someone who agrees with the past/current system; in other words, someone who supports patriarchy — then, yes, it looks like the "Always Male" category is shrinking and "being a man" is becoming villainized. If this concerns you, please remember that your original assumption — "tropes must be Always Male or Always Female" — bears re-evaluating. Feminism, as a whole, is not trying to destroy maleness, but rather redefine maleness, in a way that makes everyone, even you, more comfortable in it.
But to get there, yes: people will have to give up their privileges and compete on an equal playing field.
Glossary of Feminist Terms
- Agency: The ability to act for oneself. If someone is trying to control you, or speaking for you, or not letting you make your own decisions, they're denying you agency. Closely related to the concept of autonomy (self-directedness).
- Gender Binary: The dichotomy that splits everything (even things that have no basis in sex or gender) into "male" and "female", masculine and feminine, as opposed existing on a continuum with many people grouped toward the ends. One of the biggest issues feminists have raised about the gender binary system is that it almost always tends to make genders into a hierarchy, where masculinity tends to be given higher status.
- Intersectionality: Taking into account anything and everything that can marginalize people - not just sex and gender, but also race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical ability, class, etc. However, in practice these side issues tend to gets looked at through the lens of gender. For example, being a woman of color means you could be subject to both misogyny and racism. Further, a woman of color experiences misogyny differently from a white woman and racism differently from a man of color.
- Objectification: Reducing people from "personhood" (a subject) to "thinghood" (an object). Ignoring or taking away everything about a person that makes them a person, and seeing/portraying them as just an object. In feminism, this often involves discussions of sexual objectification, where women are denied agency and intention in order to make them into objects for the sexual desires of heterosexual men; which is not the same thing a simply portraying women as sexy, as it's possible to do this without denying them agency.
- Power: Roughly, "decision-making ability". That is, the ability one has to shape their own circumstances. Feminists divide power into "power-to" (control over one's own life) and "power-over" (control over other's lives). They consider power-to an essential part of women's empowerment – it's in the word after all – and consider the power-over men wield in relation to women one of the main obstacles to women's liberation and equality. The feminist project in general could be seen as a quest to maximise power-to and minimise power-over, so that women, and people in general, can control their own lives without controlling others.
- Privilege: The advantages (relative to disadvantages) one has when navigating through life. All the things about you that might make your life a little easier than the lives of other people in your social group. Examples include: protection from racism, protection from sexism, protection from religious discrimination, protection from homophobia, protection from classism, etc. When somebody tells you to "check your privilege", they're reminding you to recognize where you're coming from. For example, the popular feminist perception is that if you're straight and white, your experience differs from that of queer women of color; for instance, you can walk down street and kiss the person you love without getting yelled at, and not get yelled at to go back to your home country. The hardest part of this to understand is that privilege is context-sensitive; just because you enjoy certain advantages in one context, that doesn't mean you're not disadvantaged in others (an example is the treatment of Caucasians in South Africa). People who haven't figured this out — which can range from disenfranchised blue-collar workers in rural America to non-white feminist women — often use their contextual disadvantages to claim global disadvantages, or ignore the legitimate suffering of certain people because those people are privileged in other ways. A poor, hard-working white man might be offended at being called "privileged" because, as opposed to someone who's Idle Rich, he has to put up with all kinds of crap — while missing that there's still more kinds of crap he doesn't even have to know about because he's not black or a woman. Both Sides Have a Point, and the fact that privilege is so deeply contextual — and, more importantly, that aforementioned context is often overlooked — can make it very difficult to discuss.