What is Feminism, Really?
I'm going to start this off with a story, because showing is more impactful than telling, according to writing teachers everywhere.
The other night at my weekly run club, a man struck up a conversation with me about audio-books, and we asked each other for recommendations. I enthusiastically told him about the memoir Educated by Tara Westover, and suggested he also check out Roxanne Gay, “Because she’s a fearless writer, and a heroic feminist.”
“Oh, well I’m definitely not a feminist. I’ve actually gotten into the MRA movement.” “NRA?” I said, "like guns?"
“No MRA…Men’s Rights Activists.” Sweet. Baby. Jesus.
I said, “Hmm, I didn’t know that was a thing, or could be a thing,” fully disclosing my ignorance and naivete.
“What would you say if I told you that more men are sexually harassed and assaulted each year than women?” he countered.
“I’d say you’re incorrect,” I retorted, “What are your sources?”
“I can’t remember off the top of my head,” he said, shrugging off his incompetency.
Interesting information to forget. Interesting time and place to tell a woman about men’s rights, as if men have never had rights, as if the patriarchy we live in doesn’t throw up on women everywhere, every damn day, whether they feel it or not. As if what he doesn’t see, or choose to see, must not exist. The epitome of privilege is choosing to ignore an issue or problem that doesn’t affect you. I was aghast, but not entirely surprised. I walked away, not bothering to attempt to change his mind. I wondered what happened to him to make him feel so slighted. I wondered why.
In our short conversation, he did bring up a few interesting issues—men are incarcerated more often and more harshly than women, never mind the fact that they also commit more crimes, for a host of reasons (read more here and here). They suffer from higher addiction rates: porn, gambling, drugs, and alcohol. Men are shamed for not being masculine enough, and for being overly masculine. The Men’s Rights Movement, much like Feminism, can be traced back to systemic inequalities, (racism, classism, et cetera). Men want equality as it pertains to their lives—women want the same thing. The difference is that men have held positions of power, in the patriarchy, for millennia. Our society was built upon the premise that men are smarter, stronger, more capable, more stable, et cetera. They are not.
Feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights. That’s it. It is not an attempt to upend the place of all men across society. It is not an attempt to replace the entirety of men’s power, influence, impact, authority, control, and economic opportunities with women. It is instead a timely, necessary, strong cry for equality.
Women do not want or need to put men down. Most of us love men who are good to us, who treat us with the dignity and respect that has long been absent. Yes, sometimes we become angry when men catcall to us on the street, touch us when we don’t want to be touched, forcefully rape us or beat us or emotionally abuse us. So when a straight, white, privileged man had the audacity to tell me that men are sexually assaulted more than women, I turned to one simple statistic:
1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States has been raped in their lifetime.
That is: 20% of women report being sexually assaulted while 1.4% of men do.
The number of sexual assaults that remain unreported, for both men and women, is likely much, much higher. Facts are, by definition, irrefutable truths. The impudence of this man, to assert that the gut-wrenching, violent abuse suffered by hundreds of thousands of women is not true because he cannot see it. Because his privilege is being challenged and that makes him fear, but instead of admitting or embracing this fear, he hates even harder. Herein lies the root of violent inequality. Herein lies sexism. Herein lies the mother-fucking problem.
Feminism at its core is about choice. About choosing what we will wear, how we will speak, act, present ourselves. It's about choosing what we study, which career we pursue, who we are intimate with. Feminism is about access. Access to jobs and equal pay, access to birth control and healthcare and safety.
Have you heard of athletes playing with a “chip on their shoulder?” Athletes who do this are found to perform better due to either channeled anger or a strong internal or external motivating factor. Maybe their motivating factor is pride (internal), or maybe it's money (external). Either way, a solid chip enhances athletic performance. A solid chip does not however, enhance happiness, foster equality, or solve any problems long-term.
When I first called myself a feminist, I carried a chip. I was angry. Angry that men could heckle me, touch me, harass and belittle me without repercussions. Now, I call myself a feminist because it is so obvious, so intuitive and right to fight for equality.
There simply is no other option.