In Defense of Feminism
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I once went on a date with a man who told me feminism is toxic. Sure, I said. Anything can be toxic if taken too far. No, he said. Feminism is doing women a disservice because women "nowadays" have it "relatively good" and didn't I know that in a lot of countries women have it much worse? Because I am not a patient person, I didn't see him ever again.
Feminism is so many things and very few of them are bad. Feminism is equitable pay is being heard is being believed is access is safety is representation is respect. I don't see a reason to argue with any of this. Feminism also doesn't negate the needs or problems or inequities that may affect men. Life is not a zero sum game. This is not a sexy opinion but here we are.
Women in America have things good, sure. We only recently gained the ability to be financially independent. Have a credit card. Vote. Go to college or join the military. Women now control more than 60% of personal wealth in America and we have some pretty inspirational women to look up to: Gwynne Shotwell, Whitney Wolfe Herd, Oprah Winfrey, or Rihanna to name a few. Women are becoming powerful, but we are still, sadly, not always safe. One in four women and one in nine men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking. Between 15,000 and 50,000 women and girls are victims of human trafficking each year, although that number is difficult to accurately measure. Nevada has the highest rate of human trafficking, followed by Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia. Finally, 70% of human trafficking victims are women. [None of this is to say that men do not also suffer.]
If we zoom out though, and step away from the really bad stuff that happens to women, we still encounter problems and plenty of good reasons why feminism is both relevant and necessary. In 2018, there were 17 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births in the U.S. — a ratio more than double that of most other high-income countries. In contrast, the maternal mortality ratio was three per 100,000 or fewer in in the Netherlands, Norway, and New Zealand.
Women are still paid less than men, though this situation is worse for Black and Hispanic women. This is data. It is impossible to argue with. As many women in the public eye have pointed out, the U.S. is not a place that welcomes women in roles of authority. And if you're a woman with a spouse or children, you probably know that you do more household chores and childrearing than your husband or male partner. Again, this is a data point so your experience may be different, but the burdens of the home largely fall on women and largely go unpaid.
Feminism is important because it works to elevate the voices and rights of women. We are not demanding that men fall behind us in terms of rights and pay, we are simply asking for equality. Why that is contentious, I'm not sure.
Feminism works to un-silence women. The silencing of female voices is not a new phenomenon. There are innumerable historical examples of men taking credit for women's work, from Albert Einstein to F. Scott Fitzgerald to any number of female scientists (Rosalind Franklin, Henrietta Leavitt, Matilda Gage, Nettie Stevens, and countless others). The silencing of women is so common that it is no longer surprising to discover that it still occurs in board rooms, schools, courtrooms, and living rooms everywhere.
Silencing women and girls is problematic for many reasons, one of which is that we are widely not believed. It took sixty women accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault/misconduct for him to suffer any consequences. What does that teach us? Either to shut up and remain free from public disparagement or to speak up and suffer the repercussions of not being believed.
Silencing women and girls teaches us not to respect ourselves and to believe what the patriarchy tells us, which is that we are responsible for the harms done to us, no matter how severe. It is a manipulative power move that is wrong, full stop. It's always wrong to silence anyone, but I believe it's doubly wrong to silence girls, because they will internalize not being heard. The side effect of silence is usually more silence. How incredibly sad is that?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience as a collegiate athlete. It was a dark time in my life, and part of that darkness was due to my coaches, who continually and shamelessly belittled my body. The responses I received from other athletes was overwhelming, but predictable. I know other young women were treated similarly. What did surprise me though, were responses from men who either still coach or used to coach, or who simply didn't know that the environment was complicated. Many of them said some version of "I'm sorry." I also received a healthy amount of backlash as well, mostly from men who seemed set on defending these coaches.
Had I known better when I was young, I probably would have left or found a new school. I didn't know anything was wrong though, which is yet another reason feminism needs to exist. We need to teach girls to trust themselves above anyone else, and to speak up/stand up for themselves. More importantly though, we need to listen when they do, so that the inequities that plague women today will not continue to plague women tomorrow.
P.S. Check out this simple chart that explains mansplaining here, read a Guardian article on mansplaining here, or read this Washington Post article about how Feminists are bad for Feminism. Read Know My Name by Chanel Miller, the survivor of a sexual assault at Stanford University by Brock Turner.