There seems to be confusion about the definition of feminism, aided by quotable celebrities who have become vocal on the issue. “If you stand for equality, you’re a feminist,” according to Emma Watson. In response to criticism for her topless photo shoot for Vanity Fair in March of this year: “Feminism is about giving women choice. It’s about freedom. It’s about liberation. It’s about equality.”
If these mantras sound friendly and palatable, it is by design. Modern feminism has been reconstructed through individualistic rhetoric which largely ignores the social constraints of male rule. It’s interesting how Watson’s choice to objectify herself reflects exactly what men would have women do, anyway: instead of being forced to be objectified for male consumption, women can now enjoy the freedom to choose objectification. In this way, it is implied that our oppression becomes empowering if one chooses it. Neoliberal feminism, which uses terms like gender equality and choice, focuses on individuals rather than systemic sexism, and rejects analysis of how choices impact society . It is at best, misguided, and at worst, used to produce outcomes that are actively anti-feminist and more closely resemble rhetoric from the men’s rights movement than the women’s movement.
More recently, in light of the many women who have come forward about being sexually harassed or assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, Watson posted to twitter: “In this instance it was women affected but I also stand with all the men, indeed any person, who has suffered sexual harassment.”
Watson’s remarks demonstrate the popularization of the concept that feminism is synonymous with equality. As we can see from her reaction to the Weinstein ordeal, this way of viewing women’s struggles lends itself to the dilution of the women’s movement and results in her desire to apologize to men when commenting on issues that directly and unevenly impact women’s lives. In her recent comments, it becomes clear that within the trend towards making the women’s movement more palatable to the mainstream, it is necessary to ignore a core principle of feminism: we live within a system of patriarchy, which is male rule, and the mistreatment of women and girls is intended to keep us in a subordinate position to men. Feminism is not about making women, or men, comfortable within the current structure of male rule, nor do we need to center men in our movement.
Men created patriarchy and benefit from it; otherwise, they would fight with us to end it. Women have enough to do for ourselves without adding the emotional labor of trying to lift up men, who certainly have more power than we do to affect change. Suggesting women do so implies that our demands for the betterment of our lives are not valid unless men are involved; that we do not exist independently as humans with different experiences; and relies on sexist expectations of women as caretakers: our emotional labor must be given for free, otherwise, we are selfish.
Watson, as a UN Goodwill Ambassador and spokesperson for the “He for She” project, has given several speeches redefining the women’s movement as one for equality between the sexes. The top comment on a video of one of her speeches reads:
“What feminism is: the call for woman and men to be treated equally. What feminism is NOT: saying women are better than men and men don’t deserve the attention women do. If you don’t understand the meaning of feminism, please, stop and educate yourself.”
In other words: if women do not talk about helping men, we are selfish. When we focus on ourselves and the unique ways patriarchy destroys and subordinates women and girls, we are in need of being educated. When women demand more for ourselves, we are deviant and morally flawed.
Gender Equality Ignores Women’s Struggles
The term gender equality, while it sounds pleasant enough, is damaging to women’s ability to effectively challenge the common barriers that all women, to some extent, experience within their lifetimes. Women do not exist as a gender, we exist in female bodies; gender is a term for the socially constructed stereotypes of masculine and feminine, a hierarchy created by men to assign attributes as fixed to biology. This was a rationale created by men to justify the exploitation of women.
When we define feminism as gender equality, what we are really advocating is equality within the system of gender — equal respect for masculinity and femininity — and not for living, breathing people who exist. Gender equality as a term removes women, who are bodily subjugated, and often done so through the gender constructs which rationalize our oppression. In every aspect of our lives we are policed: existing in public is enough to invite harassment; female sexuality is robbed and used to sell products for which men largely see the gains; we are treated as reproductive chattel; when we are raped, it’s the perceived sexuality of females that is blamed, rather than male entitlement to our bodies.
None of these issues are addressed when we use the term gender equality to talk about what feminism means for us. Gender equality quite literally means respecting socially imposed constructs in place of human rights, in place of our rights and experiences, and erases our ability to center women in our own movement. Feminism is, first and foremost, a movement for females. Once we remove women from the definition of feminism, it is effectively rendered toothless.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writing for the Guardian, sums it up beautifully. “Some people ask: ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest,” Adichie continues. “Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general — but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.”
Gender Equality is Male-Centered Equality
Let’s go back to Emma Watson and her declaration that feminism is about freedom, liberation, and equality. Her ideas are by no means hers alone; they represent a mainstream misunderstanding of what it is women need to achieve the freedom of choice she advocates.
To begin with, the mainstream left places these ideas together as though they are synonymous — as though equality will manifest as liberation. Then, we need to ask: what is meant by equality?
In order to understand what equality means in this context, we need to understand how it is being defined in society. Equal pay for equal work, for example, is a cause being advocated by many women in Hollywood. It is propped up as a feminist issue rather than an economic one. The push for equal pay acknowledges that money is power while strangely ignoring the reality of the system of capitalism, which depends on inequality. Equal pay for equal work does nothing for the women who do a disproportionate amount of housework in heterosexual relationships, no matter how much more they might make than their male partner.
It is also curious how granting women an opportunity to gain equal work is not frequently addressed by proponents of equal pay advocacy, presumably because educating women is not an individualistic endeavor, but requires labor and restructuring of systems. Indeed, wealthy white women advocating equal pay comes across as self-serving, and rightfully so, since they have shown themselves to be unwilling to lift women who lack the skills or resources to gain employment in fields of prestige similar to their own. Or, perhaps, to criticize capitalism itself, and recognize that “equal pay” within an unequal system is an oxymoron.
In this case, it becomes clear that equality is being defined by the left as becoming equal to men : advocating for the same rights and privileges that men enjoy under patriarchy is the standard by which mainstream feminism is measuring women’s freedom. When feminism is defined as becoming equal to men, it is a clear admission that men are the default by which we ought to measure ourselves, and therefore, no longer feminism at all.
Instead of saying, “Women can do anything a man can do,” we ought to recognize that women can do amazing things men can never do. Our biological differences — the ability to create life — is a gift. Men and women are more the same than different, aside from this point, yet it is very telling that the perceived weakness of our bodies, along with our ability to give birth, are among the main obstacles in men perceiving us as, and allowing us to be, fully human.
The reason women are oppressed is because we are different from men. Historically, patriarchy has used difference to justify subordination. We do not need to be seen as equal to men: we need to be seen as worthy and valid not in spite of, but because of our differences. Women should not have to be perceived as the same as men to be deserving.
To quote Germaine Greer, “I have never been an equality feminist… I don’t think the present condition of men is anything I need to aspire to.” We ought to reject the idea that striving to get what men have will result in our liberation, as well as the coercion to include men in our movement. If we do not challenge the system of patriarchy, any gains we make will depend on their whims — our rights will be doled out to us unevenly, and we will be forced to continue asking men to grant them to us.
Say it loudly and proudly: feminism is about women’s liberation from patriarchy.