Who's Afraid of the F-Word?

I recently overheard a snippet of conversation that went something like this: a young woman protested defensively, “Well, I’m not a feminist!” and the man she was talking to quickly said, “Oh, no, of course, not, I didn’t mean to imply you were a feminist.”

They might as well have said leper, or moron, or cripple, except all of those words would have had people leaping to their defense: How dare you use the word “leper” like that?  Have you no respect for the millions of people suffering from leprosy?

So let me go on record in defense of the word feminist.  I am a feminist.  I am married, have been an at-home mother for over a decade, and make the best chocolate chip cookies you will ever eat.  I coo over babies, wear short skirts, and fret over my wrinkles and weight slightly more than I think is becoming for a person who likes to think of herself as “deep.”  I shave my legs and wear a bra on most days.  When I dance, I let the man lead.

Confused?

You shouldn’t be.  You see, feminists are united by one thing: the belief that people are equal regardless of gender.  Unlike a lot of other –isms, feminism doesn’t really ask much of its adherents.  There are feminists who are pro-choice, because they believe that the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is the bedrock upon which a woman’s autonomy rests.  And there are feminists who are pro-life, because they believe the right to life extends to all women, born and unborn.  And there are feminists who believe that abortion is a no-win situation, with losers on both sides of the line.  There are radical feminists and anarcha-feminists and Marxist feminists and post-modern feminists, religious feminists and atheist feminists and pagan feminists.  And there are garden-variety, no-modifiers-needed feminists, plain and simple.  The word feminist, on its own and without qualifiers, only implies one thing: a person who believes in the equality of men and women.  .  Not the sameness of the genders.  Not the superiority of women.  Just equality.  Which, apparently, is revolutionary enough on its own.

But feminism is old news, you say.  It’s irrelevant.  Women can work and go to school and wear pants now.  Feminism is sooooooooooooooo 1920.

Hardly.

Right now, all over the world, female babies are murdered for being the less desirable gender.  Girls are denied access to education, sold into sexual slavery, sexually mutilated, forced into marriage. Women are stoned for being rape victims, denied access to health care, barred from jobs, disfigured for showing their faces.  Rape is a standard operating procedure in wars around the world.  According to the UN, of the more than 1 billion people living in poverty today, the “great majority are women.”

Well, I was talking about here, you might say.  In the United States.  Surely here women have arrived.  Surely there is nothing left to fight for.

  • According to the U.S. Department of Justice, females ages 16-24 are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than any other age group– at a rate almost triple the national average.
  • According to the U.S. Health and Human Services Bureau, 58% of rape victims report being raped between the ages of 12-24.
  • 90-95% of those suffering from anorexia or bulimia are female.
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, 31.6% of households headed by single women were poor*, compared to 15.8% of households headed by single men and 6.2% of married-couple households.
  • A 2010 article in Time magazine explores the many reasons why women still earn only $.77 for every dollar earned by a man. 
  • Even when wages are measured within a given industry and accounting for variables in experience and education, a significant gap remains: female secretaries earn 83.4% and female truck drivers earn 76.5% as much as their male counterparts. 

Whenever I hear a woman claim she is “not a feminist,” I suspect she’s distancing herself from a certain stereotype: Misanthropic. Bitter. Militant.  Unattractive or at least fashionable. Unhappy.  Lesbian, or miserably single. 

This is confusing to me, because despite my lifelong association with feminists of all stripes, I don’t think I’ve never met that feminist. I have met feminists who were some of these things, to be sure, but not in disproportion to the rest of the population.

I suspect feminism has fallen victim to being defined by its most extreme elements.  In the same way that very few pro-life advocates bomb abortion clinics, and very few Muslims hijack airplanes, and very few Catholic priests are pedophiles, and very few mathematicians are Ted Kaczynski.  To accept this stereotype of feminism is not just incorrect, it is intellectually lazy and morally wrong.  It betrays not only the very real, very necessary accomplishments of feminists throughout history, it also betrays the millions of women here and abroad who still suffer at the hands of misogyny.

The word feminist has been hijacked by those threatened by the equality of women.  It has been painted with a broad and ugly brush.  Would a Second-Amendment advocate renounce the right to bear arms because some psychopath shot up a school?  Would you deny your faith to disassociate yourself from the handful of extremists who commit atrocities in the name of your religion? 

If you are a woman and you appreciate your education, or your wages, or the right to vote, or the right to leave an abusive husband or prosecute a rapist or have access to medical care or select your own spouse or say no to a sexual overture, thank a feminist.  If you love a woman and are happy that she has these rights, do the same.  If you were ever treated by a female doctor or educated by a female teacher or raised by a loving mother, you have been the direct beneficiary of everything that feminism has fought—and continues to fight—for.

Feminism is a word.  Look it up in a dictionary; it has a specific meaning: the belief in the equality of humans regardless of gender.  If you believe in this equality, say so.  Don’t let the extremists or the sexists scare you away from what is rightfully yours.

Sisterhood is global.  Pass it on.  And work toward the day when the word feminist truly is irrelevant.  It is long past time to take back the F word.

*Defined as earning less that $17,568/year for a single-parent family with two children, or $22,113/year for a two-parent family with two children.

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