What does feminism mean? What does it mean to be a feminist?

Ask some people (Men’s Rights Activists, religious extremists, for example) and they’ll tell you it’s all about hating men, wanting to silence and subdue them and never taking responsibility when a nearby man can be blamed. Ask others and they’ll say it’s about equal access to opportunity by dismantling ingrained structures of gender-based injustice. Yet others may indeed say that men have fucked up the world so badly that only taking power away from them can give humanity hope for a future. Everyone seems to have their own idea of what feminism means and the endless tedious debates about semantics seem to entrench existing prejudice and suspicion more than they educate and foster communication.

So I can’t speak for anyone but myself when I say what feminism means to me.

I’m in the middle camp when I apply my rational reasoning skills to the topic. Getting rid of toxic messages about gender expectations and the associated injustices which arise from them seems like a good move for both women who have collectively suffered from male-dominated society and for men whose happiness, freedom and fulfilment have been stunted by the weight of those expectations. However, when I encounter the worst of misogynistic abuse online, when I’m arguing with a man who hijacks and derails conversations about assault or refuses to recognise gender privilege (even if he hasn’t always been a direct beneficiary of it), when some guy refuses to interpret “no thank you” as anything other than “if you harangue me for long enough I’ll open my legs”, I’ll admit I tend towards the former camp because emotional responses are rarely rational and this shit makes me angry.

I don’t think men are any ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than women, on the whole. There are fuckwits, dullards and shitheads in every grouping of people possible, just as there are kind hearts, joyous souls and sharp minds. The degree to which research on gender-related behaviour traits allows us to differentiate between the innate and the learned/imposed is pretty shallow (especially since a lot of the result depends on the funding, biases and interpretation of the research itself). So I have no opinion on the topic except to say that there’s a bell-curve for everything and while humanity on the whole is pretty predictable, individuals are indeed unique and surprising creatures in their own right.

I know a lot of men view efforts towards equality as tokenism, or ‘political correctness’ or even a malicious confiscation of their own opportunities and it’s easy to dismiss these as the sour grapes of a bunch of MRA incels, but that’s facile tribalism and doesn’t help any of us progress. I can sympathise with their position without supporting it – when the world has been arranged a certain way all your life, change to that environment must indeed be distressing and disturbing. I know some men do genuinely (albeit erroneously) believe that the disproportion of top jobs, opportunities, freedom and support they collectively (if not individually) benefit from are a result of their innate qualities in comparison to those of women, rather than a consequence of the structures build over centuries by….other men. I feel sorry for those characters, the idea that their overall success is a bug in the social code rather than a feature of the hardware itself must be a bit of a knock to the ego. That’s not to say that no man ever works hard or deserves to succeed – what I’m saying is that unless and until women can compete on a level playing-field, no conclusions about the comparative capabilities of either gender can possibly be accurately drawn.

Feminism for me is the desire to level the starting-ground between men and women so that the outcomes are not affected by the bias of assumption, expectation or ideology. It’s about reprogramming cultural norms so that sexual freedom and respect are not treated differently according to gender characteristics. It’s acknowledging that people deserve to be dealt with on the basis of their specific skills and qualities rather than their genes, genitals or gender identification. Right now, that’s not happening.

I have never burned a bra (when they cost £35-50 that seems like an impecunious waste), ‘bashed’ a man simply for being a man, or made a hiring decision based on gender.

I have however, dismissed some men’s opinions from scepticism about the clarity of their perspective. I’ve rolled my eyes when men get touchy about gender stereotyping or object to the phrase “toxic masculinity”*. I’ve objectified and depersonalised men in my mind. Not because I’m a feminist but because I’m a flawed human being whose perspective is biased by environment and experience, who happens to read a lot of feminist content – along with the hostile responses it generates. Being a feminist, to me, means being fair to women and men. It shouldn’t be a zero-sum game where a benefit to one group means a loss to another.

Neither ‘men’ nor ‘women’ are a respectively homogenous mass of faceless clones. Treating either group as such not only sets up arguments based on false logic but worse, erases non-binary people from the equation. However, individuals who are male-identified are on the whole treated differently at work, in the home, in social settings and in relationships, to those who are female-identified. While evolutionary biology might have an influence on that to some degree, no-one really knows if so or how much. Even if humans do have a biological disposition to behave a certain way towards others of the same and differing gender, biology is not necessarily deterministic.

I’d like for there to be a day when I can describe myself as “equalist” or “humanist” rather than “feminist”, however I fear that to do so at this time would derail attention from the specific issues of oppression, suppression, sidelining, ignoring, attacking and harassing of women by men that are happening right now in far greater numbers than to men by women. So for now I’m a feminist. One who is surrounded by men who are loving, who are kind, compassionate, fair-minded, have no intention to hurt or belittle but who sometimes find it hard to differentiate emotional reaction to change from rational analysis of the reasons for it. And who dislikes the vitriol spewed from the extreme outer edges of all sides of any given debate on gender issues.

*there’s a semantic debate for another day

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