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Feminism: Not a cringe-worthy word

CollegianMug-ZaraDeGroot
Zara DeGroot

Disclaimer: individuals who don’t agree with feminism, I encourage you to read to the end. My intent is not to offend. The first step to understanding feminism is realizing it is not a gender-exclusive issue.

If you had asked me last year what my thoughts on feminism were, I would have growled in your face and told you that I was a very big feminist and that you can shove your misogynistic theories back up where the sun don’t shine, thank you very much. Cue a dramatic walk through a beaded doorway curtain. This year, however, I have gained more knowledge about the topic and am learning what being a feminist really means. Apparently it is a lot more than yelling back profanities at men who catcall you on the street or assuming a man is objectifying you when he holds the door open for you. Although I do consider myself a feminist by definition, which is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities, and I will join the fight for women’s social and political equality until change is seen, I have run across a few problems with the feminist movement.

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The dictionary definition of feminism fails to mention non-binary gender identities, but aside from that, it defines feminism simply and straightforward. Yet we have made it so much more complicated through the years.

The biggest preconceived notion of feminism is that all feminists are active man-haters. While I understand that hate is not the the movement’s intent, there are women who are using feminism as their excuse to hate men. You can be a feminist by definition, but a man-hater by choice. But that should not affect your decision to fight for gender equality. If you choose to identify with the textbook definition of feminism, you know that the feminist movement has nothing to do with hating men. In fact, men are mentioned and defined as equal in the definition.

Early forms of feminism can date back to ancient Grecian times, but feminism really gained momentum and became a movement during the mid-1800s, during a time of social and industrial change. The first wave of feminism, marking the beginning of the movement, began in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention where hundreds of men and women rallied in support of equal rights for everyone. Did you hear that? Men were there too, fighting for women’s rights! Yet my academic experience failed to emphasize that part.

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Women protesting for equal rights at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

The goal of the first wave, and the purpose of feminism in general, was to create more opportunity for women by fighting for the right to vote and get an education. Women basically just wanted to have a voice in society. If it hadn’t been for Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who created the Seneca Falls Declaration, an explication listing the numerous objections to and resolutions for achieving equal rights, women would not be able to vote and a woman would definitely not be running for president.

What is often overlooked during the first wave of feminism was the exclusion of women of color. White, middle, upper class women were the ones fighting for the right to get educated and have a career. While white women had already made some headway into careers and education, it was women of color and of lower social status who had little to no choice when it came to education and jobs, and who ironically struggled to find their place in the movement. Women of color, mostly black women, often had to choose which movement they would identify with. Finding the intersection between social movements was difficult, and resources for fighting the oppression they received for their race and gender were scarce. However, Sojourner Truth, a woman born into slavery and an abolitionist and women’s right activist in the 1800s, gave a speech in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio addressing the fact that there were many types of women who deserved the same social rights.

Many would argue that she set the precedent for the feminist movement by shedding light on basic civil rights for every woman, no matter their race, social status or background. Her speech is considered to be one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches, and it is read and presented by women today.

Apparently this was a movement worth creating another wave for, because the second wave of feminism began in the 1960s. This wave focused on attaining equal social rights, like reproduction and sexuality. Feminist radicalism started to unfold, as the second wave gave rise to groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). While the women involved in leading the second wave were fighting for completely justified causes, a major criticism of this wave was once again, the exclusion of women of color. It did, however, center around differentiated gender roles.

“The second wave was increasingly theoretical, based on a fusion of neo-Marxism and psycho-analytic theory and began to associate the subjugation of women with broader critiques of patriarchy, capitalism, normative heterosexuality, and the woman’s role as wife and mother. Sex and gender were differentiated — the former being biological, and the latter a social construct that varies culture-to-culture and over time,” said Martha Rampton, the director of the Center for Gender Equity at Pacific University.

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It was also during this time that birth control was legalized in the United States. This, too, is a part of women’s history that I find was strangely never emphasized in our traditional educations, despite the fact that it took two social upheavals for birth control to become legal. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916. After having many run-ins with the law regarding contraceptives, she continued fighting for this well into her 80s. In 1950, she jumpstarted the research needed to create the first human birth control pill. In 1972, the Supreme Court legalized birth control for women irrespective of their marital status. Reproductive rights for women are still a huge controversy in America, but the creation and legalization of contraceptives and the birth control pill have provided women freedom of their bodies.

Even though the gender spectrum began to grow and sexual expression became more popular during the second wave, the word “feminism” implied and still implies femininity. However, not all women have chosen to indulge in that feminine side. That is why in the 1960s and 70s women began fighting against the hyper-sexualization they received by the media. In 1968, women’s liberation groups from across the nation gathered at the Miss America pageant in New Jersey to protest women being paraded around like “cattle.” These feminists believed that a false beauty standard was set by these pageants, and that it was negatively affecting many young girls and women.

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Women protesting at the Miss American pageant in New Jersey in 1968.

Still, in the 21st century, the media loves to sexualize everything, and women are their target. Sex sells, and the media knows our society will be avid consumers. But the third wave has brought about women who are reclaiming their femininity and sexuality. Lipstick and high heels were once viewed as forms of patriarchal oppression, but now they are being used as a form of empowerment. Descriptives such as “slut” and “bitch” are now being reclaimed by women, in efforts to dismantle the system of oppression that used these words to degrade women.

Celebrating these words that are commonly used to shame and debase individuals of any gender is a strange concept. I understand the motives behind women wanting to use these words on their own terms as a form of empowerment, but the meaning behind these names are still vulgar and shameful to many, and that should be something women always fight against.

The feminist movement set out in search of inclusivity and equality for all genders. Sure, there have been a few bumps in the road, and obviously not everything has been figured out. Still, whenever I tell someone I am a feminist or bring up a feminist topic I find thought-provoking, I am often met with audible groans, rolling of the eyes and a lot of sarcasm. Sometimes even the phrase, “Oh, you would be a feminist.” Well, yes I am a feminist, but what is so wrong with that?

And this is where we see our glaring problem, folks.

It seems like the bra-burning women (many feminists will argue that bras were never burned, however, a quick Google search will tell you otherwise) of the 60s and 70s were fighting for revolution, but about 40 years later, the feminist progress that has been made is often stigmatized as whining and complaining. This could be due to the fact that the internet is being used as a tool to share opinions, and the radical feminists are the ones getting the most attention online. But, whatever the case, there is no denying the fact that negative stereotypes of feminists and feminism pervade American collective consciousness. Not everyone wants to be involved in the man-hating and exclusivity of this cause, and that is understandable. But that is not what feminism is all about.

There are, in fact, multiple viewpoints of feminism. Feminism encompasses individuals from all walks of life, varying in experiences, and all having something worthwhile to share. There is not one kind of feminist out there.

Issues that are considered “feminist” are losing their importance because the feminist movement itself has swooped in to change it. Gender-based problems, for example body image and sexual assault, mainly affect women. But they are not only feminist issues. They are human issues.

A large topic of debate regarding feminism is the gender-pay gap. Many a man have disagreed with me on this, despite the obvious statistics, so I decided to take a look at the CSU 2014-2015 Fact Book of Employee Information to see if there is a difference in salary between men and women faculty. As it turns out, there is. On average, men who work at CSU on a 9-month appointment make $100,685. Women, also working on a 9-month appointment, make $86,836. There is not denying those statistics. A $13,849 difference is pay is unacceptable. However, many economists would argue that a pay gap like this could be a result of maternal leaves or any other gender-based expenses, and that very well may be true. But if that is the case, then those expenses should be clarified in the Fact Book, so there are no questions of gender discrimination with CSU’s salaries.

As you might assume, trying to figure out what feminism looks like for me has been a bit of a struggle, given that people challenge me when I bring up issues like the gender-pay gap. These are issues and social matters that I find worthy to be fought for. But because I identify as a feminist, I am afraid that people will get misconceptions of me. I don’t want to abandon my own personal beliefs of what being a woman is and what I want my marriage to look like. I don’t want to be told that that my identification with feminism is going against my faith. I don’t want to vocally pick a stance on social issues like abortion.

But I realized that I don’t have to.

I have had the revelation that I can make feminism into whatever I want it or need it to be for myself. The moment I realized that, I felt empowered. There is not one set way to live out your feminist beliefs because it means something different to everyone. It is important to remember that what you believe to be true and important is not necessarily what everyone else believes too. And that goes for anything, not just feminism.

It was around the time Emma Watson spoke at the United Nations Headquarters when I was figuring out how I identify with feminism. As the UN Women’s Global Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson advocates for gender equality worldwide, having seen the implications of gender inequality in different countries. Not only was it inspiring to see Hermione Granger speak out about a pressing issue, the way she explained the urgency of women’s equality was eloquent and direct. In my opinion, she presented feminism in an inclusive way, showing it as a movement that everyone must want to be involved with. She addressed the question of why the word “feminist” has become so uncomfortable and unpopular, and invited men to join in the fight to gender equality.

Emma was right to ask: “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcomed to participate in the conversation?”

Feminism should be used an avenue or means to enhance our respect for one another rather than making it an exclusive, anti-man club. There are actually groups of men who have joined with women to continue this fight until gender equality is achieved. With that in mind, when we view each other as humans, no matter how we identify, and join the fight to end issues like sexual assault, we will see results. Feminism, at its core, is not about the progression of women and women only. It is about the progression of everyone.

While I can understand why feminism is often viewed in poor light, I encourage you to reevaluate how you define it. By calling yourself a feminist, you are simply saying you believe women should be given the same opportunity as everyone else, and should be respected as such. No one is going to force you to make a blood oath and plaster “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” stickers all over your car. Feminism is much more than taking to the streets in protest and throwing feminine undercarriage in the trashcans.

Like Emma Watson said, if you cringe when you hear the word feminism, “It is not the word that is important. It’s the idea and the ambition behind it.”

Collegian columnist Zara DeGroot can be reached at letters@collegian.com, or on Twitter @zar_degroot. 

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