Why I Still Call Myself a Feminist

Recently, many people have asked me why I still choose to identify as a feminist, especially since I dislike some of the excesses of contemporary Western feminism. I am wary of those strands of feminism which encourage young women to think of themselves primarily as powerless victims, a school of thought sometimes called “fainting couch feminism.” I reject the idea that Western countries like the US and UK are “rape cultures” (rapists are widely abhorred by the majority of the public in both societies). I am also skeptical of the reality of the wage gap. While women certainly earn less than men, on average, I have yet to see convincing proof that we earn less than men for exactly the same work. I even believe that, in the West, men are in some regards the disadvantaged sex. I share at least two of the concerns voiced by the men’s rights movement: divorced and unmarried fathers are often unjustly deprived of access to their children and male circumcision (a barbaric practice) is legal in most Western countries and widely practiced in the United States.

However, I still believe it is important to fight for women’s rights. On a global scale, far more women than men suffer disadvantages, discrimination and oppression on the basis of their sex. In a wide slew of populous countries, female genital mutilation is commonplace – generally in forms which cause unspeakable lifelong pain and suffering. In many parts of the world, child brides are legal; marital rape is condoned; women are beaten and imprisoned for dressing “immodestly” or doused with acid for not bringing sufficient dowry. Our safety, bodily integrity and health are under threat almost everywhere outside the developed world. Double standards abound. Sky-clad Jain monks live their lives completely naked and are venerated, while women are shamed for the natural functions of our female bodies: made to cover our hair and faces; starved and ostracized as widows; banished to menstrual huts during our periods. We are even denied the right to life itself, simply because of our sex. In India alone, nine million girl babies are missing, the victims of sex-selective abortions, often forced on the mothers. 

In the secular West, women have largely achieved legal parity with men and most people support the equality of the sexes. But I fear that some of that support may be only skin deep. A man who has repeatedly expressed complete disdain for women, who has intruded into women’s dressing rooms to ogle half-naked beauty contestants and boasted about forcing his Tic-Tac scented kisses on the unsuspecting (whether this was a confession or mendacious bragging is irrelevant here) is in the White House, attempting to pass laws to restrict women’s access to reproductive health care. Meanwhile, on the left, many mealy-mouthed cultural relativists and apologists for conservative religions are willing to overlook horrific injustices against women so long as the perpetrators are brown-skinned or the customs colorfully “ethnic.” Many are so afraid of appearing racist that they are willing to gloss over crimes against women. As a result, a mass gang of child rapists in Rotherham went unpunished for an extraordinary length of time and there has yet to be a single prosecution for FGM in the UK. Magazines, TV presenters and pundits on the left have been glamorizing modesty garments such as hijab, while some right-wing commentators are nostalgic for an age in which women were restricted to the traditional roles of wife and mother. While people call for boycotts of Israel, we turn a blind eye to the abuses of our “ally” Saudi Arabia, a country whose women are kept in literal slavery. Linda Sarsour, an apologist for sharia, even helped organize the Women’s March. Even in the West, too many people are simply not consistently or wholeheartedly committed to women’s rights and are far too ready to sacrifice the wellbeing of women and girls on the altar of political correctness. Our dignity and freedoms as women are under attack from religious conservatives (of all religions) on the right, cultural relativists on the left.

My feminism is not about demonizing men. I don’t want to fight a battle of the sexes. This is not about men versus women. Women can hold deeply regressive and sexist ideas about other women, while men can be passionate advocates of gender equality. Women can be oppressors of women and men can be our supporters and allies. It’s also not just about the label. I share many ideas and views with those who call themselves gender egalitarians, humanists and even, in some cases, anti-feminists. What people choose to call themselves is less important than what they believe and how they speak and act as a result.

But I remain a feminist because I strongly believe that the sex chromosomes you have inherited (or the sex you choose to transition to) should never be allowed to determine your opportunities in life or your worth as a person. Even in the West, we should not take women’s rights and freedoms for granted. We need to make sure they are consistently upheld and defended. And I’d like to see those same rights and freedoms extended to my sisters all over the world.

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13 comments

  1. Obviously this is a very relevant subject on international women’s day, and I greatly respect the author’s perspective here. I don’t want to argue against you (author) as I largely think you’ve got things right (I do however agree with commenters who think you value the label a bit too highly). I’ve listened a great deal to the Honeybadgers. When you used FGM as an example of women facing discrimination, it occurred to me that they often rhetorically ask how many of the countries that practice FGM also practice MGM. Have you looked into that at any point?
    Immediately afterwards I got the idea to check how old the international days for men and women are, and it turns out that there’s a gap of more than 80 years and that international women’s day is older. I most certainly care about women’s issues, but I’m sympathetic to the claims from MRAs like the Honeybadgers when they argue that we’re very likely to be biologically hardwired to value women over men and to value men based on their ability to protect women for evolutionary reasons, which granted the premise of Feminism is a necessity for the movement’s success, as if men didnt care about women they wouldn’t listen to the complaints. Of course, today is women’s day so let’s focus on women’s problems, but let’s not try to pretend that we as a species care more about what happens to men than to women. I for one certainly don’t, and I think denying that is a prerequisite for movements getting out of hand like modern feminism has today. There’s probably a reason it’s become so common to say that society should be judged by how it treats women (never mind the men), and it’s remarkable how it’s conflated with societies’ weakest members. If they didn’t say otherwise one might conclude that most feminists think women are inferior to men. Well, I don’t think different is equivalent to inferior, and I’m sure you don’t either, unless we specify a metric.

    Women’s rights need to be defended. Men’s right’s need to be defended. Don’t allow your (reader) advocacy of one to blind you to the other. Even if many people think (like Linda Sarsour) that the benefits of Sharia outweigh the disadvantages, there are other problems with it, such as the way it suggests treating non-muslims in muslim-majority countries. It’s as if it was designed to make the non-muslims lie about their beliefs, and that’s a terrible habit to get into. How does what you proclaim to believe matter if you don’t understand the implications for action? It’s very much like Feminism in that regard, in that it seems to be more about spreading a label than actually making the world a better place.

    P.S: I realize it might not sound like I’m serious when I say that women’s rights need to be defended. The problem is that at this point in time I’m not aware of many problems that women uniquely struggle with without getting something in return (if you would like to point me to one, please check if Karen Straughan has a video essay on it first; most are more complicated than I would like to admit). Traditions that say that women can’t do something because they are women can become extremely harmful to women, as is exemplified by the need for a male heir (of the farm/household, presumably because women shouldn’t have to take responsibility for it) where it motivates the murder of female children. Traditions shouldn’t be so set in stone in my opinion, and it’s a real cause I can get behind. If I knew of others, I would be more active in advocating women’s rights. However, I would not call myself a feminist. I wouldn’t want to give advocates for bad ideas (like equality of outcome) more firepower by adding to the percentage of the population they could say agrees with them without actually checking anything beyond the label. As it stands, it seems to me like one of the primary threats to women’s rights is action derived from academic feminism.

  2. It’s commendable that you don’t buy into propaganda of the zeitgeist and stay skeptical. Also praiseworthy is that you want to help women around the world and recognize that men have problems, too.

    However, you made an argument not for what you believe in that must be done, but for the *label*, and I think you failed to make the case by a long shot. ‘Why I call myself a unicorn’ or ‘the last mohican’ or ‘the true Scotsman’ are more fitting titles. It’s your right to interpret feminism however you want, call yourself whatever you want but your “my feminism” and group of “my sisters” don’t exist outside your fantasy. You could call yourself a “womenrightist” “equalrightwithemphasisonwomenist” for all I care, but the public image of feminism and how the word feminism is interpreted are beyond your control. The public image depends not only on the observer, such as myself or anybody else, but more so the collective actions of every self-identified feminist. You can try to make a case for why your interpretation represents the mainstream or even a fringe stream of feminism, but you will fail. You’re a unicorn and I’m not saying it pejoratively. I have to emphasize that I’m not making fun of you and you got the right, but it doesn’t change the fact that self-identified feminists like you either don’t exist or don’t call themselves one.

  3. Hello there, Two Someones:

    1) I detailed the points I feel Men Rights Activists are correct about in the essay.

    Other Someone:

    There’s nothing begrudging about my feminism. Nor is there any liberal bashing going on here, except in your fevered imagination.

    ‘Islamophobia’ is a nonsense concept. No liberal or feminist can be a fan of conservative Islam, which is intrinsically illiberal, misogynistic and homophobic. This is different from anti-Muslim bigotry (which I do not have).

    Also, thank you for your suggestions as to how to structure my essay. However, I make a point of ignoring suggestions that appear ill informed or nonsensical and I will therefore do so in this case. Have a lovely day.

  4. “However, I still believe it is important to fight for women’s rights. On a global scale, far more women than men suffer disadvantages, discrimination and oppression on the basis of their sex.”

    The second sentence here should have been the first one of the essay, without all the odious qualifiers. The author clearly doesn’t think she has a strong case on this accurate sentence alone.

    Oh, and Islamophobia and liberal bashing mixed with grudging, hair-splitting feminism. Not surprising.

  5. “I share at least two of the concerns voiced by the men’s rights movement”

    “At least”. There are more? I’d douse myself in lighter fluid near a barbecue if I shared ANYTHING with those petulant idiots.

  6. Good piece. It must be said though that the author, when listing permutations of the roles and perspectives between the sexes, that conspicuously absent was: women can hold sexist views against men.

    If we’re going to address the remaining inequalities between the sexes in the West, it might help to be honest about the ways in which women are the beneficiaries of unequal treatment. Rather than just defending, for example, a woman’s reproductive rights, person’s acknowledge the absence of reproductive rights for men.

    Despite sharing many of the views expressed by the author, she inadvertently demonstrated that ‘feminism’ not about equality of the sexes, but only the rights of women. I don’t have a problem with the latter so long as there is an honest recognition that the former is not an actual goal of feminism.

  7. Excellent piece! I was thinking about the issue of “taking sides” during my morning commute…taking a side ends critical thinking. One must spend so much brain power protecting a “position” and ignoring reality…eventually it becomes nonsense.

  8. Randy: “so prove it?” I prove it in thought, word and action, to the best of my ability. But I’m not a magician, I can’t conjure something up for readers here. Daedalus: Thank you!

  9. “But I remain a feminist because I strongly believe that the sex chromosomes you have inherited (or the sex you choose to transition to) should never be allowed to determine your opportunities in life or your worth as a person.”

    That is not feminism, which is sexist in name, theory, and practice. That is egalitarianism. You claim it’s “not just about the label” so prove it. Surely it’s more important to make positive change for women, men, and everyone else, than it is to rehabilitate a toxic term.

  10. Great perspective. It seems most men and women who have not been overly politicized would find your point of view compelling. The remaining group – a minority of feminists at the one extreme and (possibly) a minority of conservatives at the other – dances a strange and destructive dance. The conservatives would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between women and potentially progressive men, and the branch of feminism that sprouted from “identity politics” is driving the wedge in for them.

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