“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” – Audre Lorde on feminism
I had a discussion with a male friend a few years ago about feminism. I remember clearly discussing the topic with him because he told me feminism was not needed anymore. He told me that we have already arrived at gender equality because women have the same rights as men. That women have the same opportunities as men and that for this reason, among many others, is why the movement for female equality is unnecessary in today’s world.
Initially, I thought my friend was absurd, that there was most definitely still a need for gender equality. But what started off as a simple water-cooler conversation with my friend turned into a journey of fruitful debates with others who agreed with him. I started to see more and more people agreeing that feminism is an old flame that needs to be extinguished and I discovered that there has been an entire anti-feminism movement right under my nose.
The Definition of feminism
The most important aspect to touch on before we dive into the anti-feminism movement, and my counter-response to it, is to understand the definition of feminism. In its simplest form feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. Thus, it is a movement focused on women’s issues because, arguably, they are the most urgent and widespread. This makes sense when you look back to first-wave feminism in which suffragettes fought for the right for women to vote. In second wave feminism women fought for equal representation and opportunities in the workplace. Nowadays with third-wave feminism, we are focused on reproductive rights, sexual exploitation, equal pay, sexual assault and more women to be in positions of power/authority, among many other issues.
It is important to note that the perspective I just presented, of first, second and third-wave feminism, is based on many developed nation’s advancements and does not take into consideration countries in which women’s issues have not progressed as much.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, women were only allowed to drive cars as recently as 2018. Women also still need to have an official male guardian in order to give them permissions, such as getting married, travelling or having a medical procedure. It is clear that feminism is on a completely different level in Saudi Arabia when compared to many other countries. This is why this argument needs to consider that your position on feminism will be defined largely by the country you live in/come from.
The anti-feminism movement
Now that we have an understanding of the essence of feminism, let’s take a look at these ‘anti-feminists‘.
A particularly strong advocate for the anti-feminist movement is Lauren Southern. A few years ago her video entitled ‘Why I am not a Feminist’ went viral. The video currently has over a million views as it sparked a worldwide debate on the meaning of feminism and how it has turned into a movement against “true” gender equality. The crux of her argument is based on the premise that feminists aren’t fighting for equality because they remain silent on men’s issues, and I have to say I somewhat agree with her.
There isn’t enough support for men’s issues such as imprisonment and prison conditions, suicide and homicide rates, as well as being more likely to lose custody of children than women. Although these are hugely important issues, we can’t forget that just because some feminists are silent on these issues, doesn’t mean all are. In the United States, for example, feminists fought to change the federal definition of rape to include male victims, they fought for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, and they continue to fight to end sexual violence in the military. Feminists also fought for an end to gendered segregation at work and in school and because of this men can be nurses and primary school educators.
Now, as a counter-argument to Lauren’s rhetoric, I could offer you all the statistics in the book on women’s oppression in every country around the world. From the proven gender pay gap to the fact that women’s sexual and reproductive rights are constantly at risk by male lawmakers. But for the sake of argument, and the fact many of us are familiar with them, I would like to propose a different perspective on why feminism is still crucial even in 2021 and why it’s so much bigger and complex than you think.
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Gender Microaggressions
As hugely important as the facts and statistics of inequality are, we should never overlook the power that microaggressions have on someone’s life. In a TEDxTalk from 2017, Paula Stone Williams discusses what it is like to live as a man and a woman. Paula transitioned from being a man to being a woman rather late in her life. But it means she has seen very clearly what the experience of living as a male is like, versus living as a female, in the United States. She explains how she began to feel “stupid” becoming a woman because men would always mansplain to her. She felt angry because she was told she was wrong all the time, not taken seriously and felt her voice was lessened as she was now a woman. The stories she detailed revolve around the unique hardships of experiencing gender microaggressions.
According to Momentous Institute, “Gender microaggressions are small, seemingly innocuous comments that can pile up over time and affect a person’s sense of self and identity. These microaggressions can become so commonplace that we don’t even notice them”. From the “harmless” jokes in the locker room to the language we use to describe genders, it affects all of us on either a conscious or unconscious level. People tend to describe a man as a leader, whereas a woman is bossy. A man is smart and logical but a woman is overly emotional and hysterical. So, it’s no surprise that women have a large disadvantage when trying to obtain a leadership position, no matter what country they are in.
“The late Kenyan Nobel peace laureate Wangari Maathai put it simply and well when she said “the higher you go, the fewer women there are” ” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Gender Biases and how they shape your future
Another detrimental shortcoming in society is gender biases and stereotypes, both of which can strongly influence both men and women’s lives. For example, stereotypes about women’s performance actually impact how well they do on exams. When participants in a study were told that one math test has significant gender differences, females performed significantly worse than their male peers. Whereas women who were told there was no difference, scored the same as their male counterparts. This phenomenon is known as the Stereotype Threat and it is a contributing factor to long-standing gender gaps in academic performance.
Girls pick up on these gender normative biases as early as six years old. In one experiment, girls and boys aged 6 were told a story about a person who is really, really smart and ask who they think the protagonist is, both girls and boys picked a male character. In a similar experiment, boys and girls aged 6 were asked if they wanted to play a game which was for people who are really, really smart, the boys wanted to play the game but the girls had decided that the game wasn’t for them. It is clear to see how growing up these biases can shape your life as an adult too. It may also be a strong contributing factor for the lack of opportunities for women to work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematic) fields.
However, studies show that when women do strive to work in STEM fields there are significant barriers. In a double-blind study, science faculty from research universities rated applications for a lab manager position, but what they didn’t know was that the applications were randomly assigned either a male or female name. As a result, faculty perceived the male applicant names to be significantly more competent, hirable and deserving of mentorship even though the applications with female names were identical. Men were also offered higher starting salaries, with an average of $30,000 for male applicants and an average of $26,000 for female applicants. This research brings a sobering reality that there are still inequalities that we didn’t even know existed and that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to equal opportunity.
Feminism is a movement that fights for women who are facing monumental odds. But it is also paving the way for gender inclusivity and equality that benefits society as a whole. Feminism is about supporting and empowering people, which is something that is still needed even in 2021. We have made great global strides towards gender equality but that doesn’t mean we should slow down now. There are inequalities prevalent in every country and in every society and thus a need for feminism.
Goal number 5 of the united nations Sustainable Development Goals concerns gender equality. The UN aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. But as of right now no country is on track to achieve this goal by 2030, and the implications of the pandemic are presenting an even bigger challenge for achieving this goal.
So, What can we do to Help?
It’s not good enough anymore for us to wash our hands and say we aren’t misogynistic, we have to be anti-patriarchy, anti-misogyny and anti-sexist. We need to uplift women and empower them every chance we get. We need to work to construct life without societal expectations and microaggressions on both sides of gender. Finally, we all need to actively work to fight back against institutionalised sexism, and work for equal opportunity and equal lives.
I am leaving a link below to an informative Instagram post to get you started on your journey to becoming an ally to women and girls. We can all be changemakers, so let’s do this together.
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Don't stop here! If you are interested in reading more about how predjudice, discrimination and steroetypes affect our society. You might also like "Stereotypes: Why we need them, why they are harmful, and how to overcome them"
Starting a dialogue is one of the best places to start when it comes to addressing gender inequality. So please share your fruitful thoughts down below.