Why Feminism?

There was a time, I hereby admit, when I was reluctant to call myself a feminist. It was all, I thought, in good faith. A good faith, it turns out, that wasn’t so good after all. We all like to think that our behavior and our opinions are justified, and often our subconscious is a great ally in helping us to suppress the inconvenient things that can potentially shake the foundations of our beliefs.

Why does it have to be called feminism? I thought. Can’t we just say equality? I specifically remember one incident that brought this seemingly innocuous position into conflict with what I thought I stood up for. It was a discussion with a close friend of mine, many years ago. It had started out as a casual talk about the various ways in which women are disadvantaged in society, but quickly got subverted by my questioning of the term under which to analyze and attack such injustice; feminism.

I must have opted for raising my concerns at a particularly insensitive moment of the conversation, because my friend went completely ballistic, and delivered a roughly minute-long, emotionally charged speech. Dumbfounded, as through a fog, I slowly absorbed the message.

Whenever you discuss gender inequality, inadvertently you spend most of the time complaining about the word feminism, instead of acknowledging and worrying about the issues facing oppressed people. Ouch. Women, because they are women, have suffered thousands of years of economic, political and social oppression, have been degraded, humiliated, objectified, abused, labeled less intelligent, burned as witches… and you can’t grant us one word, just one word, in honor of all these injustices? Yikes.

My friend comes from a broken working class family and had endured conditions that had left her emotionally vulnerable, and she had faced layer upon layer of oppression and social injustice throughout her as of then not too long a life. And there I was, taking up her time and making her upset by being what can only be described as a fucking idiot. That had to be it. I had this creeping feeling, too, that I was being a part of the problem, not a part of the solution, despite my solemn declarations that I was “for equality”. And, as Germaine Greer succinctly asked at a recent conference:

Equality […] what with? With the current state of men? With the corporate society we live in, which is unjust to everybody in it? [1]

Not only is the notion of equality a way to implicitly gloss over what is a patriarchal system, in which women have been subordinated to men, but it is in fact not the right word to start with. What we need is liberation, not from one but from all of the oppressive systems that put shackles on us in various ways. This is what we arrive at with a radical analysis that connects the dots – the struggle against oppression necessarily has to be the struggle against all forms of oppression, a struggle for liberation.

It doesn’t take long to bring down a house of cards, and I later realized that I had to own up to what I thought I believed in, and start supporting and fighting with those to whom I could extend my solidarity, instead of derailing said struggles with privileged, pseudo-intellectual self-centered bullshit. Not only that, but their fight was inherently connected to me as well, because feminism is the struggle against patriarchy and gender stereotypes which inevitably oppress, constrain or define everyone in some way. In its radical interpretation, it also concerns more than the dismantling of patriarchal structures, in that it is a starting point for liberation that goes way beyond gender roles, offering everyone a hope for a better and more just society in other regards as well.

In this sense, solidarity in itself is as much a realization of the interconnectedness we share as a willingness to help others. By helping others, we also help ourselves. And for me, that struggle would have to start with scrutinizing my own thought process, and my own behavior, because once I became willing to look beyond emotional argumentation, I realized how much of the oppressive and stereotypical patterns we reproduce in our own everyday lives. The personal is, necessarily, political, because the politics of all those personal acts hit back at us with the force of all the coercive institutions in our society.

One of the big problems here is that we tend to look at things from a purely personal and emotional perspective when it comes to behavior. For instance, a man is quite likely to say that he doesn’t like to cook or clean the house because he simply doesn’t enjoy it or doesn’t care about it, and that it’s not his fault that women don’t like being highly paid IT engineers. This completely misses the way in which our society conditions people into these roles and from a very early age clearly and constantly tells us what is the proper behavior expected from our gender (never mind trying to force people into rigid binary gender identifications to start with), while at the same time systematically devaluing the work typically associated with women, and overvaluing the work typically associated with men. But until we make a conscious efforts to look beyond ourselves, we’re stuck in an individual bubble that fails to explain any systemic causes.

A lot of people have done just that, in various ways challenging the powers that be, taking things into their own hands. From the suffragettes, running down Oxford Street, smashing windows and going on hunger strikes, to those with almost opposite views of the struggle for woman’s liberation, such as Emma Goldman. The suffragettes showed us that tactics of direct action can render results, and that popular movements most often consist of a militant and relentless contingent, as well as a more broad and popular mass. Emma Goldman, on the other hand, correctly predicted that a vote for women would not purify “something which is not susceptible of purification”. [2] Instead, she argued that one cannot plead for true liberation, but rather has to take matters into one’s own hands:

The right to vote, or equal civil rights, may be good demands, but true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in woman’s soul. History tells us that every oppressed class gained true liberation from its masters through its own efforts. It is necessary that woman learn that lesson, that she realize that her freedom will reach as far as her power to achieve her freedom reaches. [3]

It is here possible to interpret Goldman’s liberatory politics as more focused on causes rather than symptoms. Under-representation in politics, economics and the likes here being the symptom, with the prevailing attitudes permeating social institutions and the entire society, being the cause. And certainly, if we magically could establish 50-50 representation for women on all levels, we still would have done little to change the underlying patriarchal tendencies, or, as Goldman herself put it, it is unlikely that we would have “purified” the system as such.

Striving for tangible results such as equal pay for equal work or representation for the sake of establishing role models can indeed be meaningful, both in itself and in the sense of uniting and driving movements forward, but we cannot forgo a deeper attack against the structures behind these symptoms if we want to achieve true liberation. Neither can any aspect of liberation be taken for granted, as for instance the important efforts of the Mujeres Libres in revolutionary Spain show us. Not even the revolutionary conditions of those days guaranteed a liberatory space for women without the active participation and acquisition of such a space by the women themselves, in their instituting of schools, newspapers, sanctuaries, meetings and lectures for the benefit of woman’s emancipation. This always has to be an ongoing process – to realize liberation by constantly reclaiming one’s own power.

The way we look at leadership today is a striking example of problems deeper than mere representation. It is not only a matter of women being systematically prohibited from full participation, men enjoying privileged speaking [4], being paid more [5] and being overrepresented in leading positions in all sorts of organizations. We actually see stereotypical male attributes as good leadership attributes, and stereotypical leadership attributes as male attributes. They become one and the same here, with the implicit message that men are good leaders. Meanwhile, women in leading positions are often interpreted as women with masculine attributes. No wonder then that women find it hard to measure up to a society that expects them to be caring, nurturing, soft and good looking to be appreciated as women, and then an entirely different set of attributes to be considered successful in their careers or in leadership positions.

Maybe our society actually promotes pretty dubious attributes for those in leading positions, and maybe this has serious consequences, not only for those thereby marginalized, but also for society at large. Indeed, research shows that psychopaths are overrepresented as CEOs, and that these figures might actually be lower than the actual ones due to adaptive strategies. [6] [7] Another clue can be gleamed by examining some of our closest relatives among the primates. While chimpanzees live in highly hierarchical and patriarchal groups, where violence and subordination is common, the bonobos live in matriarchal societies where the females play a significant role, the hierarchies are weaker and deadly violence, even between different groups, is unheard of.

With all this in mind, I don’t think that what we need is more women acting like men, but rather, if anything, more men acting like women. To achieve that we have to not only stop marginalizing women as such, but also the attributes we associate as typically female. At the end of the day, we should relate to each other as humans, as sentient beings, really, and not as genders, and what we should value are attributes and tendencies that help us build societies free from violence, oppression and emotional deficits. In many ways, strength is today construed as a brick wall; firm, unyielding; but if you hit it for long enough it breaks into pieces. I want to be strong like the wind; soft; playful; impossible to break. That’s why I’m a feminist.


[1] Panel: ‘How to Be a Feminist’ (All About Women 2015) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jzcs4ti_bdI

[2] Woman Suffrage, Emma Goldman

[3] The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation, Emma Goldman

[4] http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/10-words-every-girl-should-learn/

[5] https://twitter.com/oecd/status/574528018959335425

[6] http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2011/06/14/why-some-psychopaths-make-great-ceos/

[7] http://www.hud.ac.uk/news/2014/july/psychologygraduatesdissertationacceptedbyacademicjournal.php

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