What happens when groups who share common concerns are divided over the name of their mission but maybe not over the core principles? I’d say that distraction happens, drawing attention away from what is important. That’s what’s happening now, with feminism.
Many are uncomfortable with a label that seemingly reduces people to a single dimension. People are messy and changeable. Ideas are too. So how can a label accurately capture all that uncertainty?
We can’t let ourselves be distracted from important thinking and work
It’s time to remind ourselves, and each other, what feminism is mostly about, and why. Clearly, not every issue that falls under the umbrella of feminism will be of equal concern to all women, but the underlying principles of social, economic and political equality are far-reaching and improve everyone’s lives – whether female or male – across the globe.
Note here that I say, across the globe. Local politics are usually more robust than national politics because people feel they can connect – something that is hard to achieve, or even imagine, on a massive scale. We are more drawn to help a single child or family than a community of 100,000. So when I say global, I know that I risk losing people. But I am a pragmatic idealist. I believe that people are more the same than we are different. We all need love, food, and shelter. We all want to feel safe. We want to participate. I think that if you spoke to men and women anywhere, you would hear them expressing the same fundamental dreams.
I’m comfortable embracing the label “feminism” precisely because the movement it describes is uncertain and messy, and its priorities, ideas, and approaches keep shifting. But this is the core: feminism advances women’s equality through systemic change.
Today, some women like to proclaim that their personal actions are their form of feminism, and they’re not interested in activism or collective efforts. But these women fail to recognize that their individual expression or success comes on the back of a movement. Walking into your boss’ office, asking for a raise, because the guy sitting next to you is earning more for the same job — and winning that raise — occurs not solely because of your self-assertion or the largess of your boss, but because feminist action shone a light on the issue of unequal pay and because of the hard-won equal-pay legislation that followed as a result of that action.
Winning those rights and protecting them requires vigilance
Consider a young woman in North America who thinks she can wear whatever she wants and flip a finger at the status quo, only to hear a judge tell her in a rape case that she should have dressed differently, drank less, closed her legs during the attack. She must realize she shares a fragility of freedom with women around the globe. That freedom was shattered for women in Iran. Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, women in Iran were educated, had careers, fully participated in society, and dressed in much the same manner as women in North America. Then, with the assent of a repressive regime, women’s rights were severely curtailed. They were denied access to work, forced to dress according to a strict Islamic dress code, and relegated to the home and control of fathers, husbands and brothers. Now, that treatment of women in Iran is considered the status quo.
We challenge the status quo in various ways
Let me share a seemingly non-contentious “feminist” strategy to illustrate how meaningful change occurs to challenge the status quo — and how far-reaching it can be. Are you someone who enters a room in the summer and immediately makes sure the air conditioning control is set at 21 degrees C (70 F)? Or do you enter an air-conditioned public space with a sweater in hand, look around for the air vents and move as far away from them as you can?
If the former, you’re well aligned with many men. Why? In the 1960s, when central air conditioning had become standard, it was primarily men who occupied workplaces. Men wore suits, winter and summer; air conditioning allowed for this.
Now, many more women occupy those workspaces. Women frequently complain that public spaces are far too cold, keep sweaters and jackets on hand all summer, and even use space heaters to counter the air conditioning. This is 2016 and one of the biggest threats we face is climate change. Energy use is a key contributor, and over-using air-conditioning is a misuse of energy.
Heavily cooled space was normalized in the 1960s, but that doesn’t make it inviolate or right. I once owned a building where 40 employees worked. We considered the comfort of all staff when we set the temperature. I found that the best practice was to ask everyone to accommodate to a mid-point. The compromise of 25 C (77 F) was cool for some and warm for others, but no one froze and no one baked, and for many, the temperature was just right.
Despite our concerns about energy use, buildings are still over-cooled and here is an opportunity to recognize that rethinking what has become the norm advances more than just the comfort of some individuals. It recognizes that we have to change how we use energy. But it’s also worth recognizing that those least likely to challenge the status quo are those who established the status quo in the first place.
But the status quo we’re used to, as in the example of overly cooled public space, has no inherent meaning. It became a norm and people accepted it, or fought against it as if it were a truth. It’s not a truth. It’s a practice that simply occurred at a time when we didn’t know better. Now we know we can’t afford the misuse of energy or discomfort of half the workforce. So let’s look at what will work in today’s context. Let’s look at issues with fresh eyes, and not just in terms of the status quo.
Again and again, we encounter practices and policies that were designed for one demographic, and excluded too many others. Consider another. For a long time, most research into heart health was conducted on white males. What could it reveal about non-white men and women? Not much. Indeed, until recently, emergency response teams didn’t identify the symptoms of a woman having a heart attack, as they differed significantly from what a man experiences. All medical people could do with such male-centric research was extrapolate and make assumptions. The fascinating thing about assumptions is how often they’re wrong. We fail to recognize our own bias or the limitations of a theory.
What is feminism really about?
So back to the F-word. If you look up “feminism” in several dictionaries, the definitions are virtually identical:
- The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
- An organized effort to give women the same economic, social, and political rights as men
- Advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men
- The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men.
While there are different types of feminism, there is a deep history that gives meaning to these definitions. It’s not meaningful or helpful to focus our discussion on the label, which keeps returning us to the fundamental question of whether women across the globe should be working towards achieving economic, social and political rights equal to men. Yet, too often, women get mired in arguing about who is or isn’t a feminist and why.
Rather than engaging in this distraction, let’s figure out what the real resistance to feminism is and where it’s coming from. That may highlight why the resistance is so strong. Don’t assume that the only resistance comes from men; women of privilege are often strong deniers of feminism. Economic, social and political equality for any group is only problematic if the group holding the power believes sharing is a zero-sum game, meaning if one gains then another loses. We have been led to believe that you’re either winning or losing; you’re an insider or an outsider. But that’s not actually how feminism — or the world — works; both are filled with subtlety.
When we embrace the idea that women’s success, achievement, and inclusion does not come at the expense of men’s, but, rather, enriches the whole, we find there is ample space for everyone. And that is what feminism is working towards. So don’t let the distractions derail us. Focus on what matters. And let’s work together to achieve inclusion.