Could you, might you, be a…feminist?
What is it about the word feminist that makes many women and men feel somewhere between uncomfortable and completed enraged? This question sprang to mind when listening to Dolly Parton on the Time 100 Talks series. She was asked why, as an icon for women and girls all over the world, she didn’t think of herself as a feminist. She answered by saying she found the question tricky, and that she supposed she was a feminist based on her belief that women should be able to do anything they want. She continued that she wasn’t ashamed of the title, but that there were just a group of people who fitted that category better than her.
If Dolly finds calling herself a feminist tricky, what hope have we mere mortals?
Let’s start with the negative connotations associated with the word feminist and work backwards. A handy summary of the negatives incudes things like:
- People associate the word with strong forceful and angry women, and society doesn’t like forceful women. Studies by behavioural scientists show that both women and men judge women more harshly for expressing exactly the same degree of passion.
- There is a fear that feminism means men will eventually lose out.
- People believe feminists want to control the world and put men down.
- They fear feminism will overturn time-honoured traditions, religious beliefs, and established gender roles. And that all feels scary and wrong.
- Many fear that feminism will bring about negative shifts in relationships, marriage, society, culture, power and authority dynamics if and when women are on an equal footing with men.
There are people who will actively promote these negatives to achieve their own agenda and are disinterested in revisiting their opinion. This #SHESpeaks is not aimed at them. Neither is it for those already comfortable with being a feminist. But if you haven’t really thought too much about this before; or if you have struggled along with Dolly in being labelled a feminist, read on. We want to work through what being a feminist means so that you can understand and decide for yourself could you be, or might you already be, a feminist.
Feminism is often described as coming in waves. Very briefly, the first wave was about women and men having an equal right to vote in elections. The second wave dates to the 1960s and 1970s and worked to dismantle laws that allowed unequal treatment, for example different rates of pay for men and women doing work of equal value. The third wave is associated with the latter decades of the last century and moves away from thinking of women as being one homogenous group, instead recognising that different women experience inequality in different ways. The portrayal of womanhood and the classification of attributes as being masculine and feminine began to be questioned more. There is an argument made that we have seen a 4th wave happen as a result of a more recent breaking of a silence about men’s treatment of women.
Underpinning all these waves of feminism is the notion of equality between men and women being incomplete. It has never been about special privileges to bring about supremacy for women or about being anti-men. Remember that it may suit the agenda of those in favour of the status quo for their own particular set of reasons to link the word feminist to these falsehoods. Instead, it has always been about challenging rules, customs, norms and perceptions that result in unequal outcomes for women.
The emphasis on outcomes is important. An EU survey in 2017 asked has gender equality been achieved in your country. In Ireland, 46% said yes, 48% no and 6% were unsure. And in terms of legislation, the 46% are correct. Discrimination in any form on grounds of gender is illegal. However, if you look at unequal outcomes, you begin to see where the 48% were coming from.
Unequal outcomes for men and women are real, not imagined. There are many, many examples. Here are three. There is a gender pay gap. On average, men in Ireland earn 14.4% more than women. Their pensions are 27.6% higher. The European Institute for Gender Equality calculate that men have 50%+ more power than women based on their assessment of the numbers of men and women in government and on boards. We could go on. And even get forceful and angry about it all.
Feminists are people who are concerned about unequal outcomes for women and men. They want to understand why they happen and want something to be done about them. Staying with the same examples, feminists will see affordable childcare and a change in attitude about who does the caring and housework within families as a way of reducing gender gaps in pay and pensions. They will want women and men to have an equal say in decisions that affect everyone and will favour actions to help more women to get elected to government and to boards.
So who are the feminists? They are the women and men who believe these unequal outcomes are real, they feel wrong to them, and they want to see them righted. If you can find nothing in that last sentence to disagree with and in fact it sounds a lot like you, you might have discovered that you too are a feminist. Congratulations!
 Special Eurobarometer 465. Gender equality.