A disconcerting number of celebrities and role models seem to think they’re doing an awful lot of good for mankind by declaring themselves a humanist or an equalist instead of a feminist. And as disappointing as this is, I do get it. In fact, two years ago, I called myself the exact same thing. Like them, I didn’t think feminism quite covered it. But I was wrong.
Firstly, let’s clear up the idea that this is an either/or situation. Humanism advocates for equality, tolerance, and secularism; it’s essentially the theory that humans do not require a deity in order to determine morality. So as an atheist with (I like to think) a pretty solid moral code, I’m definitely a humanist. And equalism is literally just the belief that all humans are equal—so yeah, I’m down with that one, too. But if you believe in the equality of all humans then surely that includes the equality of the genders. Feminism, here’s your cue.
I’m not even going to define the word feminism for you here, because that’s been done to death and if you still don’t know what it means you can find a few very good definitions right here. But needless to say, anyone who declares themselves actively not a feminist is automatically excluding themselves from the whole equalist thing. Phew, that was easy: we’ve already proved that anyone who believes in equal rights for all humans is, by definition, a feminist.
But now we’ll get people complaining that the word is exclusive (as I once did). So let’s go along with that for a second. Let’s hypothetically allow that the word “feminism” doesn’t adequately cover this belief system. Is this worth disregarding the whole movement and its history? Is it worth belittling the whole community of women who feel hurt, who feel angry, who feel helpless? Was it worth it for Meryl Streep to publicly dismiss the word, and therefore publicly minimise the arguments of the women who use it, all while promoting a film about women fighting for the fundamental right to vote?
And I wonder if anyone complaining that feminism is exclusive cares that the default pronoun in our language is “he”, or that the entire history of the human race is called “mankind”. If women and non-binary people can understand ourselves to be included in every manual, every pamphlet, and every textbook that excludes us from its language, then I don’t see why feminism should be such a stumbling block for men. Do a bit of the groundwork, dudes: see yourself represented in this word. We’ve been doing it our whole lives.
Now, let’s go back to that hypothetical. You know, the part where we pretended feminism was an inaccurate name for the movement in the first place. I have to disagree: it is women who have been systematically oppressed throughout history (and all who identify as women or whose gender identities include women, or those who experience oppression as women—in fact, pretty much everyone except cisgendered men). I could fill a whole library documenting the many ways in which women are still oppressed today, but I hope these are obvious enough that I don’t have to. I hope I don’t need to tell you about the wage gap, or the lack of women in management positions; I hope I don’t need to point out that we have a justice system that aims to blame teenage girls for their own rapes. And I hope that the relative progress made by white, cisgender, able-bodied women isn’t enough to block from everyone’s minds the struggles still faced by women of colour, transgender women, disabled women, and women in countries where they still do not have the right to vote, to be educated, to control their own bodies.
Of course, we’re leaving something out here. Systematic oppression is only one of the evils that feminism is trying to fight against; gender-based discrimination is another—and here is where the victim gets less clear-cut. I think we can all agree that men can be terribly affected by sexism, too; the most obvious and distressing symptom of this is seen in suicide rates. Women are far more likely to call suicide hotlines, yet of all the people who took their own lives in 2014, 78% of them were men. The gender expectations placed on men pressure them out of getting the help they need, or even pressure them into following through on their intended actions under the distorted guise of machismo. This appears to be an issue of sexism, but it’s nothing to do with feminism, right?
But look at it this way. These men felt tragically unable to ask for help—because that would be considered feminine.
Think about it. When else do we see gender-based discrimination directed at men? We see it against young boys who want to play with dolls or wear a dress to school. We see it against men who are physically weak, men who “throw like a girl” or “run like a girl”. We see it against gay men, who are deemed effeminate by their bullying peers. Whether men are in pursuit of femininity or trying to shed it, its presence defines them—just listen to the gender-specific insults that are hurled their way to see this first-hand. I haven’t changed my stance over the last two years: men need protection from sexism, too. But while men can be oppressed, masculinity never is.
It’s pretty clear: sexism only goes one way, and pure masculinity comes out on top. A “manly man” is the only winner here: the terms “manly woman”, “womanly man” and “girly girl” (and far more derogatory phrasings of each) are all used as insults. Femininity is embarrassing, loathsome even; any trace of it (whether in your biology or your behaviour) makes you the butt of a joke at best, and the victim of violent hatred at worst.
But femininity is pretty damn crucial. After all, what we class as femininity is really just a collection of emotions and characteristics traditionally assigned to women. What’s more, scientists aren’t all that convinced that gender is even particularly relevant to our character. So by oppressing femininity, we’re actually just oppressing things like empathy, sensitivity, tolerance and kindness—all of which are pretty useful regardless of your gender. And of course, by oppressing women themselves, we’re preventing more than half the human race from reaching their full potential. Which sounds like a pretty inefficient way to run the planet, if you ask me.
So yes, I’m a humanist, because I believe in the value and goodness of humans. And yes, I’m an equalist, because I believe all humans are equal. But calling on these terms in place of feminism seems rather like insisting straight people be represented in Pride, or white people represented in Black History Month. Pride can naturally cease to exist only when the rights of LGTBQ+ people are no longer challenged; #BlackLivesMatter can be replaced with #AllLivesMatter only when the equal worth of Black lives is no longer in question. And only when women are granted the same treatment as men; only when femininity in men and women is not despised or dismissed—only then will equalism be a valid alternative.
But right now, feminism seems a pretty accurate description of what’s needed. Don’t you think?
For more on this, here’s a really good article on why humanism and equalism aren’t enough on their own, and here’s a great (and sweary) one about checking your privilege and calling yourself a feminist.
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