Saga Jaubert is a final year War Studies & History student, particularly interested in how national security, intelligence, and nationalist politics shape international conflicts. In terms of non war-related interests, she also enjoys literature, theatre, and music, but hates the occasional small talk about Brexit.
[Featured image: a painting of female faces in front of a white background. The artist makes use of different shades of beige, pink and brown to convey the light and shadows forming soft curves on their skin, creating a feeling of tenderness and intimacy.]
I am very naive. I had the privilege of being raised by a very feminist mother who made sure to dispense upon her three children the same feminist education, regardless of the fact that she had one son and two daughters. The idea that I might be disadvantaged in certain future situations merely because I was female seemed preposterous to me. Even as I began to educate myself about feminism and its necessity, I was confronted by something that up until then had not really crossed my mind: not everyone in this world is or considers themselves a feminist.
During a conversation with some close female friends, the topic of feminism came up and I was shocked to learn that they did not think of themselves as feminists. While they did acknowledge that there were some ‘normal’ feminists with which they could potentially align, they disliked the ‘radical’ side of it. In their opinion, feminism had grown attached to a label of ‘extremism’, associated with a violent hatred of men, going topless at every occasion, and, of course, relentlessly attacking the patriarchy. Ah, there it is, the famous buzzword that makes non-feminists recoil. Why? Does it imply the existence of a sort of matriarchal community chastising men? There is no such thing as an international ‘FEMINISM’ club convening once a week to complain about the unbearable burden of the patriarchy. Or at least I haven’t been invited. Not only that, but stigma around such expressions make us feminists unsure of our own labels as they are questioned, often by men. If I proclaim myself a feminist, will I immediately be branded a ‘radical’? How will I be perceived? And let’s not forget the underlying concern: how will men perceive me? I don’t hate all men!
The prolonged reality of the patriarchy is now impossible to deny. This persisting fear of feminism must be addressed by going back to the simplest definition of the term. ‘To be a feminist is simply to believe that everybody should be treated equally, regardless of sex’.1 Feminists ask for equal pay, equal education and professional opportunities, the protection of ‘women’s basic physical rights to health’, the severe punishment of sexual harassment and rape, etc.2 If you believe in this, then you are a feminist. As is generally the case with any thought movement, different branches have then sprung from this fundamental principle, some of which explain the ‘radical’ image that feminism has acquired.3 The main points of contention within the feminist movement are the means by which feminist aims are to be reached. While revolutionary or radical feminists would call for a wider restructuring of society, reformist or liberal feminists might stick to the fundamental principles without advocating structural change. Similarly, utopian feminists argue that ‘only through separation from men can women lead genuinely happy lives’, while others claim that progress towards a more equal society would enable men and women to continue cohabiting peacefully.4 These various interpretations do not alter the feminist movement’s core demand for equality, regardless of sex.
Others fear that being feminists would associate them with leftist political opinions (once again, a ‘radical‘!). The existence of various ‘versions’ of feminism may liken the movement to a political one, but feminism should not be a political opinion. Like anti-racism or anti-discrimination, it is profoundly concerned with equality and universal human rights. To discard feminism as subjective or a left-wing belief is to give power to – and thereby legitimise – the discriminatory programmes of other political parties.
Once you do decide jump on the feminism bandwagon, other problems arise. How do you ‘be’ a feminist? Do you shame a man for holding the door open for you? Do you refuse to go through the excruciating pain of wearing heels? And later, perhaps a couple of years down the road for most of us, should you always put your career before your family? I often think of myself as not feminist enough. I’ve only been to one Women’s March and I am ashamed to admit that I did not shout in unison with the crowd. I very quickly feel intimidated when men monopolise the conversation in a class or in a social situation. I regularly give in to the mainstream beauty expectations weighing on women’s shoulders; and when I do wear makeup, I cannot say that I’m only doing it for myself.
But here’s the thing. You get to choose the feminist that you want to be, which is why the ideas brought by third-wave feminism shifted previous debates on gender expectations. Second-wave feminism emerged in the 1960s and strictly opposed any situation that might involve casting a male gaze on a female subject. Conventional femininity, motherhood, and even heterosexuality were seen as ‘evidence of gender oppression’.5 Not everyone agrees with what second-wave feminists stood for, but they undoubtedly led to increased awareness of the patriarchy and of its intolerable reality; only after such a ‘radical’ stance could third-wave feminism begin to emerge in the 1990s. Third-wave feminism, sometimes called ‘choice feminism’, opposed the ‘either a radical feminist or not a feminist’ mindset, pushing for a more inclusive and diverse approach. Each woman is to determine her conceptualisation of feminism, based on her experiences, opinions, and desires: third-wave feminism gives us the ability to determine our own life paths.6 Providing an important push behind fourth-wave feminism and its focus on intersectionality, third-wave feminism acknowledges the different social, economic, and cultural factors that influence a woman’s perception of herself and of her place in society. With this approach, women need not conform to any cliché feminist ‘types’, whether they be content with their current existence or wish to actively cause societal change. Third-wave feminism abolishes the ‘common gender identity’ that second-wavers pressed for and accepts that ‘multiple definitions of feminism exist simultaneously’.7 It is then crucial that we respect the decisions that other women make regarding their own bodies and life choices.
The challenge of balancing feminism with life choices hits very close to home. My mother gave up her career when I was born to take care of me: nineteen years and three children later, she struggles to come to terms with her identity as a woman in a foreign country, asking herself what her contribution is to a world in which your professional success defines your value in society. Yet she is a feminist – and dare I say, a radical one! We must be aware of the burden that feminist stereotypes represent for women whose voices cannot pierce through the generalised ‘common’ narratives.
So, if you believe in equality between the sexes, then congratulations! You are a feminist. Where do you go from here? This is the exciting part: it is up to you to determine what form feminism will take in your life, and how to make it fit into your day-to-day routine. Maybe you choose to stay at home a little longer to take care of your new-born child. Maybe you want to take it to the streets and protest against injustice. Maybe you decide to stand up to your boss whose sexist comments have been tormenting you for months. This is up to you and only you. And it’s going to be okay.
Image Source: “Sisters 2”, Inès Longevial (2018). Source.
1 Laura Bates, ‘How to convince sceptics of the value of feminism’, The Economist, 13 August 2018 (https://www.economist.com/open-future/2018/08/13/how-to-convince-sceptics-of-the-value-of-feminism, accessed 15 October 2019)
2 P.C. Hogan, ‘Feminism: efforts at definition’, Critical Survey, vol.5 no.1 (1993), p.46.
3 Ibid., pp.47-48.
4 Ibid., p.48.
5 R.C. Snyder-Hall, ‘Third-Wave Feminism and the Defense of “Choice”’, Perspectives on Politics, vol.8 no.1 (2010), p.255.
6 Ibid., p.259.
7 Ibid., p.259.
Bates, Laura, ‘How to convince sceptics of the value of feminism’, The Economist, 13 August 2018 (https://www.economist.com/open-future/2018/08/13/how-to-convince-sceptics-of-the-value-of-feminism).
Hogan, Patrick Colm, ‘Feminism: efforts at definition’, Critical Survey, vol.5 no.1 (1993), pp.45-52.
Snyder-Hall, R. Claire, ‘Third-Wave Feminism and the Defense of “Choice”’, Perspectives on Politics, vol.8 no.1 (2010), pp.255-261.