How has Traditional Feminism Emerged, Divided and Evolved? The Paradox of Feminism

Lauren Mossman was raised in Yorkshire and is going into her third year of attempting a history degree and trying to make her way in London. When she’s not reading about 20th century Latin America or the History of Women’s rights, she spends her time listening to albums ranging from the Beatles to Lauryn Hill and usually crocheting or cooking something Italian while she does.

[Featured Image: Painting by Chemu Ng’ok; ‘Human Wall’.]

The answer to this question is unreachable. The two words – ‘traditional’ and ‘feminism’ – even sitting next to each other on this page is an act of juxtaposition.

How can there be tradition to feminism, when one of the few constants in its movement is progression? Throughout history, women’s rights have been progressive and on a parallel – divisive.

How can someone believe in the dogma of feminism as the ‘advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of sexes’, yet not participate in its definitions? 1  Feminism varies for each person, I used to get upset at people who didn’t identify as one. But, who knows, maybe once I’m no longer a young student feminist but an old-timer feminist instead, new methods of the movement may not align with my principles. The personal definitions of feminism are what seem to divide feminists the most, though many of their goals are the same; this is the disharmony of gender politics.

It wasn’t until I was sat next to a self-professed ‘devil’s advocate’ in a GCSE class that I realised not everyone believed in women’s rights in the way I did. My echo chamber was about to be disrupted. He was putting forward the argument for ‘meninism’, the idea that men are victimised by feminism.2  At that point, being obsessed with Emma Watson’s ‘He for She’ movement and watching the USA on the cusp of legalising same-sex marriage, I was mortified.

Feminism was the radical side, apparently. I never thought of myself as a radical. The ‘devil’s advocate’ then pointed out that if equality was for everyone, why does the word begin with ‘fem’? The name of the movement didn’t seem relevant to equal rights at all. I argued that if that’s the case, then why don’t we change all of history to ‘their-story’, get rid of the ‘his’, or why couldn’t ‘mankind’ be changed to ‘us-kind’? If it refers to everyone, then why are these words dominated in masculine pronouns?

What was happening was that a bunch of teenagers were touching the surface of, arguably, one of the biggest partitions of the feminist movement, the crux of what has both weaponised and disempowered women’s rights – language.

Feminists themselves can understand that the goal of eliminating ‘sexual difference’ on behalf of women and men – and thus defining there is a difference in the first place – can also be the emphasiser of the ‘sexual difference’ it seeks to eradicate. French feminist, Olympe de Gouge, was able to recognise this contradictory nature of feminism – in a statement of 1788, she described herself as a ‘woman who has only paradoxes to offer…not problems easy to resolve’. 3 Yet in 1791, de Gouge insisted, despite the conflicting nature of what she believed in, that women still had equal rights to men.4 The acknowledgement of this flawed theory whilst simultaneously insisting that each person is equal was de Gouge’s way of highlighting that physical differences were the products, not the prerequisites, of politics. 5

It was the now coined Gender Revolution of the 1700s that posits a turning point in the sexual differences that cemented patriarchal gender roles. Women’s subservience to men was based in Ancient Greek’s humeral theory of the balance of fluids (apparently we were only made up of blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile), and modesty was according to Bible scripture. 6 7 After biological studies of the 1700s emerged – with medical evidence to prove that women’s bodies were not part of the same-sex theory and essentially functioned entirely differently to men’s – the gap of hierarchical and patriarchal structure unfortunately widened. Women were seen as less similar to men as previously thought, and therefore less valuable.

It’s hard to come to terms with the idea that when sexual and biological differences between men and women have been defined, it has had the capacity to work against gender equality.

For too long, the nuance of language around sexual differences has managed to push people outside of the gender equality movement, widening the feminist tribalism that exists within itself. After radio personality, Rush Limabaugh, coined ‘feminazi’ in the mid-90s, the identification with being a feminist took a plunge; other terms such as ‘bitchification’ were introduced. 8 9 To overcome the linguistic paradox of feminism – which only seems to flare opposition – we all need a new approach.

Language has separated women and men with the same intentions. Whether you identify as a feminist or not, or know what TERF stands for, or don’t even understand all the waves of feminism that have washed upon this very rocky shore of patriarchy, what should matter is your ethical principles. Of course, we should educate ourselves, but we shouldn’t fall too deep into the divisive cracks of language. It takes a laziness to only see politics through a dualistic lens, yet it takes a genuine interest and maybe a difficult but open conversation taking place, to actually understand someone’s motivations – regardless of their understanding of the human rights glossary.

At fifteen, the boys I was debating and I were still young. So later, when one of them messaged me to say he didn’t really believe in ‘meninism’ but instead didn’t know much about women’s rights, we moved on. The conversation continued and our ideas evolved, healthily.

We are desperate for easy answers to complex concepts; even ones that seem straightforward, like gender equality. But humans are not that simple and this language that holds back progress mustn’t be more than a minor hurdle in the goal for equality.

1 Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford University Press 2010)

2 Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford University Press 2010)

3 David L. Schalk. Review of Scott, Joan Wallach, Only Paradoxes To Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. H-France, H-Net Reviews. December, 1996. P xii.

4 Joan W. Scott, Only Paradoxes To Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Harvard, 1997) 20.

5 Ibid, 14.

6 7 Gowing, L. (2012). Women’s Bodies and the Making of Sex in Seventeenth-Century England. Signs, 37(4), 813-822; Ibid.8 9 https://www.mediamatters.org/rush-limbaugh/feminazi-history-limbaughs-trademark-slur-against-women; https://time.com/5310256/90s-gender-equality-progress/

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