by K.W. Taylor
I’m a speculative fiction author, but I’m also an academic who teaches, researches, and writes about cultural issues, particularly media and literary representations of gender. Since 2013, I’ve taught introductory women’s studies courses, and one of the things I cover on the first day of class is to ask students to make a collaborative list of common stereotypes of feminists. The results are sometimes over-the-top and humorous, but even though most people in the classroom disavow believing in the stereotypes, negative conceptions of feminism still pervade our society. Whether or not you identify as a feminist, it’s useful to have a basic working understanding of the term and clarify what it actually means. What follows are five common misconceptions about feminism and some history and data to dispel them.
Misconception 1: There is one kind of feminism; if you don’t perform it “that way,” you’re doing it wrong.
The fact is, not only are there different schools of thought within feminism, the core ideology has shifted over time. In the so-called “first wave” of feminism in the nineteenth century, for example, the general focus was on voting rights. During the middle of the twentieth century, many feminists fought for equal pay, while others protested against exploitation. At the transition to the twenty-first century, the focus for several years has included digital activism and collaboration, while other feminists focus on obtaining better representation in politics or family leave in the workplace. Just because someone puts their emphasis on one area of gender-based equity doesn’t mean they’re not “doing” feminism correctly. Many textbooks on the matter pluralize the word “feminism” to emphasize its plurality of meaning.
Misconception 2: “Feminism” means trying to make women superior to men, and feminists hate men.
Many people have claimed a better term than “feminism” would be “humanism” (although technically the latter word is already claimed by an anti-theological philosophical movement), because “feminism” as a word seems to imply female superiority. In fact, very few strains of feminism aim for female superiority; most are fighting for equality and equity with men. Other than extreme outliers, in fact, most feminists don’t hate men, especially on an individual level, and one goal of feminism is often a dismantling of patriarchal gender roles that hurt men, too. By leveling the playing field and reducing cultural expectations on everyone, men, women, and gender non-conforming people can all live more freely.
Misconception 3: Feminists are all lesbians, and men can’t be feminists.
First of all, these misconceptions tend to imply negative judgment against members of LGBTQ+ groups. Certainly, some feminists are lesbians, but not all, and not all lesbians are even feminists. Most feminists—regardless of sexual orientation—are also supportive of LGBTQ+ rights. Part of the reason for this misconception stems from some radical feminist ideology of the late second wave, wherein there was some advocacy for “political lesbianism” regardless of one’s natural sexual orientation. However, it’s important to contextualize this, as even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, women in heterosexual marriages lost specific political and economic rights when they married, including their own credit history. Furthermore, with the gain of certain reproductive freedoms over time, marriage no longer has to mean the same extent of familial obligation it once did. Therefore, there is far less call to avoid heterosexual unions or marriage than there used to be, and the third wave of feminism in the 1990s advocated ever-increasing positive attitudes about women’s sexual freedom and expression, regardless of the gender of one’s partners.
In the mid-1960s, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded to help solidify women’s rights. It’s notable the preposition is “for,” not “of,” as its purpose is women’s advocacy, not to imply they are only constituted “of” women. Anyone who wants gender equality can consider themselves a feminist, whether they themselves identify as female, male, or nonbinary, whether they are cisgender or transgender, and regardless of sexual orientation. Some feminists believe it may be difficult for male-identifying people to be fully invested in feminist causes, as men are perceived to benefit from sexism, and as a result, some men choose instead to identify as “feminist allies.” Regardless, that difference is slight; if you don’t identify as female but believe in gender equality, you shouldn’t feel afraid to say you are either a feminist or a feminist ally.
Misconception 4: Feminists are white.
This misconception has more factual roots than not. One valid criticism of feminism is a lack of diversity; during its first and second waves, feminism was focused on the concerns of white women. In the late 1990s, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways in which different identity markers work together to cause multiple forms of oppression. For example, black women are usually subject to more social disadvantage than white women, and all women may be at a greater disadvantage than white men. On the other end of the spectrum, a white woman who is able-bodied and of normative sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion may be more privileged than she realizes. Thus, many people of color who would otherwise be sympathetic to feminist ideology eschew it in favor of women’s
rights issues specifically focusing away from white women. “Womanism” is a term many women of color have adopted that speaks to a black female experience and integrates elements of cultural life seen as missing in broader feminist circles. However, many other scholars and thinkers on this subject simply speak of “black feminism” or a need for inclusive or intersectional feminism. So while it is erroneous to say feminists are all white, this is indeed an area rife with opportunities for improvement.
Hopefully, this has been helpful in dispelling some of the myths surrounding feminism. For some additional reading, I recommend the books Introducing Feminism, by Caitha Jenainati and Judy Groves (Icon Books, 2007), Women’s Studies: The Basics, by Bonnie G. Smith (Routledge, 2013), and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, by bell hooks (Routledge, 1984).
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