Over the past few months I’ve been seeing more articles and blogs pop up about feminism and feminist issues. I’ve considered myself a feminist for a while now, but it’s only over the last few months that I’ve been exploring what the term actually means to me and trying to comprehend what it means to other people around me. There are a lot of questions I’ve been asking myself; what does true equality look like? How are my experiences, opportunities, and privileges different from those of my male counterparts? What is the end goal of the feminist movement? I can’t answer any of these questions of course, I’m no expert on feminism and I don’t have years of reading books or having deep discussions about it to back up my opinions. However, I think discussion and dialogue is incredibly important in the development and understanding of any issue, so I’ve decided to share my exploration in the hope of engaging you in conversation about it!
Feminism means something different to everyone and I’m sure we all have a different idea about what a truly equal society would like. There are many inequalities between the opportunities and privileges accessible to men, verses those that are accessible to women. Some inequalities are glaringly obvious, such as rape, and involve specific actions or consequences, while others are so ingrained into our culture and our way of thinking that they often go completely unnoticed. It can be easy to pass off a joke generalizing women as bad drivers or to ignore a catcall or remark about our appearance. It’s seen as acceptable that a father might work full time while the mother stays home to take of the children, but it would be pretty unconventional if the roles were reversed. We don’t often challenge these behaviours or perceptions and they have simply become a normal, acceptable part of our culture.
If the term “feminism” means something different to everyone, than associating oneself with the term “feminist” certainly does as well. Some people are perfectly happy to consider themselves feminists, while others want absolutely nothing to do with the label. Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of negative connotations associated with the term “feminist” and with people who consider themselves one. Some people view feminists as a group of angry, bra-burning women, while others associate it as something that is just for women and not accessible to men. There’s the view that the feminist movement is a threat to men’s rights or that it somehow makes you less of a man to call yourself a feminist. Finally, some people just don’t like the use of terminology like ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’, and feel that we should focus more on male and female rights together, rather than just on women.
This last opinion is the one that I find myself encountering most often. I know people that personally advocate for women’s rights and against issues such as the pay gap between men and women, yet are not comfortable associating with the term “feminist”. I think many people have a feeling that feminism is not inclusive of men and that as a result, it threatens their rights and liberties; that feminists are essentially sexist against men and that we should focus on promoting equal rights rather than improving women’s rights. I personally don’t agree with this viewpoint. I do want to see a world that provides equal opportunities and respect to both men and women, but in order to get there, I think we need to address the concept of male privilege. To realize that the way to equal rights is by talking about the disparities that exist between men and women and by identifying behaviours and social norms that perpetuate it.
Male privilege is a concept that is relatively new to me and I find it useful in comparing ways in which a man’s experience is likely different than a woman’s. To quote trusty old Wikipedia, “male privilege refers to the social theory which argues that men have unearned social, economic, and political advantages or rights that are granted to them solely on the basis of their sex, and which are usually denied to women.” I don’t really like the words ‘unearned’ and ‘denied’ in this definition because I don’t think this is always the case, but I do think that men often have an advantage over women or are favoured over women. The best thing I’ve read about male privilege is Peggy McIntosh’s “Male Privilege Checklist“, which goes through a list of examples in which a male might have an advantage or privilege a female wouldn’t have, such as the lower likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace or the higher likelihood of being promoted to a senior position. You should really read it. You can also find a full discussion about male privilege here.
I find McIntosh’s list helpful in identifying cultural norms that bother me so that I can gain a better picture of what I think equality in the workplace or in the home might actually look like. There are different expectations of men and women and different standards for what is considered acceptable. Decisions and opinions are formed by comparing a woman against her male counterparts rather than on her personal merits. The defining element of male privilege (in my opinion anyways) is summed up by the final point on McIntosh’s checklist, “I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.” Do many people consciously discriminate based on sex? I don’t think that they do. I’m sure that many men are selected for a job based on their competence and the fact that they were the best candidate. But I also can’t be sure that if a man is hired for a job over me, that it’s not because in the back of their mind, my employer is thinking that down the road I’m going to cost him maternity leave or that work is unlikely the be my top priority.
I took a women’s studies course last year in which we talked about how men and women face different issues and problems, making it okay to focus specifically on women’s rights, rather than on both male and female equality. Focusing on women’s rights doesn’t make men’s rights any less important, it just acknowledges that we’re different. For example, we discussed the benefits of having women-only health clinics to address health issues such as birth control, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion. Likewise, there is legislature about abortion and other women’s rights that, while it does affect men, only applies to women. The decision by a woman to get an abortion (or the decision not to) will have an impact on their counterpart, but the law surrounding the right to decide isn’t a law that will ever be exercised by a man. Therefore, when the legislature is formed, women should make up at least half, if not the majority of those that influence the decision. However, since men form the majority of elected roles, it is men who make many of the laws and decisions regarding women’s rights.
I just want to acknowledge that I realize much of my discussion revolves around feminism as it exists in the Western world. I think there is a large portion of people that are pretty indifferent to feminism; that are content with the status quo or oblivious to the divide that exists between men and women. Some see feminism as belonging to the era of women’s suffrage, when women fought for the right to vote, to work, and to earn a salary. Feminism has a very different meaning for me in 2013, but in many other countries, women are still not encouraged or permitted to work outside the home and are expected to fill traditional gender roles of homemaking and child-rearing. The opportunity to shape and influence their own future is not necessarily accessible to them.
Finally, there are those who are happy to associate with the feminist label. I’ve been seeing a lot more articles and posts lately from men who are entering the feminist discussion (see my friend Evan’s wonderful new blog and this article about being an ally to women) and I have to give them props for their sensitivity. I don’t really put that much thought into my opinions or how they are perceived because they are shaped mostly by my experiences growing up and by my experiences as a woman working in a male-dominated industry. Many of the male privileges in McIntosh’s list didn’t occur to me until the last few years and I can understand why they would be a blind spot for many men themselves. I’m sure it’s much harder to enter the feminist-sphere as a male when you don’t have the common female experiences of worrying about your body image, walking home alone at night, or being judged by your wardrobe. Either way, there are both men and women active in the fight against gender norms, I consider myself one of them and I hope you’ll join the discussion too!
Thanks for reading,
Disclaimer: this blog solely represents my own personal views. I choose to view it as a thought and learning experiment and I welcome your opinions, so long as they’re respectful.