This article was written in response to an opinion-editorial by one of our members, which we published last week. You can read it here.
Cover photograph reproduced courtesy of the Huffington Post
By Michelle Lee (14A01B)
I’ll preface this opinion piece by saying that yes, I am a fervent feminist. I am that girl who spends her free time writing rebuttals to sexist RJ Confessions, who can’t watch a movie without asking herself whether it passes the Bechdel Test, who has interned with AWARE in the past. In short, the kind of ardent advocate for women’s rights who might be caricatured as being a bra-burning, man-hating, humorless lesbian.
The thing is that it doesn’t matter whether I fit the stereotype of what a feminist is or not. This would be the point in the article where I might be expected to rebut all the tropes listed above, defensively listing all the gender-normative traits I possess in an attempt to show that girly-girls can be feminists too – I love shopping! I care about being pretty! I want to settle down and have kids! But disproving a stereotype by going to another extreme isn’t the point. Rather, as a feminist, I believe that feminism is about having the freedom to choose. It’s about having the freedom to choose whether you want to be a career woman or a housewife. Whether you want to wear makeup and high heels, or whether you don’t. As a feminist, I would never criticize anyone who chooses more traditionally feminine choices as being “not feminist enough” – I would certainly never tell the author of the original article that she can’t be a feminist just because she enjoys the things she listed. And I can’t help but wonder where these hordes of feminists she cites as frequently attacking her are coming from.
In the original article, the author makes the point that perhaps it is not feminism as a movement that is flawed, but that the views of a small subset of radical feminists compromise the integrity of the movement as a whole. She makes the point that radical feminists alienate her from the label “feminist”, thanks to their extreme viewpoints that tell her she can’t be both traditionally feminine and a feminist. It is true that radical feminism exists as a subset of the wider movement of feminism, and that these feminisms do believe that opposing standard gender norms and radically re-ordering society (as they believe that oppression stems from gender relations, as opposed to legal systems) is the only way to achieve equality for women. But as she rightly points out in the article, these viewpoints are extremist. They represent only a smaller section of feminism. As such, taking the viewpoints of radical feminism as representative of the majority of feminists, and using it to dismiss feminism as a whole, is an unfair and myopic view of the diversity of perspectives in the feminist movement and the real and valuable aims the movement does possess.
I agree wholeheartedly with the author’s essential viewpoint that women should have the right to choose whether they are traditionally feminine or not in every aspect of life, from family to appearance to career. Rather, I am perplexed by her identifying as a non-feminist, because under some definitions of feminism, this is quite possibly the most feminist point I think she could make. If her reason for identifying as a non-feminist is that she feels there is no space within the feminist movement for her views, or that radical feminists have hijacked the label of “feminist”, I think this speaks to a lack of knowledge of the different movements within feminism. It also highlights an important issue, which is that many non-feminists base their impression of feminism off the most controversial and outspoken opinions.
In studying the history of feminism, it has traditionally been divided into waves. To briefly summarize these waves, first-wave feminism during the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on legal disabilities (e.g. property rights), and most primarily on gaining the right to vote. Second wave feminism, from the 1960s onwards, began to branch out into a wide range of societal and cultural issues concerning women, such as issues to do with sexuality, the family, and reproductive rights. This paved the way for today’s third wave feminism, which began in the 1990s, and which encompasses the radical feminism of today.
The two movements within feminism which are most relevant to the author’s discussion would be radical feminism and liberal feminism. As mentioned above, radical feminism focuses on the subversion and rejection of gender norms. This is due to the fundamental hypothesis of radical feminism, which is that gender inequality stems from social relationships. They believe that the patriarchy, or institutionalized male privilege, permeates every form of relationship, and it is only through the rejection of gender norms and the fundamental reordering of society that equality can be achieved. Like any radical group, they seek to restructure society on a fundamental level.
In contrast, liberal feminism, which is the more “mainstream” or conventional view today, believes that gender inequality stems from political and legal institutions. As such, their primary focus is on political and legal reform in order to break down barriers to women’s equality in society. This view of feminism is more individualistic, with emphasis being on women’s freedom to demonstrate equality in their own actions or choices – namely, believing that women should have the freedom to act how they want, which would appear to be the belief of the author. It should also be noted that neither of these movements are perfect – they have often been criticized for their focus on issues that primarily affect women of a certain class or race, while ignoring issues that women of different classes, races, or sexual orientations may face.
While it is true that the heterogeneity of feminism and the number of different feminist movements makes it difficult to pin down a single definition of what feminism is, I believe that this fluidity of interpretation does not hurt, but rather enriches feminism. In fact, it places the onus on those who wish to understand, or criticize, feminism, to do their research and to decide which interpretation they believe in.
After all, even the most extreme of views do have a grain of truth to them. In particular, radical feminism’s opposition of gender norms, while sometimes brought to extremes, is embedded in truth. While one may believe that women should have freedom of choice to act however they want, one must accept that no choice occurs in a vacuum. Society will inevitably prize certain, more conventional choices (such as, according to the Singapore government, women’s obligation to have children) over other choices like remaining single or being in a same-sex relationship. While it may be relatively easy for someone to make choices which correspond with convention – such as the author – in upholding freedom of choice, we also need to let women have freedom to make choices which go against traditional gender norms. And naturally, this would require the dismantling of some gendered expectations.
In defending her stand, the author first questions the impact of society’s influence on her choices, and then states that perhaps being feminine is merely an innate leaning for her. With reference to the first – perhaps it may be difficult to draw a quantitative link between children’s toys and cartoons and the enforcement of gender norms. Yet the “insidious cultural forces” she talks about can be seen quite concretely. There are clear cultural expectations for girls to behave in one way, and boys to behave in another. There is a clear cultural expectation for women to fulfil the role of homemaker, as seen by how 47% of unemployed women in Singapore play the role of caretakers for their children as compared to 1.8% of unemployed men. If you talk to anyone on the street, they can easily name some gender stereotypes for each gender. In my view, there is no way that these common expectations and societal pressures can fail to have no influence whatsoever on the way women behave. I’m not even discussing third world countries, where women may face brutal consequences, such as acid attacks, for not conforming to gender expectations. No matter whether or not you argue that some gendered behavior is innate (which there is no hard neuroscientific evidence for), such as that the majority of women choose to be homemakers because they are innately nurturing, you cannot deny that there are also some women who don’t wish to conform to these norms. It is their freedom of choice, in the face of society’s confusion or disapproval, which needs to be upheld.
The original, dictionary definition of feminism is about equality of the sexes. That’s a quote from the original article, minus the dubious quotation marks around “feminism” and “equality of the sexes”. I removed the quotation marks because I believe that that’s what both the original author, and I, think feminism is truly about. She claims that this simple definition of feminism may be attractive, yet incorrect, thanks to the multitude of ideas of what feminism is about. I assert that this definition is reductive, thanks to the vibrant diversity of ideas within feminism, with various waves stretching back to the original struggle for women’s suffrage. But at the same time, I truly believe that gender equality, no matter whether you believe in achieving it through political and legal reform or by rejecting gender norms, is the ultimate aim of all forms of feminism. A disagreement with one form of feminism, such as radical feminism, does not exclude you from being a feminist. And as long as you support gender equality in some form, there’s no such thing as “not feminist enough”.
If you would like to find out more about feminism and gender issues in general, Students for Gender Equality, RI’s (Year 5-6) unofficial gender issues club, will be holding an awareness week in Week 10. Do come down to the canteen if this article has piqued your interest!