2015 has been a funny year for feminism. On one hand, we're stuck in 1950s era conservatism with women still fighting for their autonomy and freedom to make basic yet fundamental decisions about their lives. On the other hand, there's been tremendous discussion about women's rights, women in the workplace and in leadership, and the necessity of empowering half the population with the right opportunities and resources. While women should be the one group able to join together in this movement, this tension between eras and philosophies has actually been driving us apart.
Rather than a unifying concept, feminism has become a hybrid of an empowerment movement, a phrase to scare the wits out of men, another prescribed checklist of impossibly high standards that make women feel inadequate for failing to meet, and in some cases, a term to throw around to criticize another's words, clothing and life choices. Women want to "have it all" but also want to tell each other what that "all" should be -- having a high-powered career and raising a family while being incredibly successful at both (and still look beautiful), to solely focusing on finding a husband and producing children. A stay-at-home mom is sometimes considered anti-feminist, but what's really anti-feminist is thinking that women are incapable of making their own life choices, whether that be staying at home and raising a family or pursuing a career or some combination of the two that works for them. Feminism is not a prescribed lifestyle of what women should be, nor is it a conspiracy against men. In the spirit of International Women's Day, I wanted to remind everyone of the true definition of feminism according to Merriam-Webster:
noun fem·i·nism \ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm\
the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities
From my (biased) perspective, this should be a relatively easy idea for everyone to get behind. Equality is not a zero-sum game. Just as women's suffrage did not mean fewer men were able to vote, women's ability to exercise basic rights does not reduce men's autonomy. I have never been clear on what exactly it is that men fear about women's equality, perhaps irrelevance? But in its basic definition and the fundamental function of equality, more rights for women in no way equates to fewer rights for men.
Unless of course, this is about power and dominance, where men want to ultimately control women. This, however, is counterproductive on many levels. The dominance of half of society is eerily similar to slavery, where women have no agency over their own bodies and lives -- an unfortunate reality for many women around the world today. Aside from being morally wrong, this unrelenting need to control half of the world's population is unproductive and prohibitive to society's advancement. That's not just a women's problem; that's a human problem.
But in order to move forward, proponents of equality (aka real feminists) need to stop attempting to dominate one another and must operate on the idea that freedom to choose whatever life you want without constraint or coercion is the ultimate goal.
And so, I propose three fundamental goals of feminism -- or if you prefer a less loaded word -- equality:
- Freedom: To be equal, women must be free to choose their own path without fearing retaliation. In order for feminism to be a successful movement, women must be truly free to want what they want without being shamed for this. Women can have it all (or most of it all) - they just need to define what that "all" means for them. This does not reduce men's freedom or ability to have their definition of "all" as well.
- Autonomy: Female autonomy is the backbone of equality, and is an absolute and fundamental necessity if we're going to make any progress. This means autonomy and agency over their bodies -- free from sexual violence or from the assumption they invite non-consensual sexual encounters. This also means autonomy over decisions to work, raise a family or do both. For feminism to work and equality to be achieved, women must have decision-making power over their own economic, social and political lives as well as the ability to exercise this power.
- Equality of access and opportunity: While success is often viewed as an individual achievement, society must create an enabling environment for this success. This means providing opportunities and resources such as education, health, safe ways to earn income, etc. However, women globally struggle to gain equal access to education, health care provision, capital and other productive resources to help them reach their full potential. Equality talk aside, logic says that constraining half of your population is a poor economic decision.
Stepping backwards and forwards at the same time has been unproductive for feminism and for gender equality. To truly make progress and empower half the world's population, we don't just need to changes policies - we need to change our mindset.