I was not born a feminist. There was not a moment when the clouds parted and the ghosts of feminists past traveled to earth on a stream of ethereal light to welcome me into the club (I can't decide if that would be awesome or absolutely terrifying). Feminism was something I knew little about until I came across it at the end of my middle school career after doing research for a school project. Feminism clearly embodied all of the qualities I already valued -- it only made sense to me that I should embrace the label. And I'm glad I did. Being a part of the feminist community has totally transformed my life for the better.
Which is why I was so surprised to find that many people think of "feminism" as a dirty word. How could people oppose a movement that simply wants to make the world a better place? I wondered. Of course there's the pervasive negative stereotype (feminists as angry, hairy battleaxes, anyone?), the general lack of familiarity most teens (and, sadly, adults) have with the term... The list goes on. But none of those reasons were good enough. After a couple of years of writing for my blog, The FBomb, and reading and editing the submissions from young feminists from all over the world about their feminist beliefs, it became clear to me that I had to do something to show the world that feminism really is a beautiful thing that helps countless people every day. So, I wrote a book about it.
Here are a few reasons why I believe feminism is not a dirty word. For more reasons (and more random musings on the next generation of feminism) see my book, A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not a Dirty Word.
1) Feminism Is About Making The World A Better Place
Feminism is about equality. At its core, feminism is a movement based on the belief that all people -- no matter their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.--are equal, and deserve to live their lives free from discrimination. And yet so many times when I tell people this they look at me with the same level of doubt and disbelief as if I'd just stated that The Hunger Games is loosely based on my own life (despite the fact that should I somehow become the figurehead of a rebel movement in a post-apocalyptic society, I'd probably hide in a corner crying and hoarding chocolate rather than run the world, Katniss and I totally have a lot in common--but I digress). It's always been confusing to me how so many people can vilify a movement that really does have noble and positive goals. There may be feminist extremists, just as there are extremists in most organized groups, but the heart of this movement is the goal of allowing people to realize their full potential. How could anybody argue with that?
2) Feminism Is Still Relevant (And Very Much Needed)
It seems that many people are under the impression that the need for feminism was buried right alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (the creators of the original girlmance, I'm just saying) and that Gloria Steinem and co. resolved any lingering issues in the '70s. And while that's a pretty little picture some people are painting, frankly, it's bullshit. Unfortunately, sexism is alive and well -- even if it may take a different form than concrete issues like being denied voting rights or limiting the ability of an unmarried woman to buy her own car (believe it or not, it was incredibly difficult for a woman to make any major purchase without her husband's permission until relatively recently).
For example, sexual harassment and street harassment are still alive and well today (see the organization Hollaback! for proof). I have yet to meet a young woman who hasn't been negatively impacted by the unattainable standards of beauty our society perpetuates, and our ridiculous value on women's beauty over intellect (see: the Kardashians; enough said). One of the main issues of the current presidential election is reproductive rights. There are still politicians out there (almost exclusively white men) who feel it is their right to limit, and even eradicate, a woman's right to choose what to do with her own body. In fact, there are even some who, in this day and age, feel it's appropriate to compare women to farm animals. How logical is it for somebody to make restrictive laws based on something that doesn't directly affect them, right?
But beyond our own backyard, think about women on a global level. Consider the fact that women make up 70 percent of the world's 1.3 billion poor and own only one percent of all land in developing countries. Consider that at least one out of every three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Consider that there are an estimated 50 million girls "missing" in India due to female feticide and infanticide (a practice in which parents abort their female fetus or kill their female infant based on the sole fact that she is female in a culture that prefers males). And that's just grazing the surface.
Consider that, and then get back to me on the issue of whether we still need to fight for women's rights.
3) Feminism Is Your Key To Surviving High School
Beyond the aforementioned serious and widespread issues feminism tries to combat, feminism can also be an essential key to surviving high school. It helped me. Ever wonder why girl-on-girl crime is so rampant in high schools? (If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch Mean Girls. Then watch it again, just because.) I believe it's a result of the immense pressure young women are put under and the competition they feel they must engage in to be the "best." Know a great solution to that? The confidence and community feminism promotes.
Ever feel like crap about the fact that if you hook up, you're a "slut," but if you don't, you're a "prude"? Feminism sees this dichotomy as a double standard that needs to end. Feminists believe that girls should be able to express themselves sexually (or not!) without feeling shame.
Every single girl I know has dealt with body image issues -- from the minor, like a particularly low-confidence day, to the major, like pervasive eating disorders. It seems like a lot of people recognize that this is problematic yet somewhat accept it as the status quo. Feminists refuse to settle for a cultural norm in which women are plagued to the point of mental and physical illness to reach a ridiculous, unattainable standard of beauty, and fight for real beauty, in every shape and size.
Once I identified as a feminist in high school, I gained insight into the reasons why I was dealing with these issues and found real solutions for how to handle them. I also gained confidence and an invaluable support system that confirmed I wasn't crazy for thinking there was something wrong. And I knew I couldn't just stand by and let these injustices continue just because nobody else was taking a stand.
For me, feminism is anything but a dirty word: Honestly, I don't know where I'd be right now without it.
The Daily Beast recently named Julie Zeilinger one of the "150 Women Who Shake the World," alongside Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, Kristen Wiig and Oprah. Julie has also been featured in More, Women's Day, The Times (U.K.), BBC, Jezebel, Teen Vogue, Oprah.com, The Daily Beast, Forbes and Cleveland Magazine. Originally from Pepper Pike, Ohio, Julie currently attends Barnard College in New York City, where she majors in women's studies and continues to spread her passion for feminism, activism and social justice. Her book A Little F'D Up: Why Feminism Is Not a Dirty Word was released in May 2012 and is now available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble.
Follow Julie Zeilinger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/juliezeilinger