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Who Needs Feminism Anyway?

08/14/2014 08:47 am ET | Updated Sep 20, 2014
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I once asked my friend if she was a feminist. Her response: Of course not.

This aversion to the word "feminism" is not uncommon: The well-publicized portrayal of feminists as angry, man-hating women has preserved the notion that feminism is destructive, dangerous, and to be avoided at all costs. As a result, many celebrities like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Madonna have all rejected the term, claiming that "I don't really think of it as guys versus girls," "I love men," and "I'm not a feminist, I'm a humanist," respectively. More recently, Pharrell stated that it wasn't possible for him to be a feminist because "I'm a man," and actress Shailene Woodley caused controversy when she rejected feminism because "the idea of 'raise women to power, take the men away from the power' is never going to work out because you need balance."

To these celebrities -- and to anyone else opposed to feminism -- I have a request: Please learn what being a feminist actually means. Feminism doesn't pit guys against girls. It doesn't call for the downfall of men. It's not mutually exclusive from humanism. And men can be feminists too.

By definition, feminism is simply the idea of guaranteed equality between men and women -- the belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. Yet somehow, the term has evolved to take on a radical and pejorative connotation, leading those who support the ideals of feminism to not actually identify as feminists.

Because of this, Stanford's Women's Community Center (WCC) decided to launch a campaign this year to change this negative perception by distributing "Of Course I'm A Feminist" bumper stickers all across campus. "The purpose was to get the word out about ... the different concepts of feminism," said Faith Kazmi, associate dean and director of the WCC. "The 'Of Course I'm a Feminist' idea was meant to be an opportunity for students to define what feminism means to them and to invite others to ask the question, 'why?'"

Yet predictably, these efforts have sparked considerable backlash.

"Why do we even need feminism?" Someone in my dorm asked me when I brought up the issue. "Why do we need to point out that we support equal rights? That should be obvious."

Is it obvious though?

Today, women are still paid far less than their male counterparts, promoted far less frequently and subjected to far more scrutiny and harassment at the workplace. Today, women are still forced to make unfair choices between family and work because of the huge disadvantages they face if they take maternity leave, while men are biologically not required to make the same decisions.

Today, women account for 95 percent of domestic violence survivors and 91 percent of rape survivors and endure excruciating emotional and physical trauma, yet students still casually talk about "raping" their midterms and finals. Today, women are still objectified in magazines and ads, paraded around in pageants to be gawked at, and exploited in mainstream music from internationally respected artists. And though many women engage in these acts intentionally and are paid well as a result, these incidents nevertheless perpetuate the notion that women are sexual objects -- not to be taken seriously, but to be degraded at will.

Equal rights? That's not obvious at all.

In reality, feminism cuts much deeper than just shallow proclamations that men and women are equal. Calling ourselves feminists establishes recognition of the inequalities that still remain and reaffirms our commitment to eliminate these underlying issues so entrenched in the fabric of our society. Dismissing feminism only creates the incentive to dismiss the ideas of gender equality altogether -- to overlook the fundamental, structural changes that our culture so desperately needs.

The goal should not be to remove "feminism" from our vernacular or to avoid using the word altogether, but rather to arrive at a point where the term -- much like the term "abolitionist" -- becomes obsolete. We want to arrive at a point in history where it means nothing to be called a feminist, since at that point there would be no need to draw a distinction between the way the world is and the way we think it should be.

This won't happen in a day, a week, or perhaps not even in years, but we need to work toward progress nonetheless. And the first step comes through reclaiming the word "feminism" and what it really stands for. At Stanford, at least, displaying "Of Course I'm A Feminist" bumper stickers has thus become a simple yet enormously powerful gesture. Visible all across campus, these bumper stickers have served to show us that that feminists aren't radicals, but are rather everyday individuals all around us, committed to seeing an idea as simple as gender equality manifest itself in reality. It's a great start, but more steps -- on a national and global scale -- are still needed.

Ultimately, it's time to redefine the word "feminist" and what it actually means. Because the truth is, we all need feminism. And only once deeming yourself a feminist doesn't immediately label you as angry and extreme; only once being a feminist becomes the norm and not the exception will we finally be able to make true, structural progress toward gender equality.

This article was adapted from an article I published on February 23, 2014, in The Stanford Daily. Stanford's Women's Community Center can be contacted here.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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