“Why Do We Need Feminism, Shouldn’t We Just Be Humanists and Equalists?”

A lot of people say that of course they believe in equality for women, but they oppose feminism. Or they say that they’re not a feminist, they’re a humanist.

So why should humanists and egalitarians also be feminists? Why isn’t being a feminist superfluous to egalitarianism and humanism or, even worse, somehow anti-humanist or anti-egalitarian?

Let’s start at the top. There is nothing mutually exclusive about being both a humanist and a feminist. They’re not about the same thing. It’s not as though you have to choose between being in favor of the full equality and empowerment of all humans, by being a “humanist”, or favor the full equality and empowerment of women only, by being a “feminist”.

Rather, the only feminism worth supporting is the kind that is about full equality and empowerment of all humans. And the only kind of humanism worth supporting is the kind that has, as a subcomponent, the full equality and empowerment of women (as a subset of humanity, alongside all the other subsets worth making sure are equal and empowered).

Hopefully this is uncontroversial. But if both humanism and feminism are both just about the full equality and empowerment of humans generally, and of women in specific—but not to the exclusion of men–then why the two words?

There are two words not ideally so that feminism will represent an ideal of some sort of “female supremacy” to contrast with humanists’ or egalitarians’ ideals of equality. That wouldn’t be a feminism worth supporting.

The reason for a distinguishable feminism is that in egalitarianisms and humanisms past, women were significantly left out. People didn’t automatically understand that egalitarianism or humanism meant all humans. They were capable of saying “all men are created equal” and calling that “egalitarianism” while “all men” was defined to exclude women and blacks and even non-land owning white men.

So being explicit about supporting feminism (or actually identifying as a feminist) is first and foremost a matter of acknowledging that women’s equality and empowerment can be neglected if women’s equality and empowerment are not actively recognized and diligently paid attention to.

Further, it’s not enough to just support “humans” as an abstraction. Different groups live under different expectations in our society. They are unjustly inhibited from reaching their full potential in distinct ways. They are denied equality in distinct areas. They have different kinds of bodies, experiences, desires, and needs. They face distinct kinds of choices, distinct kinds of threats, distinct kinds of conflict. They have particular relationships to economics, religion, society, politics, family, etc.

Women’s experiences and needs and relationships, et al., are quite often different than men’s. Black people’s can be different than white people’s. Gay people’s different than straight people’s. Transgender people’s different than cisgender people’s. Bi people’s different than gay people’s or straight people’s.

Everyone can be “pro-fixing-houses”, but you still need plumbers to fix pipes, electricians to fix the electrical wiring, and roofers to fix the roof. And we need feminists to focus on issues that specifically impact on women. We need an LGBT movement to concentrate on the issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender. We need anti-racists to tackle racism.

Sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, and many more forms of bigotry and passively allowed inequalities and disempowerments simply exist. They don’t go away by not paying any specific attention to them but instead declaring oneself vaguely “humanist” and “egalitarian”.

I think all of us need to care about these issues. We’re all responsible to treat our fellow humans equally and in the way that is most overall empowering for all of us. That means we each need to spend some time learning about the unique ways that each particular group we can affect (directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally) either suffers explicit discrimination or is implicitly treated unequally and disempowered while few realize what’s going on.

Remember: our habits, our social institutions, our languages, our religions, our entire cultures were significantly formed in a past where sexism and racism and homophobia and classism and every other way to unfairly hold people down were just the norm. That means that a lot of what we think of as common sense and a lot of our received social practices is all biased in favor of the needs and interests of traditionally dominant groups and has a tendency to continue to marginalize those who have historically been pushed to the margins. Old habits die slowly, even where our explicit ideology may have changed. We have to overcome many old habits we’ve received from our ancestors if we’re to behave in a way that catches up to our fully inclusive humanist and egalitarian ideals.

To do that we need to be vigilantly looking for ways that people are unjustly discriminated against. We need to be conscientious, rather than passive, if we’re going to root out the injustices seeded into our culture ages ago that we are prone towards reproducing without thinking.

If we want full equality and empowerment of all people equally, we need to pay attention to all people equally. Since so far we’ve paid more attention to dominant groups than marginalized ones, social justice activists pay special attention to those marginalized groups. “Feminism” should just be part of that. Of course if specific feminists act like female supremacists or engage in excessively anti-male rhetoric or ideas then, by all means, you should denounce that. But that’s not worth holding against “feminism” itself as though feminism historically was a female supremacist movement. Historically it’s been a movement about highlighting the specific needs of women and making humanism more humanistic and egalitarianism more egalitarian.

And that’s why humanism and egalitarianism need feminism.

Your Thoughts?

For more read my post In Defense of the Moral Cause of Feminism.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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