What Feminism Means to Me

I don’t know about you, but I get really tired of hearing people equate “feminism” with “man-hating” or with being against pornography or with thinking all heterosexual sex is rape. I get really tired of hearing people quote the most “radical” of feminists as though what they say is what every feminist believes. I get really tired of people who act like feminism is a bad word, or like it’s some sort of backwards philosophy.

A few months ago I read a quote by teen fashion and style blogger Tavi Gevinson that really spoke to me, and has since helped me articulate what feminism means to me:

I wanted to start a website for teenaged girls that was not kind of this one-dimensional strong character empowerment thing, because one thing that can be very alienating about a misconception of feminism in that girls then think that to be feminists they have to live up to being perfectly consistent in their beliefs, never being insecure, never having doubts, having all the answers. . . and this is not true and actually recognizing all the contradictions I was feeling became easier once I realized that feminism was not a rulebook but a discussion, a conversation, a process.

That one idea – that feminism is not a rulebook but a discussion – is central to how I understand feminism. It is also central to why I find all of the “this crazy feminist said this so you must believe it” or “oh, then you all hate porn” comments to be so obnoxious. Anyone who says those things doesn’t understand how feminism works. There is no one spokesperson, no one organization, no one leader. Feminism is organic and free-flowing, and to me that’s what makes it so beautiful and yes, at times, infuriating.

At its most basic level, feminism is pretty simple, really. According to the Oxford Dicitonary, feminism is:

The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

In other words, anyone who believes in women’s political, social, and economic equality to men is by definition a feminist, even if they don’t realize it. And if you’ll note, there’s nothing in there about pornography or man-hating.

What happens next is where the “feminism as discussion” part comes in. While feminists advocate for women’s political, social, and economic equality to men, they disagree on what exactly this should look like and how best to achieve it. This is why feminists split on issues like pornography. This is why some feminists think that stay-at-home mothers can’t have egalitarian relationships with their husbands while others say they can. Feminism is a starting point, a discussion, a conversation, a process.

Perhaps one thing that appeals to me about this understanding of feminism is its lack of a strict orthodoxy to which all followers must ascribe. I grew up with enough of that. Being allowed to think outside the box, to ask questions, to ponder, to sift through and compare solutions – that is what I find interesting and inspiring. Just because feminists don’t disagree with each other on everything doesn’t mean feminism is somehow irrelevant or broken. It just means that the discussion is ongoing.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Sue Blue

    As I’ve posted before, Christian misogyny was one of the major factors that led me to leave my church and eventually become an atheist. I was so offended by the constant message that women were physically, mentally and spiritually inferior to men that I still have to struggle against actual “man-hating”. During my medical education, I seized on every scrap of evidence that men might actually be “inferior” to women – the fact that more female embryos survive than male, the male genetic vulnerability to X-linked genetic disease due to the fact that they don’t have the protection of redundancy from a second X-chromosome; the fact that the Y-chromosome is a tiny, mostly dysfunctional scrap of genes whose only purpose is to kick on the production of testosterone and masculinize what would otherwise be a female phenotype (in other words, female is the default phenotype – hence the utter stupidity of the Genesis myth that Adam was created first), the fact that men’s contribution to reproduction consists only of shooting out millions of sperm while women perform the much more important reproductive functions of gestation, birth and lactation. I was pleased that females were the larger and stronger sex in so many animal species, while males did nothing but fight over females, mate and die. I theorized that one of the reasons men tried to dominate women throughout history was that they were actually intimidated by (and made powerless and unimportant by) the mysterious power that women had to produce and nourish the next generation. That’s why they turned menstruation and birth into “unclean” objects of disgust and “punishment” for Eve’s supposed “sin”. If not for the fact that I love some men, am married to one, and have male children, I could have really been the so-called “man-hater”.
    With maturity, I no longer see the above things as evidence for female superiority – I just see them as results of completely indifferent natural selection and the forces of sexual selection over all the millions of years of our evolution. Males and females have complementary physical functions – one isn’t “better” than the other. Nature is indifferent to human constructs like “better than”. Human brains are human brains, equally capable regardless of X or Y chromosomes. I can fight for the human rights of women without “hating” men. I can campaign to raise consciousness – raising my son to love and respect himself, his mother, his sister, and all women as human beings, not as sex objects without a mind of their own. I raised my daughter to be independent and self-supporting; to think for herself and never defer to a man just because he is a man. I can fight, not against men in general, but against religion as a relic of primitive times when superstition about female functions led to terrible discrimination and injustice for both women and men. I believe that the evidence is clear – wherever religion flourishes, so does misogyny. A secular, humanist society is the only way to true equality for women and men. I support feminism by supporting efforts to secularize society in general.

  • Gordon

    Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.

  • Rebecca

    Dude, that Oxford definition is right on! THAT is what I mean when I say I’m a feminist. And I HATE it when my predominantly-Christian circle responds with, oh, that’s all included in the whole “biblical,” complementarian model of marriage, that women are just as equal as their men in these relationships, only DIFFERENT. Yeah, so not true. Having grown up in a rank patriarchal Christian family, I am so sensitive to sexism and it is NOT the same. Look at the way that philosophy is lived out!

  • shadowspring

    If indeed there is now a “lack of a strict orthodoxy to which all followers must ascribe” then that is wonderful! It’s the only way it could possibly work.

    I am an earth mother type, who found pregnancy and nursing very empowering. My daughter is completely turned off by both scenarios, and yet she is as much a woman as I ever was. I can’t stand porn, but she accepts is as a part of her peers everyday lives. We do agree on this one thing though: woman are amazing and competent and strong. They should have the same shot at success that everyone else has, and we should be treated with the same respect given to men, no matter what course we choose to follow.

    Peace and good will, SS

  • Anonymous

    Honestly, my only nitpick regarding feminism is with the semantics of the term – it kind of sounds like it involves misandry, even if it’s really about equality. I wholeheartedly agree with its ideals, I just prefer to say “egalitarianism”, it’s less ambiguous.

    • Caravelle

      “Egalitarianism” is already a word – I think it’s used in the context of class, or nobility vs. commoner things. (what the US founders meant saying “all men are created equal”. They obviously weren’t talking about equality of genders or of races).

      This idea that there shouldn’t be a specific word to denote opposition to specific lines of oppression because they’re all about equality really, is in itself a problem. Because in fact all the different lines of oppression are different and semi-independent. You can be an anti-racist sexist, or a racist feminist, or classist secularist, and any combination you can come up with.

      To paraphrase Tolstoy – equality is all the same, but each form of oppression is different. Each involves different people who are affected in different ways. And each requires its own word, and the opposition to it requires its own word too. (which is not to say that opposition to each form of oppression should be independent. For example if you fight for women that should include black women and that means fighting racism as well. But that means you’re paying attention to more than one issue, not that the two issues are the same).

      By saying we should use “egalitarianism” instead of “feminism” you’re pretending the problem is gender-neutral, when the fact is it isn’t. The Patriarchy hurts men, and it hurts women more.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I’ve seen and suffered from this misconception than all feminists must be like the craziest or dumbest ones that appear on the newspapers fro having said this or that incredibly stupid thing (and there have been plenty of examples sadly, especially this one Government woman…). Watching people who fight for female equality disparaging the word feminism and not wanting to claim it for themselves when that’s what they are because of all the negative images it is associated with is very frustrating. The only place where I’ve seen something similar is with atheism in the US but it’s not exactly the same.

    I think it is far more frequent for liberal progressive people to fight among themselves and split above small differences because of idealism or exactly the opposite (cynicism that anything can be changed or apatheticism), not wanting to be like soldier who doesn’t question the orders and many other reasons which it’s good but makes it easier for conservatives to win at issues. In stuff like this it’s important to work together to fight for equal rights for women and it’s time people should embrace being a feminist if that’s what they are and it usually is.

    Disclaimer: I’ve have just woekn up I don’t how much sense any of that makes.

  • Michael

    So, if we accept that dictionary definition then Germaine Greer is not a feminist. Is that correct?

    • Flora Poste

      Michael, does Germaine Greer not advocate for “women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.”
      If so, I will have to revoke my membership in the Germaine Greer fan club, tear down all my Germaine Greer posters, burn all the copies of her books in my library, and get laser treatment to remove the Germain Greer tattoo on my left breast. After which I will burn my NOW membership card and become a Men’s Rigts Advocate. So please, a citation? A lot is at stake here. (J/K: I have never read Greer, and don’t consider my feminism to be on the line if her wisdom is questioned)

  • Azura

    I think the reason so many people are having issues with the label of “feminist” is the same reason why a lot of liberal Christians are uncomfortable with calling themselves Christian. The crazy people are the most vocal, they’re the ones that have groups of activists, and normal people will associate the label with the rage that is triggered when they try to ban something or pass a stupid backwards law. For the record, I am a person that refuses to call myself feminist and I get instantly on edge when I hear the label. I had a Women’s Studies class that triggered it for the most part. But I really think if more feminists spoke up and vocally disagreed it might show the rest of us the conversation instead of just the Gail Dines’ of the movement. Even just reading the blog of a sane feminist like you has done wonders :)

  • Comrade Svilova

    Just want to echo the sentiment above — egalitarianism as a term is unable to focus attention on the specific gendered aspects of the oppression of women.

    Love the idea of feminism as a discussion. It certainly has been that in my life, including conversations with my brother, who is more theoretically informed than I (and who introduced me to this blog) and conversations with my girlfriend, who is only recently feeling comfortable calling herself a feminist. There’s so much to learn and explore.

  • Christine

    I wanted to comment, but Azura made my point exactly.