Feminism Explained

Feminism Explained December 5, 2011

Growing up, I equated feminism with selfishness, child abandonment, and a desire to destroy the family. I believed that feminism was destroying the country by elevating women at the expense of men, leaving men emasculated and the family in shambles. Feminists were, I thought, man haters who mocked motherhood and the family, pursuing instead their own selfish dreams of worldly fulfillment. It wasn’t until college that I learned what feminism actually is. According to Wikipedia,

Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women.

That’s it. Feminism is simply the desire for female equality, politically, economically, and socially.

With the bogeyman stripped away, feminism doesn’t seem so scary. There’s nothing in there about hating men, or about not wanting children, or about being selfish. It’s simply a call for equality, not raising women above men. Put this way, the development of second wave feminism four decades ago makes sense. Just as the civil rights movement demanded equality for blacks, the women’s rights movement demanded equality for women. Who could be against this?

Today, the vast, vast majority of American women – and American men – are feminists, whether they claim the term or not. Ask nearly any college-aged woman (or man) whether she (or he) thinks women should have political, economic, and social equality, and the answer will almost inevitably be “yes, of course!” Today, feminism has made incredible inroads in American society to the extent that the core tenets of feminism are held so universally that they seem obvious and beyond need of stating.

Furthermore, feminism transcends religious boundaries, finding its place both within Christianity and outside of it. Today there are even Muslim feminists who are also calling for equal rights for women. Feminism is not anti-religion, and it’s not anti-family. Feminism is a universal to which any human being who believes in true equality can lay claim. Feminism is something to which men should, and do, lay claim alongside women.

Two questions arise from this discussion. First, why do we still need feminism if most people are feminist? Second, why are there anti-feminists?

Most Americans today believe in racial equality, but that doesn’t mean that actual racial equality has yet been reached. It’s the same with feminism. Just as there is structural racism, even so there is structural sexism. For example, women still suffer from income inequality. Part of the reason is that women enter who enter stereotypically female jobs (teacher, secretary) are paid less because, well, jobs that have been historically held by females pay less. But it’s more than that. There is still inequality of pay between men and women working the same jobs. Why?  An excellent blog post explains by quoting an article:

The reason they don’t keep up, from where I sit, is simple. Often, a woman will enter the salary negotiation phase and I’ll tell them a number will be sent to them in a couple days. Usually we start around $45k for an entry level position. 50% to 60% of the women I interview simply take this offer. It’s insane, I already know I can get authorization for more if you simply refuse. Inversely, almost 90% of the men I interview immediately ask for more upon getting the offer.

Some might say that this is the women’s fault; they should just learn to negotiate! First, though, I’d point out that women are socialized NOT to negotiate but rather to compromise in order to ensure tranquility. But there’s more than that, too, as the blogger points out, quoting a study:

Their study…found that women’s reluctance [to negotiate] was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did….”What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not,” Bowles said. “They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not.”

Thus today, sexism is largely off the books, ingrained in culture rather than enshrined in the law or in employment handbooks. Thus while the vast majority of Americans believe in equality for women, it has yet to be achieved.

There is another reason full equality has yet to be achieved. Women have for the past two hundred years been the primary caretakers of children, and even with the increasing involvement of fathers in the last two generations, women still bare the brunt of the childrearing. Unlike Western European countries, there are very few social structures to support motherhood and parenting. We don’t have paid maternity leave or subsidized daycare, for example. The result is that mothers who work have to play a balancing act that fathers who work simply don’t have to play. What we need is greater parenting equality and more support systems for working parents. This is another area where feminism still has work to do.

There’s more too, of course. Women still face a sexual double standard and have to worry about rape. Women’s reproductive rights (which while I am pro-choice, I see as starting not with abortion but rather with birth control) are continually under attack, and without being able to control their reproduction, women cannot achieve full equality.

But enough about why feminism is still needed even though most Americans are feminists. It’s time to move on to the second question: If the man-hating feminist is a stereotype and feminism is merely a belief in female equality, why are there anti-feminists?


First, there are still misogynist pricks who makes rape jokes and think it’s funny to talk about women’s place being the kitchen. I seriously don’t understand what’s wrong with these people.

Second, there are women who should identify as feminists but don’t because of misinformation. They don’t understand that feminism is about equality and think it is about man hating or about sexual promiscuity or about abortion (again, I think the starting point and rallying cry of feminists at a fundamental level is, or at least should be, about birth control – the ability to control reproduction – not abortion). If these women understood what feminism actually was – a belief in women’s economic, political, and social equality –  they would surely identify as feminism; after all, we’re talking about women who already completely agree with these core tenets of feminism, they just don’t recognize it by that name! What we have here is misinformation, but also, I think, a failure on the part of those who identify as feminists to properly articulate the feminist message. And it’s unfortunate, because it robs the movement of those who should be allies.

Third, and this is where I have most of my experience, are those anti0feminists who actually disagree with the core feminist goals, and for religious reasons. Put quite simply, religious anti-feminists don’t believe that women should have equal rights with men. They believe that men should be in charge, and women should follow, and that this is the natural order of society as ordained by God. I said earlier that feminists are not anti-family. They’re not, but they are against the patriarchal family. Feminists envision a family built on mutual cooperation and equality; religious anti-feminists envision a family built on a divine hierarchical order that prizes authority and obedience. I said earlier that feminists are not anti-religion. They’re not, but they are opposed to any religion that teaches that women are to be subordinent to men. Feminists in the conservative religious traditions that teach this sort of hierarchical gender order usually either jump ship (generally for a more liberal religious tradition) or work to reform that religious tradition by advocating for equality within it.

For religious anti-feminists, feminism does quite literally does mean the dissolution of the (patriarchal) family and the undermining of the divine (hierarchical) social order. Religious anti-feminists believe that women’s role is in the home, as wives and mothers, not outside of it, and that men’s role is in the workplace, as protector and provider for his family. Any change to this family order is a threat to their view of the family and the divine order of society. In this sense, feminism is a threat to the very core of their beliefs about the world and how it is meant to work. It’s important to remember that these religious anti-feminists would never say that women are less than men, but rather simply that men and women have different roles to play. These roles, they say, are different but equal. But since one of the roles is to be beneath the other role, I call bullshit on the supposed equality. My point is simply that they don’t advocate “oppressing women” or “keeping women down,” but rather “adhering to the God-given family order with everyone fulfilling their proper roles.”

Furthermore, religious anti-feminists believe that they can point to feminists destroying the family before their very eyes. Feminists are often charged with causing high divorce rates, and to some extent this is true. What happened was that in the past, before women had the measure of equality gained through the second wave feminist movement, women in abusive or unhappy marriages had no choice but to stay trapped in them. They had no other options because they were financially dependent on their spouses and divorce would have meant social suicide. Once these abused and unhappy women had other options, many of them chose divorce, and understandably so. Recent statistics show, though, that divorce rates are on the decline, perhaps in part because marriages founded on equality from the beginning are more likely to be happy and fulfilling.

It’s really no wonder religious anti-feminists are so concerned about feminism. Feminism quite literally does undermine everything they believe in. The stereotypes of feminism I grew up with were wrong, but even if I had understood what feminism actually was, I would likely still have opposed it. When you believe that women are always to be under male authority, endorsing female equality isn’t exactly a priority.

I wonder, though, if the women of Christian Patriarchy would be quite so happy to lead lives as submissive “helpmeets” if they were forced to do so rather than doing so by choice. After all, two hundred years ago the law stated that women had to obey their husbands, and that if they didn’t, their husbands were legally free to beat them into submission. My guess is that choosing to be submissive is much more pleasing than being forced to be submissive. In this way, perhaps Christian Patriarchy has a symbiotic relationship with feminism, because without feminism it would not exist as it does today, with its leagues of women happy to voluntarily embrace their own submission because, they believe, through their choice they are serving God.

So there you have it: feminism, the reason it’s still needed, and the source of its religious opposition, all in one post.

Disclaimer: This is just a collection of my thoughts as a feminist, I don’t claim to speak for feminism as a whole or that every feminist would agree with me on every point of my analysis.

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