Confronting the failures of feminism

At some point during the evolution of women’s rights, feminism became a club that everyone could join by saying the right words and thinking the right thoughts. By virtue of believing men and women are equal, one suddenly joined a constantly evolving and changing social movement. This inclusiveness is gimmicky and reductive, but serves a logical purpose — by including more people as feminists, we can supposedly broaden the aims of feminism as a global movement. However, this only reduces feminism to a mere shadow of its truly revolutionary self.

For example, mainstream feminism rarely mentions how important the links between first-wave feminism and trade unions were. First-wave feminism was the undertaking of courageous, uncompromising women who did not sit on their laurels, but took dramatic action to gain women suffrage and protection from discrimination at the workplace. Now, we have snide pseudo-liberals using buzzwords and catchphrases like, “if you believe in the equality of men and women, congratulations, you are a feminist.” The reality is that if you believe that men and women are equal, you’ve only proved that you have a modicum of human decency and social tact.

If you believe that men and women are currently equal in today’s society, then you’re not a feminist. If you believe that gendered oppression hurts men and women in equal measure, then you’re definitely not a feminist. If you don’t think we should actively pursue change in regards to gender inequality, then you’re still not a feminist.

This brings us to the issue of men in feminism. The reaction that male and female feminists get from their proclaimed political affiliation provides an excellent example of how gender operates. Male feminists are usually treated as exceptionally open-minded, caring people, while women who identify as feminists often just get labelled “bitch.” This isn’t to say that men can’t be feminists, but a movement as dynamic as feminism has more to do than waste time pandering to lukewarm allies. If men are interested in pursuing feminist advocacy, the door is more than open, but feminism is a movement about and for women. If you need to spend time pondering whether you really believe that there’s a pay gap between men and women, the revolution is moving on without you.

Including men in feminism often leads to reframing feminist issues so to include men. You can’t have a talk about street harassment without someone pointing out that men are more likely to experience violent street crime. That’s true, but that doesn’t make feminism the appropriate political forum to address that issue. It might seem brash and exclusionary, but feminism just isn’t the place to discuss men’s issues. This doesn’t mean that men are never discriminated against — there’s so many forms of social oppression that operate on different axes — but we shouldn’t allow men’s issues to co-opt feminism. If there was a group of scientists working on a cure for cancer, you wouldn’t yell at them that Parkinson’s is also a serious disease worthy of their attention. Similarly, many feminists are aware of the issues that men face, but they’re specifically focused on advancing the interests of women.

More to the point, you can work towards gender equality without being a feminist. Womanism works specifically to advance the racial and gender equality of black women. Actively working on male issues — like reframing the way we see fatherhood — also advances gender equality. Neither of the two movements are feminist in a direct sense, and that’s completely OK. We should spend less time trying to shovel everyone’s beliefs under the umbrella of neo-liberal feminism and spend more time actively trying to identify and dismantle oppressive power structures.

Social justice isn’t limited to single issues because that’s not how hegemony works, and that’s also not how we live our lives. Feminism is specific to the rights of women, and it’s something that I’m proud to identify with. That doesn’t mean everyone has to. Maybe feminism doesn’t properly address your individual concerns with societal injustice, or maybe you simply prefer to focus on different issues altogether. There shouldn’t be a value judgment attached to that decision.

But let’s not dilute a radical political tradition for the sake of some mediocre male allies and a one-feminism-fits-all approach. It takes all kinds of marginalized peoples fighting against varied and overlapping forms of oppression for us to realize a vision of a more just and equitable world.

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