Do we really need the label "feminist"?
Some women are actively opposed to the idea of being categorised as feminist. There are women who, for whatever reason, are repulsed by the label and prefer not to be associated with the movement, like Joni Mitchell. On the other hand, there are women who simply don’t care about feminism one way or the other. They don’t so much reject the label as generally ignore it, going about their days untroubled by something they consider disconnected from or separate to their lives, like my mum.
It is this latter group that I find myself most curious about these days. Particularly since my recent trip to The Gambia, where after literally stumbling across the Fashion Week Gambia event, I was privileged to spend time with the excellent women responsible for the event. They were all round boss ladies, accomplishing great things and living distinct and norm challenging lives. Yet their interactions were minus the politicised feminist chatter casually woven into conversation, that I have come to expect from circles of such women.
Whether we consider these women feminist is an important question, the exploration of which might provide answers about the nature of contemporary feminism and indicate how we can continue to walk a difficult tightrope and bring everyone along.
So why would someone not necessarily hate feminism, but simply neither know nor care about it either way?
For some, the answer is obvious. They have simply never heard of feminism. In this era of Beyoncé quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Playboy publishing heavily feminist content, and terms like “mansplaining” permeating the mainstream, the “brand” of feminism has never felt so ubiquitous. But across the world many women exist outside the marketplace of information and ideas, within which feminism proliferates. There are women who have never heard the term, or for whom the term, like any word you have no frame of reference for, means nothing. It is something foreign, something other, and something for those who move in political and academic classes.
Should the feminist movement find this concerning?
If a woman is living her life in a way that propagates certain feminist ideals, if she is breaking barriers, upending stereotypes with her lifestyle and occupation, disdaining the arbitrary limitations on the scope of activity accessible by women, raising her children to similarly disdain such restrictions, and at the same time, chooses not to subscribe to the terminology or engage in the discursive feminist ecosystem, should the feminist movement take issue?
Like most questions worth asking, the answer is unclear. The rationale for finding the positions of such women problematic can be summarised as follows: their absence from the core of the feminist movements robs it of key tools that would improve its capacity to achieve its goals.
For example, when the voices of these women exist outside the feminist movement, we all miss out on some of the diversity that further roots intersectionality into the ideology. The odds are that the kind of woman for whom the idea of feminism doesn’t really register is the kind of woman underrepresented within the core movement.
Moreover, we miss out on being able to draw more women into the fold for lack of any friendly neighbourhood feminists in their vicinity to preach the gospel, as it were. Even if some women are wired to live transgressive lives without the illumination and support that comes from discourse, some cannot. Many women wouldn’t even realize the array of options available to them in leading lives of defiance. For them, a first introduction to the ideas is crucial. They need the space to tentatively engage with challenging questions that seek to radically change how they see themselves and the world around them. Having no access to an environment that encourages discourse on how to live as a woman is a concerning loss we should remedy.
Ultimately, though, if we understand that political mobilisation is often a numbers game with regards to impact, then fewer feminists means less ability to achieve core gains only possible through activism.
If it’s a problem, what do self-identifying feminists do?
First and foremost, we need to clarify what we want the word “feminist” to mean. The way I see it, the term feminist is equally affixed to two divergent belief systems. One encompasses the broad-stroke belief that women should be treated equally to men, and have real access to free choice about the way they structure and live their lives. The second specifically recognizes that there is such a thing as the patriarchy (the term used to describe the society in which we live today, characterised by current and historic unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed), and therefore a need for multifaceted and often political action to combat that.
If we were to accept the former definition of feminism, then it would be a little absurd not to embrace women who indicate their belief in such feminism through actions if not through words. When we frame feminism as a vehicle that simply grants women access to individual choice and self-actualization, there’s no cause for concern. After all, even if the core movement is less diverse and weaker in numbers than it otherwise might be, what does it matter when, at the end of the day, more women are fulfilling the “aim” of feminism in living their lives as they choose to?
In fact, it could be argued that women living transgressive lives - or lives outside of the strict confines of society’s expectation of womanhood - even sans the big “Feminist” label, can be its own way of inviting other women to the movement. Women like this encourage others to reassess the arbitrary norms society has placed on them, normalizing the ideas that these norms (like marriage, motherhood etc) can be abandoned. Even inadvertently, women who avoid the feminist label can make an impact.
When it comes to the patriarchy, it’s a different story altogether
The latter definition is a different story altogether. If feminism means the belief in the system of patriarchy and the understanding that patriarchy must be dismantled with various political, cultural and academic tools, then it matters when women--especially women woke enough to live contrary lives--don’t identify with the movement. It means fewer people preaching the unfortunate gospel of the patriarchy's existence, thinking and talking about how to effectively eliminate the patriarchy, and it means fewer people engaging in activism when it takes place.
There are very important reasons for opting into the notion of feminism that centers of dismantling the patriarchy. For one, certain gains are only achievable when feminists mobilize as a collective to take political action. Incredible instances of activism like this year’s Icelandic wage-gap “2:38pm” strike and Poland’s march against abortion are only possible with this iteration of feminism. When we reduce feminism to individual experience, merely focusing on whether each woman feels free to live her life as she pleases, any activism that requires women to fight against issues that don’t tangibly affect them is much less likely to happen.
When you believe in patriarchy, you understand how oppression is linked, and that any sexism -- even sexism that doesn’t directly affect you -- is your problem to combat. In the absence of such thinking, there’s no principled reason (beyond the woefully insubstantial one of charity) for privileged women to be feminists, in the sense of actually working to change the situation of women who are strangers.
Furthermore, when feminism is seen as a tool against the patriarchy, the argument stays consistent. For example, it makes complete sense that patriarchal impact can vary from woman to woman depending on the other intersecting realities of their identity and situation. But, if the whole argument is reduced to individual women having the right to be equal to men, then women who have equaled or surpassed male peers in areas like university education or white-collar work appear to undermine the premise. In turn, this leads to the strawman argument that while the feminism of the suffragettes was laudable, the movement is now redundant.
Finally, without the developed concept of a patriarchy, it’s much harder to spot the cohesive relationships between different oppressive experiences, and to understand their root cause. For instance, being paid less at work (and being paid nothing to work at home) are both manifestations of society’s penchant for devaluing women's labour in the context of patriarchal capitalism. Were we to miss that link, then we would only be able to muster, at best, incomplete solutions to the wage gap issue.
The question then becomes: How do we invite non-identifying feminists into the fold? How do we get their attention and compel them to join?
We would have to address three major obstacles that keep women from self-identifying as feminists: 1) They think feminism is too academic; 2) They think feminism is too political; 3) Feminism is completely unheard of and foreign to them.
Feminism has some very academic characteristics, and co-opts a lot of academic behavior. One example is feminism’s dense and ever-expanding lexicon. However, the language of feminism comes with a reason. Command of language is important. When you can name an experience, or a concept, you give form to the intangible and claim some measure of power over your environment. One of the worst things in life is feeling attacked or hurt and then feeling that, because your experience has no apparent name, it must be non-existent. That kind of phantom pain is like being gaslighted by the universe. Similarly academic in nature, critical engagement, or the capacity to interrogate an idea, understand its components, and place the idea in broader context, is another behaviour integral to feminism.
I don’t think removing feminism from the realm of ideas and language is the way to go. But the academies of feminism can and should be made more inclusive so that everything, from the words we use to the way we critically interact, becomes broader and richer in scope.
I also think it’s non-negotiable that feminism remain absolutely political. The movement must appreciate the macro view that everything, even what feels and seems to be individual experience, is actually linked to social structures that need fixing. Instead of de-politicizing, the movement must join the broader push to bring citizens to realize that politics is the concern of everyone. The consequences of eschewing politics are dangerous; when people don’t comprehend how their lives fit into the grander scheme, how systems and institutions and the decision-making of others affects them, they can be exploited and misled to act against their interests.
When it comes to women who have simply never heard of feminism, it’s clear that the movement must fight for better education. It’s unacceptable to send people out in the world, post-“education,” without having taught them that their day-to-day lives are by default politicized.
Relatedly, the movement needs to continually challenge those with influence who stand under the banner of feminism without recognition of the patriarchy. We need to push them beyond the minimum standard of decency -- which is how I regard the basic belief that people should have equal rights and opportunities -- to the point where they are actively using their platform to call attention to the patriarchy.
Feminism, above all else, is the commitment to dismantling the patriarchy. So those women leading individually “feminist” lives while avoiding the word feminist? Well, they really aren’t feminists at all.