Descriptions and defenses (or dismissals) of feminism have filled thousands of books and comprise billions of words in journals, manifestos, novels, videos, academic papers, blogs, interviews, news articles, and every other medium, yet there is still confusion about what feminism is and what it means to women and society. What is sure is that most of the women reading this have heard of feminism and most have opinions about it.
Unfortunately for women, the concept of feminism has been loaded down with every issue that has any possible connection to women. As if what happens to women must be specially sequestered into its own politics. That is not only ridiculous, but very effectively marginalizes the lived experiences of half of all humans. Let’s get some things off the feminism plate so we can move on from there.
Noticing instances of sexism and misogyny, even calling them out, doesn’t make someone a feminist. That’s a mere baseline for being considered a decent human being. Being free of being singled out for maltreatment, debasement, or dismissal because of a recognizable trait is a human right and all humans should have and support that right.
Understanding that the continuum from everyday sexual harassment all the way through to overt sex discrimination blocks women’s access to economic equality does not make someone a feminist. Economic fairness and justice are human rights and all humans should have and support those rights.
Noticing and calling attention to the fact that men treat women badly does not make someone a feminist. Living free of every type of abuse is a human right and all humans should have that right and support that right.
Seeing the grotesque harms of rape and sexual abuse and demanding justice for women and girls who are raped and sexually abused doesn’t make someone a feminist. Living free of the threats, fear, and reality of rape and sexual abuse is a human right and all humans should have and support that right.
Believing that women and girls who are prostituted by men deserve human rights does not make someone a feminist. Living free of being prostituted, bought and sold, trafficked, and enslaved is a human right and all humans should have that right and support that right.
The frame of “human rights” is very clear and easy to understand. We need more people to understand this and it will help when women get into the habit of pointing these things out. We need that as the baseline so we can work on what feminism is really about: The fact that females are inherently at risk simply for being female and what we can do about that.
More specifically, radical feminists focus on women as a class (not individual women and their personal choices and opportunities) and how that class is situated in an oppression hierarchy beneath men as a class. This frame of systemic oppression helps us see how the risks to females globally are intertwined and why advances for individual women are not the solution for women as a class.
Sexual violence and reproductive control are means of maintaining women’s class position in the hierarchy. Everything related to sexual violence – pornography, prostitution, BDSM, rape and its culture, child brides, FGM – maintains women’s class oppression. Everything related to reproductive control – access to abortion, birth control, and prenatal care, as well as PIV sex and femicide — maintains women’s class oppression. Women as a class are harmed by sex role stereotypes (aka “gender”) that pin them down to a behavioral and experiential role and symbol. Gender is the lever used against women who would otherwise be able express their full humanity.
Pornography is the propaganda that women and girls are and belong in the sex class and depicts the systemized dehumanizing of women and girls. Prostitution is the enactment of using women and girls as the sex class and further systemizes the dehumanizing of women and girls. These can no more be rescued from those realities than any form of institutionalized debasement and slavery can be made into kinder, gentler versions.
Feminism is the recognition of systemized and institutionalized misogyny. As a political position and movement, it addresses the fact that prostitution, sex trafficking, pornography, sexual abuse and violence, rape, sexual harassment, gender-essentialism, heteronormativity, mandatory PIV sex, and control of reproduction are specialized subsystems that serve as functioning units of the overall system to control women’s lives.
Feminism also recognizes that every human institution (religious, educational, military, medical, industrial, science, cultural, entertainment, technological, legal, corporate, social, governmental, financial) has significant aspects of the sex class hierarchy and serve to maintain the status quo. When combined in society overall, these make women’s oppression largely impervious to complete and permanent reform through piecemeal methods.
While recognizing all of this, feminists do not get confused between what the overhaul looks like and what it looks like for women to survive in the meantime. Finding ways of mitigating the influence and damages of these subsystems and institutions is what we all must do just as a fact of living within the oppression hierarchy. Blaming women for the actions they take to live in that hierarchy will not dismantle the hierarchy itself, but rather serve to divide women from each other.
We must be the ones who keep a very clear vision beyond our current conditions to what it could be like if the systems and institutions were completely changed.
Language — our language — is one of our most precious and powerful tools in this fight. In these times of backlash against feminism, many people are using our tools, including our most precious words, in ways that destroy the core concepts or make them meaningless and thus, useless.
Women must fight to keep our tools our own. Our tools help us maintain our vision and help guide us in the hard work toward our own liberation. We must be determined to not allow others to misuse them, or worse, use them against our movement for women’s liberation.