What is feminism?

I am part of the Cyber Scholars, which is closely related to the Center for Women in Technology at UMBC. CWIT work to help those less socially encouraged (primarily women, but also people of minorities) to find positions in engineering and computer science in the workforce. Being a woman engineer is extremely rare; rarer than it should be, and CWIT is working hard to make an impact in order to fix that. At a sort of recent meeting I had with other men in the CWIT program, the question was posed, what exactly is feminism?

This is a better question than some might think it is.

Feminism is most simply put, the fight for women’s rights and abilities, the fight to make them “equal” to men (what comprises “equal” is often left rather vague, but usually involves things like similar base pay and approximately 50/50 distribution in the typical workforce,) and the fight against the stereotype that women should only be “in the kitchen” or “shouldn’t work”. Google translates it as:

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

And if you were just looking to answer what feminism is at surface level, that would suffice. But I don’t think it answers the question of what feminism truly is. So let’s try again, and take it a little deeper.

To say that women want “equality” at its most base term is I think, a little misleading. This is simply because women do not want everything that men have to do. My chief example would be the draft, which a quick Google search implies that most feminists actually oppose. In the case that equality was valued above all else, the idea of feminists opposing the draft doesn’t make any sense. Surely if men do it, women should do it too right? Feminists shouldn’t have a problem with women having to sign up for the draft, right?

Feminists opposing women in the draft isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the idea of women being forced to sign up for the draft doesn’t exactly have me head over heels either. But it does force us to reevaluate the term “equality” which is often thrown around with little regard for what it actually means, and instead to think about what exactly feminists want.

Fortunately, I am of the opinion that there is a simple term that fulfills the feminist’s desire for women to receive equal pay, to have a decidedly not-dominant male work-force, and to have the social right to work however they would like – respect.

And it is at this point that I think the true form of feminism starts to take shape. This is because what respect means for women has been slowly changing course over the past several hundred years. And I put the blame squarely on men.

Back in the day, nearly before my time, (and still in my time, especially in conservative/Christian circles) a man took care of his wife. He provided for her, and cared for her and loved her, and honored her. He worked and his wife didn’t, not because he didn’t respect her, but because he wanted to CARE for her, and part of caring for her was making sure she didn’t have to work. The ultimate gesture of respect to a woman was to care for her, keep her at home, keep her safe, keep her warm, keep her out of the sun, make sure she is happy, and keep her out of the workforce. Taking care of a woman so she didn’t have to take care of herself was genuinely respectful. In the meantime, in the era where manpower, strength and time were the most valuable thing a man could market, he did so, toiling long hours in the fields, at the mills, in the factories, doing the work that was required to keep his family afloat. Being able to work wasn’t a privilege. It was a responsibility.

For better or for worse however, this has changed.

This has occurred for a couple different reasons, but chief among them is that…men don’t respect women that way anymore. Rather than keeping them out of the workforce by wanting to care for them, it’s become a poisonous act of disrespect. Paying them less is not an attempt to make sure they don’t have to work, but a genuine undervaluing of what that woman can bring to the table. Many men no longer feel the need to provide for their wives; they can leave when they want, for whatever reason they want, and women pay the price, because they never went to college, or never got that valuable work experience, or never had an easy-in to become part of the workforce when they needed to be able to provide for themselves. Men have used and abused women; providing for them when it suited their own selfish ends, but leaving women out to dry as soon as it required genuine love and care on their part.

Another reason is simply that nowadays, making money is no longer just a responsibility. It’s a chance to have a career, to achieve something truly big with your life, to do something that you love and find interesting, and we are in a new stage of humanity (especially in the US) where if you want to do what you love, that is POSSIBLE.

And women have found a voice. No longer is it enough to rely on unreliable men. No longer is it enough to be content as men take the jobs while the women stay at home. Women want to EXPLORE. They want to have a career, they want to be able to take care of themselves, and they don’t want to have to worry about men (who as time has gone on have become significantly more abusive of their traditional role in society) taking care of them.

And as these changes have occurred, so too has the definition of respecting a woman changed as well. No longer does it mean they stay at home while the husband brings home the bacon. No longer does it mean relying on men to take care of them. Men lost that version of respect. Respect for a woman now often involves allowing them into the workforce, giving them equal pay, and valuing what they bring to a company and to society.

Feminism isn’t really about equality, not really. Feminism is the result of a changing definition of respect to women in modern society.

So, should we go back to the way it was, or should we embrace the new form of respect for women? That’s a hard question to answer. There are some very good reasons for the original version. For example, more women entering the workforce has an inverse effect on the fertility rate (women have less babies because they’re in the workforce), which consequently causes a stagnating population that would likely lead to the human population starting to drop. While this might sound like not a completely bad thing, it could have startlingly bad effects on the economy, human geography, and society as a whole. Then again, there are some benefits to the modern approach as well; it gives women a chance to find who they want to be on their own. A plurality of people already believe in the modern approach anyway.

Regardless of which way we do end up going however, it’s without a doubt that we, as men, need to keep respecting women, in whatever form that might take.


2 thoughts on “What is feminism?

  1. I have some issues with the ideas you’ve presented here, so I’d like to clarify those and then address your question. First off, I’m not so sure about your definitions of feminism and equality. I understand the difficulty defining feminism. Feminism has changed a lot over time, and feminists around the world have different goals and different ways of reaching those goals. (There is literally an entire field of study devoted to gender issues, if you’re interested.)

    According to Wikipedia, “the feminist movement (also known as the women’s liberation movement, the women’s movement, or simply feminism) refers to a series of political campaigns for reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, women’s suffrage, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, all of which fall under the label of feminism and the feminist movement. The movement’s priorities vary among nations and communities, and range from opposition to female genital mutilation in one country, to opposition to the glass ceiling in another.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_movement)

    Feminism is both a social movement and a political one. Gaining respect for women is a huge part of the social movement, but a major aspect of feminism is also reaching political goals – equal access to education, reproductive rights, etc. This is where the definition of feminism as “working towards equal rights for women” comes in.

    Now let’s talk about equality. “Equality” means gaining equal rights for women. This does not mean we want everything men have. We don’t want urinals, we don’t want your body hair (at least I don’t), and we don’t want to have to wear pants and suits. We do want to be treated with the same amount of respect, and more importantly we want the rights that men have. That means the right to CHOOSE to wear pants or not, have kids or not, have a job or not, get married or not, get an education, etc. Notice I said the “right to choose.” If a woman wants to stay home and be taken care of by a loving husband, that’s totally ok and she should be able to do that. But she should also be able to choose a career if that’s where her heart lies.

    As for the draft issue, I don’t think it’s an issue that all feminists uniformly agree on. I can say that I as a feminist don’t oppose it, but if women are required to serve then we better address the issue of sexual violence in our military. “According to a 2011 Newsweek report, women are more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. 25% of military women have been sexually assaulted, and up to 80% have been sexually harassed.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_assault_in_the_United_States_military)

    To reiterate, a woman serving her country is more likely to be sexually assaulted by a FELLOW SOLDIER than killed by an enemy. Is this not complete insanity?! And it’s an issue for men too, something like 10% of men are sexually assaulted in the U.S. military.

    Anyways, now that the definitions of feminism and equality are a bit clearer, I’d like to address your question: is the “old way” better or the “modern way.” I’m assuming that the “old way” here means 50’s America or “pre-second-wave feminism” America, and the “modern way” is America today.

    Let’s talk about this “old way” you’ve described. To you, a marriage in the 50’s was the ideal way for a man to show respect for a woman by providing for her and caring for her. If that’s your idea of a perfect relationship, that’s great and I have no doubt that many women also want that. Unfortunately, your idea of respect and another person’s idea of respect are not the same. Not all women want to be in that kind of relationship or that life… so shouldn’t they have the right to choose what works for them? Furthermore, I’m sure not all men want that either. And what about gay men and women? Well the answer is they couldn’t exist and live happy lives in your old America. They would be ostracized for challenging the gender roles you’ve so nicely defined. (Again, even straight men and women might not want to follow those gender roles.) Finally, even though you may be a loving and respectful gentleman, there are so many men out there who aren’t. It’s no coincidence that countries with traditional patriarchal societies have the highest rates of domestic violence and violence against women. Just look at India.

    Here’s a list of some of the issues women face around the world: http://www.marieclaire.com/politics/news/a9760/worst-countries-for-women-2014/
    Many of those countries have a patriarchal society like the “old America” you describe. It’s not that men are all evil, it’s just that people in power tend to become corrupted. When you place one gender in a position of power in society, there is bound to be corruption and abuse. I believe this is a pretty universal human flaw.

    To wrap this all up, I think it’s pretty clear that the “old America” was problematic at best. The good news, though, is that people who want to have a traditional marriage/family can still do that today! And people who want “modern” lives can have that too, without having another person’s values imposed on them. (There’s still some work to do on this front, but at least it’s gotten a lot better!) So our “modern world” is a win-win… seems like a pretty obvious choice to me.

    Oh, and I wouldn’t worry about underpopulation. The decline in population growth of developed countries is more than made up for by the growth of underdeveloped countries.


    1. Hey Sarah, thanks for your well-thought reply!

      Perhaps my wording is a little imprecise looking back at it. I’m answering less of what feminism is, and more of what feminism is a result of.

      In this case, I think feminism is a modern set of social values that have emerged from a long period of abuse and lack of respect of the previous set of social values by men in society. (Note, I’m not meaning to define those feminist social values, [although I do enumerate them to the best of my ability] I’m simply suggesting their origin.)

      Your example of harassment in the military is a wonderful example of this abuse/lack of respect. And you’ve also found another fantastic example with your marieclaire link! It’s clear that however good the “old” set of social values was, they’re not being respected, and as the situation has degraded over the past hundred/thousand years, women have become less and less content with the situation, and are standing up for themselves.

      I’m glad you also mentioned equality, and gave some examples of said equality. However, you said it very well when you opened with “Women want to be treated with the same amount of respect.” Having the right to choose, having the right to wear pants, having the right to have a job, choosing whether to get married, having access to a good education…all of these things I would say not only fall under the line of equality but also under the jurisdiction of respect.

      When people say “equality for women” I postulate they really mean “respect for women”. I think saying “equality” can be a denotational misnomer, because as you mentioned, women don’t want everything men have. Connotatively however, respect and equality are one in the same. Denotationally, I think respect is a better description.

      That was several paragraphs to say that I believe we agree with each other, but it’s good to have these conversations and find ground to agree and disagree when necessary.

      I encourage you to read, comment and agree/disagree with my other blog posts, and I hope you keep coming back!


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