Have you ever been asked to embrace a vague idea only to be told that doing so dictates you must likewise adhere to an entirely different set of immutable principles? Okay, that in itself was a vague idea. Think of the simplistic mindset surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Aren’t you a patriot?” some certainly asked, implying that anyone uncomfortable with war must likewise hate America. The comedian Mike Birbiglia plays on this idea in his stand-up special, “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing.” Birbiglia remarked on how frustrating he found the idea that if he “supported the troops” then he had to support the war. “I just think that’s a little manipulative because I love the troops. Because if they weren’t the troops, I would be the troops, and I would be the worst troops. I’d be like, ‘You expect me to carry a gun this heavy and run away screaming? That is too many things!’”
I think this is what’s going on with the word “feminism” these days. The psychologist Barry Kuhle asked a wide array of people two different questions. 1) Do you consider yourself to be a feminist, or not? And 2) A feminist is someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Do you think of yourself as a feminist or not? “If you’re like many people,” Kuhle wrote, “your answer to question one bore little resemblance to your answer to question two.” According to Kuhle, 65% of women and 58% of men identified as feminist when the definition was provided. Conversely, only 24% of women and 14% of men called themselves feminist in the absence of a clarifying definition.
In his book, The Blank Slate, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker makes a useful distinction between different types of feminism.
Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.
Kuhle agrees. “Equity feminism has no a priori stance on the origin or existence of differences between the sexes; it is solely a sociopolitical desire for men’s and women’s legal and social equality” whereas gender feminism “is the dominant voice in academia and online…. (Gender feminists) ardently argue that psychological differences between the sexes …are largely or solely socially constructed.”
I’m not writing this as an attempt to rebut or refute gender feminism (Pinker takes a whack at that: read his book and decide for yourself how effective he was, or see what else Kuhle has to say). Rather, I am writing because of a question Emma Watson posed in her largely excellent speech on equality to the UN. “Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, ‘too aggressive,’ isolating and anti-men, unattractive, even. Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one?” I can’t decide if this is an honest question or a disingenuous one. You can disagree with people who are anti-man, and you can disagree with those who believe that gender differences have nothing at all to do with biology, but please don’t pretend those people don’t exist. And don’t compound the problem by further pretending they don’t often call themselves feminists.
Feminism is an uncomfortable word because people mean it to use different – and at times contradictory – things. The group of people who lay claim to the label are diverse, and many of them have different definitions in mind when they use the word. When a person lays bare the tenets of their philosophy, we can choose to embrace or reject those claims. If a person says patriotism means being willing to be self-sacrificial in order to benefit the nation as a whole, we are able to agree or disagree with that claim on its own merits; when “patriotism” comes to mean blind, unchallenging acceptance of policies that we would otherwise detest, the people who are on board with the former might well be turned off by the latter. The term feminism is no different.
I want to reiterate that I agree with Watson in the spirit of what she said. Gender inequality is a worldwide problem, and no nation has achieved equality. (The question of whether or not that’s actually possible is another story entirely.) Watson also pointed out, “Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either,” a sharp insight that I wish had occurred to me. “I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help, for fear it would make them less of a men—or less of a man,” she said. “I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.” And as far as we’d like to think we’ve come, “15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children and at current rates, it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education.” Inequality is still an issue. Maybe the way forward is to focus less on labels and more about finding ways to create equality.