I’m going to be honest: until recently, I’d always felt somewhat uncomfortable with the word “feminism.”
As someone who’s pretty outspoken about the subtle and not-so-subtle inequities between men and women in society, I’d feel guilty when I found myself cringing every time someone asked me if I was a feminist and I’d answer proudly, but almost defensively, that yes, I was. But I’d never stopped to ask the question — why? Why was I so uncomfortable with the word as a form of identification? By formal definition, feminism at its very core is nothing more than the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Sounds pretty simple, right?
Part of it has to do with the stigma surrounding the word “feminist”, and the fact that I always felt as if I was trying to prove its stereotype of a radical man-hater wrong. I’ve more than once had to reassure people that despite the stereotype, I was a “chill” feminist and not a misandrist at all. Even after widespread media campaigns to de-stigmatize feminism by high-profile speakers like Emma Watson, who spearheads the United Nations HeForShe movement (encouraging women AND men to take up the mantle of “feminist”), it still has the connotation of pitting women against men, and understandably so. I think it’s hard to deny that there is a resentment by feminists towards the institutionalized sexism that is perpetuated by the apathy of men in power, who we feel benefit from a system that rewards simply for being a certain gender. In a culture that encourages “going with the flow,” when being laid-back means not making a fuss about problems that can’t necessarily be solved easily, vocalizing our frustration towards the patriarchal status quo can be seen as being “high-maintenance” or “uptight.” And nobody, least of all me, wants to come off that way.
Another aspect is that the feminist issues that matter to me seem to come from such a place of privilege, which strikes a chord of guilt within me. I myself am a privileged, upper-middle class American citizen who is able to attend one of the most expensive schools in the nation. Equating my dissatisfaction regarding the lack of women in leadership positions in business and tech, to the much more serious struggles that women from a wide spectrum of different races, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds may have, can seem unrelatable and unreasonable. Feminism is such a relative ideology that varies so much within every individual’s experiences and frame of reference that my feminism can feel so trivial when I compare it to a woman who is fighting to be granted fundamental human rights and a basic level of respect, whether it be in America or a different country altogether. It’s becoming increasingly challenging to navigate the nuances of a multidimensional world where intersectionality, or how a certain group of women’s unique experience with gender inequality may be different from another’s, is being given much more consideration than before. But maybe that’s the beauty of it — that no matter where we come from, or what our backgrounds may be, we are all ultimately fighting for the same cause.
I understand that the term “feminism” can seem alienating. Whenever you define something as an “-ism,” you’re framing it as a theory, with a set of beliefs or a doctrine that you may stand for or against. It makes some people, especially men, tune out the real message of feminism — that despite decades of sluggish progress, there is still so much to be done in order to achieve gender equality in America and worldwide.
To me, advocating for women’s rights holds the same logic as advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement. To quote Trevor Noah of the Daily Show, “You know, the hardest part of having a conversation…in America [is that] it always feels like if you take a stand for something, you automatically are against something else.” But by saying that women’s rights matter, or that black lives matter, we’re not saying that anyone’s rights or lives matter less than others. All we’re doing is recognizing that certain groups of privilege have rights that are much less in danger than those of others, and that there is a need to prioritize making sure that we’re doing what we can to lessen the gap.
I want to end the misconception that feminism is meant to exclude anyone who is not a woman. That’s not the point, and we don’t want it to be; in fact, that would defeat our entire purpose. That’s why the UN is encouraging men to be a part of the conversation through HeForShe, and trying to make it more accessible and engaging for everyone — because equality can’t be achieved when only 50% of the world population cares about the cause. The bottom line is: feminism is a universal, unifying ideology that bands together everyone who believes in women’s equality from all walks of life, all over the globe.
Iris Kim is a sophomore studying business and applied analytics. Her <strong> WOMAN </strong> column runs every other Monday.