What Does it Mean to be a Feminist?

I label myself as a feminist, but I find I’m not really able to articulate what that means.

Feminism was not something that was important to me a few years ago.  I didn’t sympathize well with women.  I viewed many aspects that were traditionally “female” as weak, silly, or irrational.  For example, I thought that it was bad to be “needy” in a relationship, and strove for independence in all things.  I thought women could be “over emotional,” so I wanted to deny my own emotions and always be cool.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I came to think and feel this way, though I see foundations for these ideas in original sin theology and men’s roles/women’s roles teachings, my very poor emotional intelligence, and ideas that come from the traditional men-are-better-than-women school of thought.  Might be worth trying to pick apart, but I’ll save that for another post.

I had some very close and influential female friends, especially in middle and high school, but I viewed these girls as different from “normal” girls.  Of course, we were better than them in my mind.  I did not want to be what I saw as the stereotypical woman: needy, emotional, and unintelligent.  The friends I chose were brave, strong, smart, and independent, but I didn’t realize that TONS of women are these things.  I also didn’t understand that owning your needs, being emotional, or even making an unintelligent decision are part of the human experience, and any one of these could even be a good thing.  Instead I thought that emotional women needed to learn to control their emotions, and that women who were needy needed to learn to be independent.  I didn’t see a need for feminism because I saw a different problem.  I saw the problem as women acting wrong, not with systems and cultures that treat women unfairly.

This is all a bit embarrassing to admit, but I know I need to be honest with myself and how I used to think in order to understand what I think now.  It may help me understand why others respond the way they do to the idea of feminism.

It’s difficult for me to pinpoint when my views changed or what began to spur the changes.  I can identify a few key events: one was my divorce, being forced to deal with my emotions and understand that they matter, especially with the help of a close female friend.  Another was getting to know my husband and hearing him self-identify as a feminist.  But I think another large part of it was understanding the world a new way as an atheist.

I embrace being an atheist because it reminds me that I shed a world-view and adopted this new one.  There are so many areas of life that look completely different to me now.  Instead of being on an earth created for a purpose and therefore protected by a god, we’re on one planet out of a trillion trillion, with no protector and nothing preventing planets or species from disappearing.  Instead of humans being created to rule over animals, we are animals, evolved from and connected to each other.    Instead of being specifically segregated into “males” and “females,” the 2 main biological sexes (XX and XY) in humans are a result of the path our evolution took.  In other words, being female means something different to me now.  It’s no longer a stereotype I need to overcome.  It really just means that I was born with XX chromosomes, produce certain hormones more than others, and have a certain set of body parts.  There are some physical health things I need to pay attention to.  Like I want to make sure to get plenty of vitamin D and calcium and do my weight-bearing exercises to prevent osteoporosis. And I probably have the potential to get pregnant.  Everything else is negotiable.  Everything else is just discovering me, not discovering what it means to be “female.”

To go with this changing understanding, I also believe – from what little research I have done – that biological males and females (and anyone in between) are more similar than different, and the differences come more from socialization and cultural influences than from innate differences.  There do seem to be differences that come from having different hormones in your body (this ask reddit thread about trans people’s experiences with hormones was really informative for me).  But now, I can recognize that people are people, and that regardless of how your body is put together, everyone should have the same individual rights, respect, and opportunities.  Which I understand is a very idealized way of thinking.  But… if you don’t have an ideal to work towards, how can things get better?

In order to understand more what I think it means, personally, to be a feminist, I looked up wikipedia’s definition of feminism: “Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, personal, and social rights for women.”

First, I had to see the problem: that many societies around the world, including in the US, do not treat men and women equally in these areas.  Second, I had to recognize that this problem was not with women being what I viewed as “stereotypical women,” but with our (as a society) little actions and teachings and underlying myths that we believe.  It’s telling a girl she’s nurturing and telling a boy he’s tough.  It’s with telling a boy to “walk it off” but coddling a girl when she scrapes her knees.  It’s with complimenting a little girl on her looks and complimenting a little boy on his accomplishments.  And it grows to not appreciating women’s accomplishments, not taking women as seriously, not thinking women are as fit for some roles.  It’s called feminism because the name recognizes that, in many ways, women have the disadvantage.  Just like Black Lives Matter recognizes that, in many ways, black lives are treated unfairly (severe understatement, I know).  These names draw attention to where the problem is, as opposed to nice platitudes like “all lives matter” or “equal rights,” which do not identify the problem.

In summary: by recognizing the problem and the likely source of the problem, I understand better what it means to be a feminist.  To me, it means recognizing the obstacles women face and working toward equal rights for women, but I hope the movement will go beyond that to push for equal rights for all genders – trans and neutral and fluid and any other – to value humans as individuals.  (But there’s my idealism showing again).

To end, I wanted to put about 5 quotes from Roxane Gay (please read her fantastic book Bad Feminist), but I settled on 2:

“I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.”

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist


5 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to be a Feminist?

  1. Fantastic post! I’m bookmarking this to send to people when they ask why I’m a feminist. When I was younger I was of the same mind, that I didn’t want to be an ”emotional female”. Now I’m learning to just embrace who I am as a person and who others are as people. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Feminism is a complex topic mainly because of the differing opinions in circulation. But I agree I with your definition: it means recognizing the obstacles women face and working toward equal rights for women, but I hope the movement will go beyond that to push for equal rights for all genders – trans and neutral and fluid and any other – to value humans as individuals.

    My super simplified definition is: equality.

    I think that feminism strives to make the world equal.

    Great post!

    I look forward to more of your stuff. Following you now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I agree with your super simplified definition, though I think that, before I really realized the reasons behind the movement, I may have responded like, “Of course I support equality! But why do we need feminism?”

      Liked by 1 person

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