I was excited yesterday morning to come across this column by Paula Arab in the Calgary Herald, entitled “How did Feminism Become a Dirty Word?” An article supporting feminism in a mainstream paper in Canada’s conservative heartland? Awesome, I thought. Then I actually read it.
The article started out ok, with an anecdote about her first year university class’ reluctance to call themselves feminists.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about a belief in gender equality that says people, neither men nor women, should be discriminated against on the sole basis of their sex. So why the reluctance to stand up and be counted as a feminist?” she asks, reasonably.
But it’s pretty much downhill from there, as Arab spends the rest of the column suggesting “the fight has been won” and reassuring readers that feminism is nice and safe and doesn’t need to make anyone change how they would normally behave.
On the “fight has been won” argument, she seems to contradict herself, acknowledging instances of perpetuated rape culture such as the Manitoba judge who gave a rapist a lesser sentence because the victim had been wearing revealing clothing, and talking about our celebrity-obsessed culture that sexualizes young girls. She also recognizes women’s global inequality, citing honour killings and female genital mutilation, but still inexplicably insists “the fight has been won”.
And it’s on this assumption she tries to show that feminists aren’t like the stereotype people seem to have: “the butch look… -no makeup, short hair, overweight and manly”. Because we’re in a “post-feminist era” where women have pretty much achieved equality, Arab argues, feminism can be nice and comfortable and unintrusive. Women can be top managers “and lead like a woman, even if you had to act like a man to get there”! “Men can open doors for their ladies, now that chivalry is no longer a loaded symbol of women’s oppression”! And, thank God, “women can be strong and still be feminine”!
While it’s true women can be top managers, few actually are, and women still face sexism in the workplace in a number of fields such as technology. Women are drastically underrepresented in politics across the Western world, and many feminists would argue that women shouldn’t have to “act like a man” to get to the top, that defining corporate success as masculine has become an inherent part of women’s corporate inequality.
It’s also true that mainstream feminism, which centres on the principle of gender equality, generally accepts that feminine appearance and behaviour has little bearing on strength. That said, neither does androgynous or masculine appearance, though it seems like Arab thinks people would be more comfortable if women would just look like they’re told to look. No, feminists aren’t all manly-looking, but why should anyone care if we were? Masculine appearance doesn’t make anyone less friendly, less competent, or less valuable of a person.
And that whole chivalry thing? I have no problem with a guy holding a door for me, but I’d have a problem with a guy thinking he’s required to because I somehow can’t handle opening doors on my own, or because he thinks of me as his property. Arab still seems to think heterosexual relationships have a bit of an ownership factor, as evidenced by her discussion of men “open[ing] doors for their ladies“.
Arab is right that feminism doesn’t have to be big and scary, but she’s on the wrong track if she thinks gender equality can be achieved without ruffling any feathers. Feminism isn’t about deliberately trying to make people uncomfortable, but gender equality can’t be achieved without questioning gender relations and gendered behaviour. We also need to push for equality regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation, which means tackling homophobia, transphobia, poverty, and racism, in order to make sure we aren’t just focused on the concerns of straight, white, middle-class women.
Feminism doesn’t just bother some people because of the unfortunate negative stereotypes associated with it; it bothers some people because it forces them to admit their privilege and the ways they might be benefiting from or unconsciously perpetuating inequality.
Arab ends the article by inexplicably perpetuating the myth that feminists in the 1960s and 1970s burned their bras, which they never did, and concludes with: “Time to reclaim the F-word.”
I agree with the goal, but believe that being a feminist, while fun and rewarding, is about more than a theoretical commitment to equality: it does require changes in how we think and what we say and do.