3 Important Things to Know About Feminism
Today on The Feed, we hear from Caresse John, Associate Professor of English at Belmont University. Dr. John teaches and writes about American Literature and Gender Studies. In her post, Dr. John tells readers what she wants every person to know about Feminism.
By Caresse John
I am a woman. And I am a feminist. The two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. In fact, often women use their womanhood as the reason why they do not identify as a feminist. But as for me, my existence as a woman has a lot to do with my feminist affiliation. So do other things, though. A lot of things, in fact. But, were I to look back over my 38 years of life, I’d have to name two other facts that have led me to feminism: my mother and my choice to be an English major.
I grew up loving stories, reading voraciously, partially because I was the only child of a very hard-working single mother. She was a nurse, and I watched her closely – compassion came easy to her. Compassion was her career choice. And it was a choice I never, not once, wondered if she had a right to make. It never occurred to me that women were not capable of being both strong and independent while also being empathetic and nurturing.
Thus, my mother is, no doubt, my first feminist role model – she played an external role on my path to feminism, even though she never used that word. My reading played an internal role. Like with my mother, reading stories – lots of them – led me to view the human experience as multifaceted, as well as deeply personal and social. The more you read, the less you become the center of the world, the more your truths are called into question, the broader and more inclusive your worldview becomes. Reading cultivates compassion.
I open with these points because they are at the core of my relationship with feminism today. I am now a college professor of English, a teacher of stories, and I find myself standing in front of young men and women who – like me – have grown up with feminism as part of their cultural milieu. Jennifer Baumgartner and Amy Richards, in their wonderful book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, put it this way: “for anyone born after the early 1960s, the presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it – it’s simply in the water” (17). If anything is generally true about young men and women today, at least the many with whom I’ve interacted, it is that they have some basic knowledge of feminism (though it often has come from social media – and a lot of that information is misleading, or just plain wrong) and that they do not need to be convinced that men and women deserve equal rights and opportunities (though they do not know how to go about helping effect that social change, and sometimes they do need to be convinced that men and women do not, in fact, have equal rights and opportunities yet).
So, I spend a lot of my time as a feminist teaching people about feminism. And if I had to pick my top three most important points, the things I would want the whole world to know, here is what I would share:
1) Feminism is, above all, about compassion.
The OED defines compassion as “the feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.” Compassion is an emotion that must be taught or learned. It is not inherent. Instead, it comes out of something shared, or an attempt to share something that is foreign. Feminism exists because, historically, women have faced and felt oppression simply because of the fact that they were women. And like any painful experience, once one has experienced an injustice, he or she not only wants to survive and overcome that injustice, but also one is more prone to sympathize and empathize with others’ pain. Feminism is a social movement that asks each of us to very seriously consider and listen to the personal stories of women who have experienced oppression in a variety of ways. Feminism cultivates compassion, and it is sustained as a movement only when compassionate people enact it.
2) Feminism is still necessary
Because feminism is “simply in the water,” it’s hard sometimes to believe it’s still necessary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had young women tell me “everything’s fine. I can get a job or choose to be a stay-at-home mom” or young men tell me “my mom raised me and worked outside of the home. Women have equal rights and opportunities.” In her important article, “Feminists or ‘Postfeminists’? Young Women’s Attitudes Toward Feminism and Gender Relations,” Pamela Aronson notes that before people associate with feminism, they have to become gender conscious. In other words, young men and women today need to become conscious of gender oppression before they recognize that, indeed, feminism is still a necessary movement. My students and I spend a lot of time talking about when and how they became gender conscious, and the stories that they have to tell would break your heart – stories of bullying, catcalling, sexual violence, abuse, and the list goes on. But every single story I hear reminds me that women and men are not equal, not in our society and certainly not around the world, and feminism – a movement that seeks to achieve this goal for all individuals – is still necessary.
3) Feminism is, and always has been, about the personal and the political, about the self and society, about individual consciousness and social norms.
One of the worst misrepresentations I’ve recently seen regarding feminism is that feminism is about women being victims. In fact, anyone who has studied feminism knows that it is about the exact opposite: empowering women. It has always been about creating a culture that allows for and encourages women to gain their own personal sovereignty. It is a movement that seeks to make changes at the level of the person (helping women view themselves as worthy and valued and strong and beautiful) but also at the level of society (putting into practice laws and norms and systems that protect women’s sovereignty). Feminism does not seek to put women over men, to reverse gender oppression. Every single time I teach feminism, my students come to me with conflicting information about what the movement is, telling me that they believe men and women deserve equal rights but they’re not sure about this ‘feminist movement.’ And every single time they start to study the history of the movement and hear the stories of women who faced and continue to face oppression, they identify themselves as feminist and they start to plug into some social aspect, each one doing his or her part to help change minds and society.
In 2014, Emma Watson addressed the United Nations and her topic was feminism. If you’ve not heard her speech, stop reading this right now, and go watch it (and then come back and finish this article). In her speech, Watson calls the people in her life inadvertent feminists. When I first heard that, I bristled a little. But there is something to what she’s saying…as a feminist, I want feminism to be as organic in other people's lives as it is in mine. Being feminist, identifying as one, acting as one, speaking as one – all of this comes as easy to me as breathing. And when I look around, I see that is true for more people than for the men and women who came before us. However (and here’s my big caveat), the only time feminism should be inadvertent is when it is no longer needed. There are many, many, many, many women who need more than inadvertent feminism. Inadvertent means unintentional…sexual oppression is still too pervasive for us to be satisfied with inadvertent feminism. And it is certainly too pervasive for us to be misinformed about feminism. Instead of believing everything you read (even this article), be intentional about learning what feminism really is and then be compassionate as you do your part to create a world in which people are not limited, in any arena, by their gender.