We need some nuance here. We need to talk about the distinction between systemic, socialized misogyny and individuals who simply annoy us. That white man in his sixties who constantly talks at me—is he assuming that he’s entitled to my attention because I look female? Or is he a socially anxious extrovert who can’t shut up? I’m not sure yet. I don’t know him well enough.
And we need to talk about that. This uncertainty is the space we all live in.
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Of course there are behaviors from men where there is no question. Rape, for one. The entire spectrum of sexual assault. Murder when a spouse, girlfriend, or ex doesn’t behave the way a man wants them to (according to a Violence Policy Center report from 2017, men killed over 1,600 women in 2015 in the United States, and the majority of those killers were partners or former partners of their victims). Telling a woman how to dress, regardless of the man’s orientation. Threatening girls and women in order to control their behavior. Limiting their access to their own earnings, to transportation, to other people. Talking over, cutting off, or laughing away the input of female coworkers, employees, friends, and family. Spreading the falsehood that women are intellectual lightweights and don’t belong in certain industries, positions, or public conversations. The list goes on. You get the picture.
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But that’s not the end of the story. We also need to talk about how living in a misogynist society shapes women’s behavior. We need to talk about the fact that women and girls, who routinely experience stalking, sexual harassment, lower pay, assault, abuse, objectification, body shaming, online threats of violence, as well as a lack of representation for their interests in government policymaking and workplace leadership may—quite justifiably—struggle to cope with the hellscape they find themselves in.
Patriarchy has existed for millennia. It is the heritage that our mothers and grandmothers passed down to us. They taught us how to manage the anxiety and fear we understandably feel when saying no to the wrong man can mean rape, murder, or loss of our home or job. They taught us how to assert ourselves in ways that men won’t notice and punish us for. Even my beloved Grandma was always trying to teach me how to seduce and ask for things in roundabout ways, just after meals, so a man would be least likely to take offense at my having a want, need, or idea that hadn’t occurred to him. Women have practiced, refined, and passed on strategies for pulling strings in ways that are less likely to upset misogynist men.
But none of that is empowerment. None of that is feminism.
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So maybe it’s time for a definition of feminism. Feminism does not mean female power. It does not argue that a matriarchy would be better than a patriarchy. Feminism does not advocate for the replacement of men or their obsolescence. The T-shirt printed with “The Future Is Female” might be cheeky, but it is not feminist.
Feminism has historically and lexically argued for the abolition of any gender exerting power or authority over any other gender. Feminism is the dream of equality, not superiority. Its goal is the eradication of all gender-based violence, harassment, and discrimination, including against LGBTQ+ individuals. In this century, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it best: “We should all be feminists.”
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Feminism is a friend to rights, not privileges. As we continue advocating for our rights, we must make that distinction. Freedom from rape and, if we are attacked, a full investigation of sexually violent crimes are rights. Getting the engagement ring we want and our partner wanting to spend time doing the same things we enjoy are not. I see this confusion particularly among white cis women under 30, so let’s clear this up. The following five behaviors are not feminist:
- Humiliating, shaming, cold-shouldering, bullying, threatening, or cheating on someone because they didn’t give you what you want is not feminism. Not getting what you want (sex, a best friend, a new car, a boyfriend who doesn’t prefer video games to brunch on Saturday afternoons) is not an injustice. It’s life. Being passive-aggressive isn’t going to change that fact. As an adult, if you’re unhappy with a situation, you leave, or you make it work. Don’t drag people down and claim you’re defending your rights as a woman. You’re not. You’re just being a dick.
- Claiming that you’ve been verbally or emotionally abused when someone expresses misgivings about something shitty you did is not feminism. In fact, you just undermined the efforts of abuse survivors everywhere. Congrats. If a friend or partner says, “Wow, that was really mean” or “You’re being hurtful” or “You took things too far,” you can of course disagree with them. But part of being a feminist is recognizing that people are individuals. You have no control over their feelings, but you do owe them basic courtesy. Something you didn’t intend as cruel could have hurt them. Something you thought would be fun maybe wasn’t for them. Maybe ask for consent next time. Consent isn’t just for cis women. Being free to give or deny consent is a right, not a privilege. And a loved one expressing hurt or concern is not gaslighting. Someone saying no thanks to an invitation or behavior is not abuse. So please stop posing as a victim. You aren’t.
- Wanting to punish, hurt, or condemn men is not feminism. If you hate males on principle, you are not a feminist. You’ve failed the litmus test for feminism: equality of all genders. A couple teachers of mine in junior high made it clear they loathed boys and men. They mocked my male classmates in front of the whole class. They gave them lower scores for arbitrary reasons, insulted them, offered preferential treatment to girls, and waxed on about the general awfulness of all men. Misandry is not feminism. Sure, yes, outside their classrooms, those women faced the same misogynist bullshit the rest of us do. But they seemed to think this justified their mistreatment of anyone male as soon as they had a little power. It doesn’t. Revenge is attractive. Trust me, I know. It is also antisocial and counterproductive and anti-feminist.
- Dictating how your romantic partner should spend their free time is not feminism. It’s abuse. This goes for any gender, but I do see an awful lot of women attempting to control what and how much a man eats, what pastimes he engages in, when and how frequently he engages in them, who he spends time with, when and how he meets them, what gender his friends are, and how much he exercises. First off, get your own life. Sheesh. Second, why do you feel a need to infantilize the adults around you? Does pretending men are needy children make their sexism less frightening for you? Are you just so anxious about your own life that it’s easier to control someone else’s? Figure it out and get it together. Everyone has a basic right to live their own life as they see fit, to play as many video games as they want, to choose their own career path. You are free to leave. But if you insist on sticking around and trying to coerce people into your little box for them, you are not a feminist.
- Claiming that you are oppressed because someone has a different viewpoint* is not feminism. Only narcissists need everyone to agree with them all the time. Disagreements over where to eat dinner are not toxic. Differences of opinion about one’s favorite book are not people being mean. They are inevitable in honest relationships with healthy, assertive people. However, refusing to hear differences of opinion or demanding everyone do things your way IS toxic. If your relationships are contingent on everyone agreeing with you, doing what you like, and believing as you do, you are living in a house of cards. If you truly believe in the “political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” then you enter every social situation knowing you’re going to experience a variety of different perspectives. You may passionately disagree, but your disagreement comes from a place of respect and commitment to existing in spaces where everyone feels safe and welcome to express their differences. Anything less is not feminism. It’s a dictatorship.
So that white man in his sixties? Yep. He’s an extrovert. He still annoys the fuck out of me. He just will not shut up, and as an introvert I can’t stand it. But I have yet to see any evidence that he’s sexist. He talks at everyone like that. He goes around draining introvert batteries like his very life depends on it. But I can’t claim that he’s oppressing, harassing, or abusing me because he isn’t. He just likes to tell 20 people 20 times a day about his dog and his daughter and his latest home improvement scheme. Each time I gently assert myself and let him know I need to get to work, and he apologizes and heads off to the next person. As my grandpa used to say, people are people. And as I say, they’re going to annoy. It’s part of being human, and a feminist.
*A legitimate viewpoint or opinion deserving public space does not include sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, or xenophobic insults and language. These are forms of hate speech that advocate for the oppression, often violent, of a particular group or identity. They can trigger people with PTSD and intensify anxiety for those with mental disorders. Our society is hotly debating what is and is not hate speech right now. But threatening others with or encouraging violence is unequivocal hate speech. For some, personal attacks intended to humiliate or shame also qualify. They are certainly verbal abuse. As a philosophy that advocates for equality, feminism, at its best, stands against such discriminatory, hateful language in all arenas.