Why does feminism have such a bad reputation? Even the name sounds like a dirty word, and many women resist being branded as feminist for this very reason. I can understand the distaste for the word; in my experience, feminists are often seen as man-haters who express feelings of superiority rather than equality. However, I believe that the negative connotations of the word are largely unwarranted, and are due to a misconception of what it means to be a feminist in modern society.
I think that the misconception can be partially explained when considering feminism in terms of three “waves” that have occurred throughout history. First-wave feminism – which began in the late 19th to the early 20th century – was the first incarnation of the movement and focused mainly on the legal factors that oppressed women; these included things like a woman’s inability to hold property or to vote. Basically, the women in this movement believed that they should be recognized as persons and enjoy the same rights and freedoms as men.
Although there’s much debate about the specific dates for the beginning and end of second-wave feminism, many agree that it originated in the early 1960s. This new incarnation sought not only legal equality, but social and political equality, as well as equality within the household.
Important aspects of this movement also included reproductive issues – most controversially, the legalization of abortion – and issues surrounding female sexuality.
It is said that we have now moved out of second-wave feminism and entered the third-wave. It is here that the problem begins; while we would no doubt be hard-pressed to find an individual who would argue that women were unreasonable in pursuing first-wave issues like the vote, or second-wave issues like equality in the workplace, I feel that many people are cautious of supporting third-wave feminism because they feel that with the many gains made in the first two waves, the movement has become irrelevant.
While it is true that some major gains have been made for gender equality since the origins of feminism, I am hesitant to concede that it has become a non-issue. There is evidence for anyone who reads statistics about the representation of women in politics, who watches television or is interested in third-world; issues that show there is still progress to be made. Despite the legal measures in place to ensure that women do not experience discrimination in the workplace, there remains a persistent earnings gap between the genders, particularly in trades.
Body image continues to be a major issue for women today; while I agree that this issue is increasingly affecting men as well, studies show that men consistently rate their bodies as more attractive to women than women rate their bodies as attractive to men, supporting the theory that most women have some sort of low-level body dysmorphic disorder. This misconception about what body type is “normal” or “attractive” comes not only from the media but often from one’s intimate social circles. For instance, I know many women whose fathers and partners keep tabs on and make comments about fluctuations in their weight.
I posit that the negative connotations of the word “feminist” stem from the persistent mental linkage of the term to the ideals and methods of first and second-wave feminism; as the goals of these movements are seen to have been, for the most part, accomplished, modern feminism is seen as overkill. Feminists have now become women who are unsatisfied with the gains they have made, who harbor resentment to men and who believe that they are the superior sex.
This is unfair – today’s feminism is not one that sees men as the enemy and the oppressor but sees them as a group with the ability to contribute to the solution of gender-related issues. They understand that shaming and demeaning all men for the transgressions of a few will do absolutely nothing to improve gender relations. They also recognize that an overwhelming majority of Canadian men do not support gender discrimination and are just as disgusted by violence against women as women are.
The problem here, then, is a misconception of what it means to be a feminist in modern society, and a dismissal of the issues that women face today as unimportant when compared with first and second-wave issues, as well as the issues that women continue to face in many third-world societies.
But the appreciation that there has been a great deal of progress and the understanding that there is still much progress to be made in the rest of the world should not make these issues any less important. Why should we have to choose one over the other? Why can’t we support women’s issues both inside and outside of the first world? Why can’t we strive for small changes as well as large ones?
Inequality is inequality, regardless of how large or small a scale it is on.