There are few things as confusing as trying to define modern feminism.
Traditionally it has been described as a movement in support of political, economic and social equality for women. Yet in the era of social media, toxic masculinity, #MeToo and meninism (yeah it’s a real thing apparently), contemporary feminism has become so convoluted that many now reject it all together.
According to a survey by Statista, conducted in the UK in 2018, only 32% of men and 41% of women willingly identify as feminists.
Interestingly, further surveys have revealed that 76% of both men and women support the notion of gender equality.
So why do so many people who support gender equality seem to reject the notion of modern feminism?
To understand this we need to consider how the movement has evolved.
First wave feminism began in the late 19th century and was focused predominantly on gaining the vote for women through the suffrage movement. The 60’s saw the birth of second wave feminism, which focused on reproductive rights and equality at home and in the workplace. The third wave, beginning in the ’90s, was all about intersectionality, sex positivity and fair representation.
Finally fourth wave feminism, which began in 2012, has been centered around rape culture, body autonomy, equal pay and advocating for the rights of marginalized groups.
While first and second wave feminism had clearly demarcated legislative goals, third and fourth wave feminism have been focused on social equality.
This has caused complications, as it turns out it’s harder to change people’s perspectives than it is to change the law.
Due to the lack of clarity around how to go about measuring social justice, the movement has become distorted and largely misrepresented, particularly through social media.
Many radical feminists online seem to focus largely on critiquing men, using terms such as ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘mansplaining’ and ‘men are trash’. This terminology, although stemming from women’s lived experiences, tends to ostracise men through proliferating the idea that masculinity is inherently violent. By overly policing the thoughts and actions of people online, radical feminism tends to push away those who actually support its objectives, because they potentially harbour some conflicting views.
Another of the main problems with modern feminism is the issue of privilege. The work of writer and activist Betty Friedan, a pioneer of second-wave feminism, whose book ‘The Feminine Mystique’ focused on the dissatisfaction of middle-class, suburban housewives, has faced criticism over the years for her failure to acknowledge the lives of women outside of her class, race and social demographic. By ignoring the challenges faced by America’s working class and black female population, she unintentionally mimicked the elitist mindset of those she was condemning. Today a lot of people still view feminism as exclusionary. This is why intersectionality has become so important to the movement, in an effort to incorporate black women, trans women, sex workers and men into the narrative.
Given all its problems, does this imply that feminism is no longer relevant today?
I would argue no. Although huge progress has been made, with women now outnumbering men at universities and making up 46% of the UK labour market, gender equality is far from a reality.
Incidences of rape and sexual assault towards women are rampant, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement trending in over 85 countries. According to UNICEF, female genital mutilation is still practiced in over 29 countries, 15 million girls around the world are forced into marriage before the age of 18 and abortion remains illegal in 26 countries.
While here in the Western world; women are 89% more likely to be victims of domestic violence, are still being taxed for sanitary products, and when it comes to advertising in the media, according to the Geena Davis Institute on gender in media, men are four times as likely to appear in ads then women and 89 % more likely to be depicted as smart.
Clearly, there is still very much a need for feminism, but it needs a makeover.
How? By understanding what it isn’t. It’s not burning bras or hating men. It’s not about gaining revenge against the patriarchy.
I often find myself being interrogated by my male friends when I define myself as a feminist. Then why do you wear makeup? And how can you still believe in chivalry then? As if one can’t identify as a feminist and still appreciate basic manners?
Women in politics have constantly faced these kinds of ultimatums, struggling to find a balance between looking good enough to avoid ridicule, while not appearing too attractive that they are overtly sexualized or not taken seriously.
Recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest American congresswoman in history, posted on Instagram about her skincare ritual. This might seem trivial but it speaks largely to what modern feminism should be about. Understanding that women are multi-faceted beings. They can be mothers and career women. They can contour and highlight, while also governing a country.
It also comes down to realizing that feminism hugely benefits men. According to the World Health Organization, countries with higher rates of gender equality have lower mortality rates; while Goldman Sachs has published statistics that show women’s expansion into the labour market increases GDP.
Feminists have also helped change the definition of rape to include men and created awareness campaigns that expose the harmful stereotypes around masculinity.
Ultimately, being a feminist means you support equal opportunities, fair representation and independence for women around the world.
And that’s a definition I think most of us could get behind.