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Friday, October 24, 2014

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Victoria Noble: The problem with feminism

By Victoria Noble, Columnist
Published July 13, 2014

As a woman (and a feminist), I fully and wholeheartedly believe that gender equality should be the norm. Empirical evidence, including gender distribution across academic disciplines, differences in wage earnings for equal work and the prevalence of rape and sexual harassment towards women overwhelmingly shows that our society is a long way from equality. In other words, we’ve got a whole lot of work to do. A lot of people recognize this and agree. But they still aren’t calling themselves feminists.

According to a Huffington Post poll, only 20 percent of Americans self-identify as feminist, while 8 percent identify as anti-feminist. The rest don’t consider themselves either one. Further, the identity is extremely political. The same poll found that 32 percent of democrats identify as feminists, while only 5 percent of republicans do. Meanwhile, 82 percent of Americans — and 87 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans — felt that “men and women should be social, political and economic equals.”

Without the feminist label and its highly political connections — or with public reeducation of what it means to be a feminist — more people would at least support and maybe even fight for women’s rights. Further, the movement could see much more bipartisan support without the clearly political connotations that often come with feminism.

This is consistent with other trends. When polled, more people are opposed to the new healthcare legislation when it’s called Obamacare than when it’s called the Affordable Care Act. When the highly politicized title is removed, policy preferences look much different. I believe that similar dynamics shape opinions on women’s rights. For many, the obstacle preventing them from speaking out for gender equality comes from a tension between feminism and their other political identities.

What it means to be a feminist is understood. How can we best ensure that all 82 percent of Americans in support of gender equality have the opportunity, resources and education actually go out and make it happen?

I think it starts with re-education on what it means to be a feminist, and adding some wiggle room within the definition. People should be able to oppose abortion or other traditional “women’s issues” for religious, moral or other reasons. Modern feminism needs to be solely focused on supporting and fighting for gender equality — not a political agenda. And the public needs to know that.

I think that a lot of people will disagree with me on the last point, saying that the right to choose is, fundamentally, a women’s right. However, it would be in the movement’s best interest at the moment to focus on other, more pressing issues, like changing rape culture and promoting a workplace (and campus) more accepting of female leadership. While we rehash the same arguments over issues like abortion, we alienate thousands of people who might otherwise work to change the culture that inhibits progress and safety for women.

While there is certainly work to be done at the legislative level, the biggest challenges to American women are societal and cultural. The obstacles women face are implicit, and consequently hard to counter. I’m talking about the kinds of problems that come in the form of dirty, salivating looks when a woman shows up to a party in a miniskirt and crop top, or facing higher expectations at work to get the same praise as her male peers. It’s thinking that a kiss is an invitation. It’s fear, imitation, and objectification.

These challenges are massive, and culturally rooted. As America knows all too well, cultural shifts are difficult and take time. But this issue is important, and affects the safety and stability of our campus community, and really the entire nation. Tackling these issues will require almost universal support — the kind of support that women’s rights enjoy in its politically neutral form. But in order to build a society where women can be safe and successful, we need to change our culture, and to do that we must change the way we think about and define women’s rights.

We can start here, in Ann Arbor. Tell your friends how they can support the movement towards equality, no matter what else they believe. Lead by example. Support your female friends in their work and social endeavors. Most importantly, find the courage to pursue your own goals, regardless of your gender. At the end of the day, equality isn’t about advancements for one gender or another. It’s love and support for everyone, no matter who they are.

Victoria Noble can be reached vjnoble@umich.edu.