Varna Kodoth: What we can learn from early-age feminism

Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 5:37pm

In today’s world, the word “feminism” is further removed from its purpose than ever before. Jessa Crispin’s “Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto,” accurately dismantles the definition of feminism today and mandates that the reader trace the origins of the feminist movement to identify at what point in the fight for gender equity we strayed off-course. Crispin writes, “Much of contemporary feminism uses the language of ‘power.’ Girls need to be ‘empowered,’ ‘girl power,’ etc.” And while scrolling past Instagram posts that aestheticize feminist ideals and undoubtedly evoke a facade of female solidarity, the reality is they’re just words. Words do not equate to action. Though liking and sharing stories on social media are excellent ways to educate, support one another and increase awareness, doing so does not inherently make you a feminist.

It’s especially important to recognize the social ramifications of being a “feminist” in the modern day. The societal understanding of feminism often wrongly associates it with completely radical ideas, such as women “hating” men or wanting to surpass and put down men. This negative rhetoric does not lend itself to progress. It’s unfortunate, because the feminist movement is a fight for equal rights and equal opportunity. Recently, the feminist agenda has been heavily rooted in singular acts that focus on individual encounters related to sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexist comments and jokes at the expense of women. 

Of course, these acts demand consequences and should not go unnoticed or be swept under the rug, because this action perpetuates patriarchal ideologies. That being said, it’s equally essential to not allow these issues to become the sole focus of feminism. 

As the late author Toni Morrison once brilliantly stated, “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” Feminism is meant to facilitate a space in which women, men and non-binary people alike advocate for women to attain equal opportunity, equal pay and equal rights. Feminism is meant to reframe the way women are viewed in all fields, whether that be the arts, STEM or business, and in doing so, to discourage society from adhering to the gender norms established during the earliest periods of civilization. It’s important to stand up for women around the world, encourage women to pursue higher executive positions and support women in career-related endeavors, which, in its process, will change oppressive rhetoric.

Let’s take, for example, the start of the so-called “first-wave feminist movement.” During this time, the feminist fight focused on suffrage. Fast-forward a hundred years and the feminist movement is heavily dominated by opinions and personal narratives, which have their time and place, but do not address the root causes of sexism. The problem with letting personal narratives dictate the conversation is that they are not sufficient on their own to elicit a strong response from the whole community. The ugly truth is that society is most tangibly influenced by numbers, data and statistics. The feminist movement appears fractured rather than a united front, as if each woman is pursuing her own agenda rather than looking at this as a societal issue.

A few years ago, one of the biggest feminine care product companies, Always, ran a Super Bowl ad as a part of their “Like A Girl” campaign. This ad featured young boys and girls who were asked what it meant to “run like a girl” or “fight like a girl.” This may seem trivial, however, I consider this a major step forward. It was beyond refreshing to see young girls reclaim what it means to do things “like a girl.” This ad started a dialogue in which adults and adolescents alike confronted a sexist concept and prompted a self-reflection: When did we start using “like a girl” as an insult? Do I feed into this growing problem? This is what the feminist movement originally set out to do: mitigate gender biases by questioning their validity and reframe their role in society. 

I am a feminist. However, much like I refuse to be a “single-policy” voter, I refuse to be a “bandwagon” feminist. I refuse to be a feminist only when it is most convenient. I refuse to let feminism become just a women’s problem. It’s 2019, and it’s time we respect the trailblazers of our past and push for feminism to be a community initiative. It’s essential to realize the purpose of the “bra-burning feminists” of our past is not to inspire radical uprisings today. Rather, it is a call to action to confront and resolve gender discrimination. Protesting gender discrimination and injustice to women ranges from addressing day-to-day microaggressions to tackling restrictive policies. Look around you, support on-campus advocacy and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, attend events produced by female-run organizations and speak up to stand in solidarity with women. With the 2020 election upon us, prioritize electing policymakers who have women’s health care and the gender pay gap as a part of their agenda. What we need right now is to smash the glass ceiling, not just crack it.

Varna Kodoth can be reached at vkodoth@umich.edu.