Picture a feminist. Sounds easy, but it shouldn’t be.
Some of them have hairy legs. Some of them shave. Some of them are female. Some of them are male. Some of them march around campus in a parade chanting, “Take back the night.” Some of them mention the word “feminist” only when shrouded in the online company of Tumblr users. Some of them don’t even know how to define the word “feminism.” Some of them don’t even know they’re a feminist at all.
Feminism is tricky. Its definition is elusive and varies for everyone. But tell people you’re a feminist, and more often than not they’ll start to get nervous or defensive. A lot of people avoid feminism, without even knowing what it is.
The what-is-a-feminist debate was sparked anew by Marissa Mayer, the chief at Yahoo!. Recently she has garnered a lot of attention from her ban on working from home. This is after, of course, she built her own private nursery in her office after having a baby and taking a two-week maternity leave. But before she sent a message that essentially said maternity leaves are for chumps — just bring your nursery to work — she offered this message, which actually came from her mouth:
“I don’t, I think, have sort of the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with (feminism). And I think it’s too bad, but I do think feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word.”
Here’s the deal: “Feminism” hasn’t become a negative word; it has been made that way by the people who, to put it simply, don’t want equality for women. Taking away the credibility and significance of the label has actively worked to take away the credibility and significance of feminism itself for generations. And the reason feminism continues to be a “negative” word is because people like Mayer — people with power and capital — are reinforcing its bad reputation.
If she thinks it’s too bad that feminism has such a piss-status, why doesn’t she try to change that instead of just joining the ranks of femi-naysayers who have been ridiculing the cause for years in order to maintain their own privilege and derail the fight for equal rights?
The thing about feminism is that it doesn’t use privilege as an excuse. “Well, if I made it to CEO status, and I can take a two-week maternity leave, and I have enough money to build a nursery in my office, then I don’t see what the problem is for you. See — women have the ability and rights to do this!” Nope, not everyone can say the same.
Yes, many of the “battles have been won” for women like Mayer. But that doesn’t mean everyone is on the same playing field as she is. Women around the world have nowhere near the amount of freedom and rights that people like Mayer have. This isn’t a “chip on the shoulder” after years of hearing bullshit jokes like “you throw like a girl” or “go make me a sandwich.” It’s rape, domestic abuse, underpayment, harassment and voter suppression. It’s all the fear, shame and humiliation that can come with being born a female, as well as all of the failure to be taken seriously with the label of “feminist.”
Some people might need feminism more than others, and it’s a shame that such a powerful woman like Mayer doesn’t realize this.
People who question the label of “feminist” tend to argue that feminism is losing its place in our society, that we have made enough advancements as is. To me, this is the same mentality that once allowed women to attend the University but refused to let them enter through the front door of the Union. Instead, women had to use the back door of the building. Did it make a huge difference that women couldn’t enter through the front door? Probably not. But it said something about who is granting what freedom to whom, and how much freedom is being granted. It’s minor stipulations like this that say, “Well, jeez, we’ve given you these rights — don’t push it. Just be thankful for what you’ve got.”
Feminists don’t want to take away men’s rights, just like women who wanted to enter through the front door of the Union didn’t want to prevent men from going through the damn door. They weren’t concerned about limiting men’s access — they wanted equal access themselves.
And still today in our society, not everyone has equal access. When potential role models like Mayer send a message that feminism is no longer necessary, that it’s become just a “chip on the shoulder,” they are falling into a complacency marked by self-privilege while also actively working to not increase the rights and freedom of women who do not benefit from the same access that Mayer has.
Being a feminist means solidarity with all women, not just the ones who can afford private nurseries.
Katie Steen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.