The word feminism is derived from the word “feminine.” That means it’s only for women, right? Feminism focuses on women’s rights, benefits only women and seeks to tear men away from their achievements and reputations in the name of equality. Right?
I’m being cheeky, but the message is clear: Feminism is often misunderstood.
Unfortunately, this is the very definition of feminism I have heard from several anti-feminist men throughout my 19 years on this Earth. On both ends of the gender binary, there are many individuals that argue against their own strange, invented definition of feminism.
To begin with, feminism isn’t about building women up at the expense of men.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines feminism as, “the belief in full social, economic and political equality for women. Feminism largely arose in response to Western traditions that restricted the rights of women, but feminist thought has global manifestations and variations.”
Feminism is more than the social movement for the elevation of women in our society; some of its most critical arguments are those most conveniently forgotten. One I would like to point out, in particular, is the role of men.
During my first semester here at Albion College, I took an introductory political science class that focused on international politics and was populated by a variety of students. During a review session, students were asked, at random, to define terms from throughout the semester, one of which was “Feminist theory.”
The definition was simple: A theory in international political science which views the international system as hostile to women, both in political office and in civilian affairs. Women are structurally targeted and at a systemic disadvantage; Feminist theory believes this is something to be acknowledged, and fought.
“I don’t think it is my place to speak on,” said the man in my class who was asked to define the term.
This may have been a maneuver away from the question but his response stuck out to me then and continues to now.
Dr. Lucia Soriano, visiting assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies and ethnic studies, noted a trend in the male-identifying students she’s seen in her classroom.
“Overall, they take a backseat approach, like they’re listening, which is good because maybe they’re trying to listen to experiences that are different to theirs,” Soriano said. “But that can very easily lead to them being kind of an inactive student in the class.”
It’s not uncommon to see men in these settings deferring the questions, avoiding the definitions, refusing to endorse feminism and otherwise taking a back seat when it comes to discussions of gender inequality.
In one study, conducted by the research group Ipsos in partnership with the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London in March of 2022, they found that one in three men believed feminism does more harm than good.
I believe this comes down to the warped perception many have of the movement, that initial definition that many use to argue against it, men and women alike.
I think it’s important then to talk about why feminism is important for men. First and foremost, the hope is that anyone indulging and perpetuating the patriarchy will join those committed to dismantling it.
The patriarchy is a smart, blind animal. From its very beginning, American society was built for men, by men. It trudges through the throes of history, teeth sunken in our upbringings, gender roles and policies, blindly intentional.
Society creates oppressors who exercise authority over others in an unjust, cruel way. This is active, obvious superiority reinforced by a system that does little to check that power. Privilege on the other hand, is given from birth to those society considers “normal,” that then have the benefits and ease that come with being part of the majority.
When you’ve been socialized to be an oppressor or even simply to have privilege, challenging it is difficult. I applaud anyone who takes that first step away from those internal lessons; it takes work and self-reflection, but rejecting it is a step towards a better world for us all.
It isn’t just individuals and their mindsets however. It’s collective, concerted action and objection to the system creating these inequalities.
Imagine there’s a guy who wants to build a hotel; for whatever reason, he hates disabled people. When he builds his hotel, he makes it as inaccessible as possible, refusing infrastructure like ramps and using hostile design to actively discriminate against and deter disabled people from staying there. Years later, the first guy leaves and a new staff, all of which have no problem with disabled people, take over the hotel. However, they do nothing to change the actual infrastructure. Is the hotel any less hostile to disabled people, now that its employees have become more accepting?
This is what systematic discrimination is: it is an intentional structural disparity between groups of people so deeply ingrained in our society that we don’t even feel it being taught to us.
This is where I feel conversations about feminism often skip a beat; we forget to talk about what patriarchy does to men.
Men are told they must be this strange, narrow ideal: one with no color, no makeup or jewelry, no softness and no emotion. They are told that they can’t control themselves, that they are allowed to be angry or happy, nothing in-between. When they are assaulted, it’s ignored and played for laughs. When they are vulnerable, they are deemed pathetic. When they have intimate friendships, they must be romantically involved.
They are sold this limiting, dangerous idea of what it means to be a man. Being masculine is not the problem here; the problem is that men are often given no other option.
This is what feminism challenges: the structures that force harmful restrictions on all genders. But the experiences of people affected by the patriarchy are diverse and overlapping, and Soriano says the implications don’t stop at the limits of white feminism.
“There are so many nuances to feminism,” Soriano said. “The patriarchy has connections to things like white supremacy and capitalism and I see feminism as just being a node in these other important spaces that help illuminate structural differences.”
Though Soriano sees the importance of feminism, she says she hopes her students can discover their support for change naturally.
“I think that’s how I offer it, just telling them ‘this is what’s happening,’ and letting them reflect on it,” Soriano said. “I don’t feel like I need to force anything down their throat.”
I, for one, hope that everyone can find their way to believing and supporting feminism, no matter their background; feminism is for everyone and benefits society as a whole.
For any person who refuses change, supports inequality and hesitates at feminism just for its girly etymology, you are not supposed to benefit. Feminism is not for you.
But for any person reading who believes feminism holds no value for them, I would suggest considering how the patriarchy is hurting you. Feminism is for you.