Is Feminism the New “R” Word?

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I want to switch gears from my usual fitness and food-related posts and talk about something else I’m passionate about– feminism.

The other week I asked the people in my discussion group of my sociology class on race & ethnic relations if they would call themselves feminist. Some of the men indirectly said they were, others denied identifying as one, and still others stayed silent. Aware of the stigma the word holds, I was expecting this reaction from the men. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the reaction from the girls. Most were equally as hesitant as the guys to answer my question, and it took a lot of probing and patience to get a direct answer from any one of them. It was as if I was asking them if they were the ‘r’ word: racist. Have feminism and racism reached the same level of stigma?

Then, the other day I read a statistic that confirmed my mini poll of the classroom. Vox did a poll that found 85% of Americans, both male and female, believe in equal treatment of women, but only 18% of those polled call themselves a feminist. What is it about the label ‘feminist’ that makes people stray away from identifying as one? If feminism, by definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities, then why is there a divide between those who say they want equal treatment of women and those who consider themselves a feminist? Perhaps the word connotes more than just equal treatment– perhaps it connotes a feeling of hatred toward men, a sense of extreme independence and of excluding men from our lives.

I believe, however, that true feminism should include men in the discussion.When I asked the men in my discussion group why they were hesitant to call themselves feminist, many of them said it was because they felt they couldn’t relate to the movement. They felt removed, unwanted, and irrelevant to the problem. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Men have just as much of a stake in feminism as women do because it directly affects their lives. It affects their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, or wives. Every time a woman is the victim of a misogynistic or patriarchal comment, men are affected through their relationships with the women in their lives. Men are still, for the most part, the leaders of society, so their beliefs and attitudes truly matter. Women cannot take the whole load of getting equal pay, equal representation, or equal value. We need the men, who hold most of the power in society, to play an equal role in the movement to help us get there.

However, the bigger problem of this divide of believing in equal rights of women and of identifying as a feminist may be more counterintuitive– it is the lack of female unity. The reality of this disconnection really hit me a few years ago at a fraternity party. I saw a boy wearing a shirt that said, “B*tch, go make me a sandwich,” so I walked up to him and told him that I thought his shirt was rude. A girl in my sorority heard me, felt embarrassed by my comment, and said, “Oh, stop. He’s just kidding.” I stood there, taken aback that a woman could defend a shirt that was so blatantly misogynistic. Sure, I get that it’s a joke. But that’s not the point. If we as women continue to let these ‘jokes’ slide, how are we to expect to be treated equally? What is even the point of arguing for equal treatment if we aren’t willing to stand up for ourselves? Before men can really get involved and pride themselves on being feminist, women need to lead the way. We should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to be feminist– we should be proud and happy to identify as one. There is no way we can ask for respect from men if we cannot respect ourselves.

Although we are progressing forward in the feminist movement, we still have a long way to go. I believe the next step is for women to embrace, wholeheartedly, the meaning of equality between men and women. It’s not just saying you want equal treatment– it requires follow through and action. And that means standing up for ourselves when we see or hear something that perpetuates this patriarchal society in which we live in.

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