When I was in my last semester of college, I took a class in American History after 1950. One of the first subjects we covered was the social movements of the 1960’s. Chief among them, of course, was the birth of modern feminism. The teacher began the class by asking everyone who considered themselves a feminist to raise their hands. This being a small liberal arts school, all the girls’ hands shot straight up. I was one of only two men in the class and both of us kept our hands down. The teacher asked why the two of us didn’t consider ourselves feminists. I answered that honestly I didn’t really know anything about feminism except for images of women burning bras and complaining about being oppressed. I admit to being a little ignorant about the issue. It seemed crazy to me to hear affluent, young white women complaining about being subjected to oppression when you compared it to the African-American marchers who were having dogs sicced on them and being sprayed down with high-powered hoses. How oppressed could they be really? The answer, as I would come to learn, is that women were and continue to be discriminated against to a degree that you would find shocking if you had really taken the time to think about it. To circle back to my original point, I didn’t raise my hand because I didn’t really know much about Feminism. So what is Feminism? Is it just affluent 19 year old girls seeing the dark hand of the patriarchy everywhere, or are there some very real issues that the movement seeks to address? And why, as men, should we care?
When trying to understand Feminism, you first have to have a little empathy for how hard it has always been to be a woman. From some of the earliest days of Western cultures, women have been regarded as property more than as people. A woman had little to no say in public affairs, no legal ownership of her children, and no form of agency against an abusive husband. Though we decry how often marriages end in divorce today, the availability of divorce was once almost non-existent to women. Regardless of how abusive a woman’s husband was, once they were married she was legally unable to get away from him. It wasn’t until 1993 (looking at you Oklahoma and North Carolina) that a man raping his wife was ruled illegal in all 50 states. Before then the view of many courts was once you married a man, you had no right to not have sex with him.
For the entirety of democratic history up until the early 20th century, women had no right to cast a vote. Imagine, as a man, that you lived in a society where you were not allowed to vote because the prevailing opinion was that you couldn’t be trusted with it and your spouse already spoke for you with their vote. Anyone regrettably married to a Trump supporter will realize what a load of bullshit that is. It took years of long, hard protests and civil disobedience before the United States, which prides itself as a beacon of democracy, extended the vote to over half of its citizens. Even the right to vote didn’t ensure that women were treated on the same basis of men. Women still earned less than men, and were effectively barred from the most prestigious occupations.
Feminism is divided by a lot of scholars into three “waves”. The first was the fight for the vote, when women began to take an active voice in politics en-masse. The second wave of Feminism is the traditional 60’s Feminism that I alluded to earlier. The second wave feminists took issue with the cultural stigmas that continued to ensure that women didn’t have the same rights as men. They fought against unequal wages and legal discrimination for women. In addition, most of the theories of patriarchy and culture-based discrimination dates from this era. This movement won a number of victories in addressing the rights of a woman to work outside the home and to retain legal custody of her children in a divorce.
Third-wave Feminism is in many ways a step back from the Feminism of the 60’s. It attempted to address criticism of second wave Feminism as being too militant and excluding women of color from the movement. It came of age in the 90’s to address the increasing visibility of issues like homosexuality and non-fluid gender roles. It also is in a lot of ways a movement that says women should not be expected to assume the responsibilities traditionally associated with men if they don’t want to. Where the movement of the 60’s would say a woman should work outside the home, the third wave feminists say “it’s up to you”.
So what is Feminism? Put simply it is the belief that a person’s gender should in no way subject them to unequal treatment, either deliberate or subconscious. It challenges traditional assumptions of a male dominated culture that leads to that unequal treatment. It’s something that everyone should embrace. So where does that leave you, my penis-swinging brother? Hopefully, right where you were. Take a minute and consider whether, what I hope is, your desire to treat everyone fairly extends to women too. Ask, on some level, whether you have been making assumptions about what a woman can or should do based on gender. If so, consider how you can correct those attitudes. Ask yourself how you can be part of the solution to the fact that women still make 70% of what a man does for doing the same job. If you can do that, you might just find that you are a feminist too.