Aziz Ansari recently delighted mainstream feminists on The Late Show with David Letterman when he claimed that, “if you believe that men and women have equal rights, and then someone asks you if you’re a feminist, you have to say yes.” His contention was, essentially, that feminism is nothing more than the claim that men and women ought to have the same rights.
As nearly every westerner knows, feminism has an image problem. According to a recent Huffington Post poll, only 23% of women identified with the label feminist, even though only 9% of both male and female respondents claimed to disagree with the statement “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” In this climate, Ansari is a welcome public supporter for many feminists (the ones who don’t think that having male genitalia necessarily makes you an oppressor, anyway). But is he correct? It’s certainly true that most dictionaries agree with his definition, but there are so many varieties of feminism, some of which frankly contradict the idea of gender equality, that it doesn’t approximate how the word has been used by many self-defined feminists.
To cite only one example, in an episode of the podcast Fully Engaged Feminism, Avory Faucette of the Radically Queer blog brought up an issue dividing traditional second wave feminists from more contemporary feminists–whether men who identify as women should be welcomed into the feminist fold. Said Avory, “it’s right for some people not to identify with the label feminist because” of the “radical feminist” notion that “patriarchy equals [having a phallus].” They also discussed a feminist event at a pagan conference that excluded transgender men who identified as women because “their physical embodiment in a space was triggering” to women.
Despite what Ansari claims, the most accurate-to-life definition for feminism is probably the etymological one. A feminist is someone who has beliefs or doctrines centered around female concerns. Therefore, feminist thinking is woman-focused thinking. It should be obvious that this doesn’t necessarily tell us about its validity or rightness. Which women? Whose concerns? The feminist group Radicalesbians emerged out of woman-focused concerns that oppression of women was so central to men’s identities that any woman who has sexual or romantic interactions with a man is participating in their oppression. They therefore consciously chose to engage in only lesbian relationships. Is this equality-focused thinking? No, but it’s certainly a form of feminism. On the other side of the feminist spectrum, women like Suzanne Venker and Christina Hoff Sommers have claimed that much of feminism has negatively affected women by putting pressure on them to pursue what are traditionally thought of as male-oriented activities (career, sexual “freedom,” etc.) when that often isn’t what they want. They are also women who are concerned about women’s issues, and yet they are often labelled anti-feminists due to a feminist orthodoxy that has nothing to do with feminism’s dictionary definition.
This brings us to the other major problem with saying feminism is simply synonymous with equality: it is, frankly, sneaky. Some issues which are considered to be essential feminist issues, such as open access to abortion or making sure that women have equal representation in the corporate world whether they want it or not (and data suggests that many don’t), are not obviously relevant to the cause of equality. But by saying that feminism (which is often seen to include pro-choice philosophy by default) simply is the belief in equal rights between the sexes, one can sneak these controversial issues in and make the person who has accepted the feminist propagandist definition believe that they are common sense, since political equality between the genders is common sense.
As a Christian, I think that the safety, well-being, and freedom of women should be an essential concern on both a personal and societal level. But when someone asks if I’m a feminist, I have to ask, “what do you mean?”