Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why I'm a Feminist

I identify as a secular humanist. I also identify as a feminist. Some people however, think that if you identify as a humanist, there's no need for the label of feminist. I'd like to try explaining why I still identify as a feminist, and think it's still a valuable label.

As I understand it, at it's core feminism is about equality. Equality of pay, of representation, of rights. Yes, all these things. But it's also about equality of respect, of dignity. It's not just about the law, but about attitude and culture. No matter what the letter of the law is, without a change of attitude and culture the law simply won't have the force that it should.

Think of speed limits. Most states in the USA have speed limits in place, but I'm willing to bet that if you live in one of those states, you know someone -probably multiple someones- who speeds, at least a little, on a regular basis. It may even be you (I'm guilty as well). This happens because there isn't an attitude, a culture, that really respects those speed limits. Instead, people try to get away with what they can, even just five miles over the limit. We treat them as an inconvenience. I've even seen cops doing this in their cop cars, with no lights flashing. If we wanted to see a majority of people obeying the speed limit laws, we would need to engage in a project to change the attitudes of people toward speed limits, to change how our culture implicitly views speed limits.

By analogy, such a project is what the feminism movement seems to be about. It is a movement who's aim it is to change the attitude that our culture displays toward women (and all other genders), so that we don't just explicitly show a respect for women's equality (which I take as a given) through our written laws, but so that we also implicitly show respect for the equality and dignity of women, such as through the words we choose when speaking to or about women, or the actions we choose. We're trying to change the unconscious attitudes, not just the conscious ones.

But nothing I've said so far is incompatible with humanism, secular or otherwise. Secular humanism also promotes the dignity and equality of women, and all other people, implicitly and explicitly. So why bother with the feminism label? Isn't it redundant? Doesn't it seem to give preference to one gender over another?

Well, I think the reason I still embrace the term feminism is similar to why I embrace the term atheist, even though one could claim (and some do) that the term "secular humanism" includes within it the concept of atheism. I identify as an atheist because I see the strength and power, and the privileges that brings, being held by the theists out there, and most importantly, the harms this causes.

Identifying as atheist (besides being accurate) is a way to stand in opposition to theist power, to say "your way is not the only way, or even the best way." It allows me to implicitly challenge theistic ways of thinking and believing, simply by stating plainly that I exist with a word that most people know and understand. Because face it, not everyone knows the term "humanist," or what it implies. In other words, identifying as an atheist lets me put an emphasis on a part of my identity that I think needs to be emphasized in our rather religious culture.

Identifying as a feminist is similar. We still live in a highly patriarchal world. While it's certainly true that patriarchal culture can and does stereotype and police men in harmful ways, the brunt of the harm seems directed toward women. By a large margin. We see it in things like less pay for equal work, stereotyping girls and women as being bad at math (which young girls pick up on, internalize, and turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy), having so many of our insults refer to the feminine gender ("cried like a girl," cunt, bitch, pussy, etc), greater rates of domestic abuse and sexual assault directed toward women, and so on.

By identifying as a feminist, I emphasize my opposition to all of that. If there were a specific term for identifying as anti-racist, I'd identify as that as well. It's a focusing term. Humanism is a broad term in what it supports and what it opposes, and this is good, but that very broadness can cause focus to be lost on important issues that are of immediate concern, issues that need that focus if we're ever to solve the underlying problems involved.

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