Feminism and patriarchy – who gets to define them?
Feminism recently enjoyed a huge victory.
Marissa Mayer was appointed as CEO for Yahoo. Not only was she a woman, but she was pregnant. Bravo Yahoo.
But wait, maybe feminism had nothing to do with it, because here was Mayer saying, ‘I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist.’
Oh. Maybe I released the party poppers too soon then.
But hang on, after her jaw-dropping opening statement, Mayer goes on to say that she ‘believe[s] in equal rights’ and that ‘women are just as capable [as men, one assumes].’
Confused about how these statements could exist in opposition to each other, I decided to see what my beloved Oxford English dictionary (OED) had to say on the matter.
My confusion was not alleviated: the first definition of feminist reads: ‘Of, relating to, or advocating the rights and equality of women.’ So that’s Mayer’s ‘rights’ and ‘equal’ right there in black and white.
So what could Mayer mean?
I am, of course, being slightly disingenuous here. We all know what Mayer means. She means that ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ have become dirty words. The F-words of the modern era. And of course this is true to a certain extent.
This is the era that coined the charming, and in no way offensive to holocaust victims, term ‘Feminazi’.
This is the era where women who call themselves feminists online can be expect to be bombarded with hate-filled misogyny.
It is an era where the term ‘men’s rights activist’ has evolved, seemingly existing to directly contradict any assertion that women still have not achieved those ‘equal rights’ that Mayer advocates.
Mayer says that ‘feminism has become in many ways a more negative word’. And she’s right – sort of. It’s become ‘a more negative word’ according to those who feel threatened by its message.
The members of this vocal minority have almost succeeded in aligning ‘feminist’ with ‘sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder’ that Mayer talks about.
But the reality is that feminist doesn’t mean that at all. It means what the OED says it means: ‘Of, relating to, or advocating the rights and equality of women.’
What Mayer is doing here is accepting a definition of ‘feminist’ that has been foisted on it by groups who are actively opposed to its central tenets.
And what’s most sad about this modern phenomenon is that it has succeeded in convincing women like Mayer, and, yes, many men who would in fact benefit from feminism, that this kind of feminism exists.
That it’s not just some anti-fantasy (or maybe actual fantasy, who knows?) dreamt up by people who either don’t understand what feminism is really about or who, rightly, see that it threatens their privilege.
And it’s at this point, this point of saying that hot-potato p-word that I perhaps start to look like Rush Limbaugh’s worst/best vision of a ‘feminazi’. But let me explain.
The only people who are actually threatened by feminism are those who benefit from the current system of patriarchy, another p-word that currently dominates politically, economically and socially.
In a recent brilliant blog post on The Independent, Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins debate the point of how to talk to men about sexism.
And one of the points they touch on is the term ‘patriarchy’. Robbins sees it as ‘the biggest problem I have persuading men’ that feminism is not anti-men.
Penny quite rightly points out that the problem with the term is that it has been misrepresented (by the patriarchy itself), pointing out that it doesn’t attack individual men, but ‘a system of privilege’ that supports the status quo where ‘only a small group of mostly men – patriarchs – actually have power’.
So the term ‘patriarchy’ should in no way be considered as referring explicitly to all men, and feminism’s opposition to patriarchy should in no way be considered as an attack on men. It’s an attack on a system, not on individuals – and it’s not the word that needs changing. It’s people’s perceptions of that word.
This debate is crucial; like ‘feminist’, ‘patriarch’ has been powerfully derailed as a useful term, and paraded around the internet to function as the straw-man counterpart to feminism’s straw-woman.
The fact is that the current patriarchal system works for only a very small number of men and an even smaller number of women. Nearly all men would be feminism’s natural allies, if only the shouting on the internet would let them hear the real message of feminism.
This shouting matters – you only need to take a look at the first definition of ‘feminazi’ on urban dictionary for an illustration of how pervasive and damaging this kind of appropriation and redefinition can be.
Let’s be clear about this: the author of this entry will never have met a woman who tells her she can’t shave her legs or wear a bra, because this woman does not exist.
She is a figure dreamt up by the anti-feminist movement, specifically designed to discredit it. And what’s sad about this entry is that, like Mayer, its author seems to be a woman – I’m assuming this based on the fact that she wears a bra.
More than this, this woman self-identifies as a feminist, and feels that these mythical ‘feminazis’ are letting her down. When the reality is that it is anti-feminists who are letting her down.
As feminists we need to stand up to the misappropriation of these terms. We need to ‘Take Back The Words’. Because it is shocking that men who suffer under the patriarchal system, men who, for example, don’t fit into the quasi-mythical ‘alpha male’ stereotype, should not be vocal supporters of a movement that attacks that system.
It is shocking that someone who calls herself a ‘feminist’ believes in the existence of ‘feminazis’.
And, most of all, it is shocking that a woman who believes in ‘equal rights’ and that ‘women are just as capable’ as men, does not consider herself a feminist.