Recently, I skimmed through a brilliant article that included a reference to how images that display women’s bodies out of focus contributes to the sexism that pervades our world today. Upon considering the author’s argument carefully, I concluded that his tone and subject matter had a feminist slance. In essence, the author was trying to promote the notion that men and women are fundamentally equal and should be treated as such. Yet it seems that many people do not understand that this is the most basic principle of feminism. Rather, it seems that most people still perceive feminists to be a bunch of angry man-haters. These summations are grossly inaccurate and warrant a brief yet comprehensive explanation of the ideas that give feminism shape and substance.
1. Fundamental Equality.
Feminists believe that while there are biological differences that make women and men unique beings, these disparities do not mean that men are innately superior to women. In essence, feminists believe that the sexes are fundamentally equal. This belief translates into the necessity of challenging existing political, economic, and sociocultural structures that subtly or overtly reinforce the notion that women are the second sex. In their own discussion of this very thing, one website refers to the notion that men and women should have the same rights and opportunities in society as gender equality. They go on to point out that failing to acknowledge the importance of gender equality can lead to discrimination and limited opportunities for the individual.
(It should be stated that not all feminists believe in the fundamental equality of the sexes. Some believe that women are superior to men and predicate such arguments on the notion that the former group are more intellectually and emotionally mature than their male counterparts.)
Feminists believe that while romantic and sexual unions between women and men can be mutually satisfying, marriage is often an oppressive sphere for women. Notable feminist Betty Friedan pointed this out with her important book The Feminine Mystique. As she pointed out in the book, oppression within marriage can take many forms. An example would be wives being confined to the domestic realm where meaningful work such as childrearing and housekeeping warrant no pay and thus economically disempower women. Other forms of disempowerment in the marital sphere include domestic violence, a term that here refers to husbands subjecting wives to physical abuse.
As a feminist, I am thoroughly persuaded that marriage tends to be an oppressive sphere for women to dwell in based on the information listed in the previous paragraph. Yet I fully understand that not all feminists adopt this world view. Conservative feminists, for example, often hold to the view that marriage is the ideal realm for women to dwell in. Nevertheless, books written by feminists such as Friedan and other like-minded people prove that many of us do consider marriage to be a realm where physical, psychological, and economic abuse can and does transpire.
Feminists believe that women have the gifts and talents necessary to make positive contributions to the world of work. This would include occupations traditionally dominated by men, such as those pertaining to the fields of math and science. Feminists also believe that women should be paid the same rate as their male counterparts when they demonstrate an ability to complete the job as well as them. This belief has given rise to what is commonly known as the unequal pay for equal work debate. (I address this issue here.)
Clearly, not all feminists have the same attitude about work. Specifically, many feminists are not concerned about the world of work at all because they believe the elevation of women transpires when they are fully recognized for their ability to operate in the domestic sphere as wives and mothers. Irrespective of how one feels about this view, however, the fact that many if not most feminists deem equality in the work force to be an integral component of their goals for the Women’s Rights Movement is plain.
While this is certainly not an exhaustive list of feminist values, it can provide readers with a foundational framework through which to understand feminism. As famous feminist bell hooks expertly argues in the introduction to her important book Feminism is For Everybody, the feminist movement is not about being anti-male. Rather, the movement is primarily concerned with ending sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. I hope the definitions and explanations listed above dispel the view that feminism is a partisan movement predicated on hating or oppressing men. Indeed, feminism is designed to benefit everyone by making equality the primary principle guiding relationships between men and women.
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