A headline caught my eye when it came out in 2017 and I’ve had it in the back of my mind ever since.
The F word… why feminism has become a dirty word.
In high school, I’d been a member of the boys’ club. Perhaps it came from growing up in a family full of boys for most of my life. Or maybe it was because my interests back then led me to groups that were largely male.
There is a saying that you are the average of the people you spend most of your time with. The more entrenched I became in mostly male groups, the more I branded myself the way they did: an anti-feminist.
My anti-feminism past often informs my present perspective, allowing me to think from both sides. I can now look at this headline claiming that feminism has become a dirty word and understand where the idea stems from.
The 2017 article published in the Herald Sun is about a woman who at first seems to be the paragon of feminism. This woman is nuclear scientist and Miss USA 2017, Kara McCullough.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and beauty pageants seem to mix like oil and water, but this “black, bold and brilliant” woman, as described by the article, treads the fine line between the two worlds.
“But don’t dare call her the F word,” the article goes on to say.
The dreaded ‘F word:’ feminist. Countless articles, personal essays, and virtual miles of comment threads claim repeatedly how dirty this word has become.
This is “thanks to the unhinged antics of the loudest and proudest members of the movement,” the Herald Sun wrote.
But feminism has not become a dirty word; it has always been a dirty word.
Those in the first collective sustained political movement for women’s rights in the West, referred to as first-wave feminism, faced arrest and violence. The likes of Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth fought for political equality and paved the way for the feminists who in the ‘60s and ‘70s fought for social equality. The second wave dissected systemic issues in the undercurrent of day-to-day life, such as the expectation for women to maintain homes and bear children, and were mocked and ridiculed for it. The stereotypes we have today about the bra-burning, hairy-legged feminists come from this period in history.
Understanding that activism has always faced backlash, no matter which “wave” sub-category it falls under, is the key to understanding this “dirtiness.” The divisiveness among women in the movement today – wanting to differentiate oneself from the feminist movement despite supporting much of the movement’s views – is no different.
At every turn, feminism has been controversial. To side with controversy after the progress of the 19th and 20th centuries is an insult to progress and the countless people – not only women – responsible for it.
Today’s backlash largely manifests in the murky corners of online forums. In these forums, a trope about what a feminist is has been cultivated, mostly by men.
This trope is apparently dirty enough to derail the entire movement. The internet, wondrous in its ability to reduce any complex social issue into catchphrases and visual metaphors, outputted this in meme-format.
I am, of course, talking about “Big Red.”
Big Red gained notoriety online after confronting a group of men’s rights activists (MRA) at the University of Toronto. Spoken over and jeered at by MRAs, Red listed a series of points addressing men’s issues that she says falls under the jurisdiction of feminism, such as child custody and prison rape.
Big Red got her name from her bold red bob. She pulls faces – wide-eyed, mouth agape, unabashed – that have been frozen and replicated thousands of times, derisive slogans slapped on and sent on journeys into the surly depths of MRA forums.
As a feminist myself who struggled with the identity through my teens, I often wonder about people like Big Red, whose real name is Chanty Binx, and what they do for the movement.
Binx has become the face of something referred to as “militant feminism” or more informally, “feminazis.” They are the group who non-feminists proclaim have taken the movement “too far.” They are the women who MRAs claim have waged a war on masculinity.
But was it not militant when women took to the streets to dismantle coverture, the centuries-old laws that made a woman the property of her husband upon marriage? Was it not militant when women who took to the streets faced violence at the hands of not only men, but other women, just as feminists today face criticism from everyone? Was it not civil obedience that gave me, a 21-year-old woman of colour, the many rights I have today?
The people of the anti-feminism movement often believe that those who combatively pursue an agenda only serve to make enemies for the movement. In short, women who are ideologically feminists but refuse the title leave the movement thinking it is counterintuitive to feminism because it makes enemies out of those who should be our allies.
A woman was quoted in the New York Times Magazine in 1982, saying, “I don’t think of myself as a feminist. Not for me, but for the guy next door that would mean that I’m a lesbian and I hate men.” She is speaking to a problem women’s rights activists have faced since the inception of the movement: backlash that reduces them from political activist to a character.
The fundamental problem with this line of thinking is believing that there was ever any alternative to making enemies.
As a teenager, I felt that being a feminist while calling myself an “equalist” (a term McCullough identifies with) would be the better and more effective path for change. That with this new title, I’d be better at approaching men and gently nudging them towards equality.
This was never the case.
Despite calling myself an equalist in a group of people who claimed so strongly to believe in equalism, I was only celebrated for my politics when it was hurtful to feminism. I was only an equalist in their eyes when I used equalism to deride women’s rights.
Feminists don’t hate men, but MRAs seem to hate women.
My beliefs have not much changed since I was a teenager. I still believe that all people deserve equal rights. I believe that the patriarchy has disenfranchised people of all genders and that it is only in the past century that we have seen any significant movement towards meaningful change.
My beliefs are the same, but I have changed what I call myself.
Today — and hopefully forever — I will call myself a feminist.