Fighting about feminism

Words by Ella, 23 VIC

I was sitting at a coffee shop talking to my boyfriend when we got into an enamoured discussion about feminism. His stance: feminism is divisive. It does more harm than good in advancing the cause for women’s rights. My stance: Feminism is essential to dismantling patriarchal structure which causes harm to women (and men to a lesser extent).

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t reach a consensus.

He lamented me for being ‘one of those feminists’ that ‘twist’ your arguments and blame all men. And I righteously judged him for not properly understanding the concept of feminism and its contributions to women’s rights.

The conversation stayed in my mind for weeks after – niggling at me. How could I change the mind and hearts of anyone if I couldn’t convince my boyfriend of the importance and value of feminism?

It caused me to question:

  • How do we engage in conversations about feminism and gender equality in accessible and productive ways for all?
  • Am I really being another ‘angry feminist’ and have my views or the way I express them become close-minded and conceited?
  • Is my expression and understanding of feminism purely based on Western experiences which do not adequately address concerns in his country (Fiji), or is feminism universal?[1]

Basically, am I being one-sided, conceited, white-centric, “angry feminist”?

The answer is part yes, part no.

I am an angry feminist.

  1. I am angry about the degree of violence that occurs in the world towards women, at (in large) the hands of men (1 in 3 women have experience gender-based violence in their lifetime[2]).
  2. I am angry at the social norms which place limitations on what women wear, eat, say and do with themselves and their bodies. [3]
  3. I am angry at everyday sexual violence that occurs to women that is normalized as ‘okay’ behaviour. [4]
  4. I am angry at the ways in which men use and exercise control and power over women in the home, in the workplace, in politics and through religion. [5]

I will admit that this anger, fueled in part by my own recent experiences of sexual violence, has in some ways become one sided. It stems from the idea that men oppress women. This is true, but how do we communicate this in a way that unites rather than isolates opponents, observers and questioners of the feminist cause.  How do we get the ‘offended’ defenders of #notallmen on our side?

A broader perspective of feminism

Whilst I recognise and understand that a greater proportion of these expressions of violence are faced by women, the same structures and norms which place limitations and threats on my life and the lives of all women, also cause harm to men. It is the same patriarchal system which says men cannot express their emotions, limiting their emotional well-being and willingness to seek mental health support services for depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses[6]. It places unfair expectations and pressures on men and boys to ‘provide’ for their families, to ‘toughen up’ and be strong. Women themselves also support, maintain and promote these patriarchal norms and values within the household and society.

I see glimpses of all of this when I speak to my boyfriend, and he speaks of his experiences growing up. The expectations, pressures to ‘be a man’, to provide for his family, to hide his feelings, to ‘look after his girl’. For me I speak of unwanted sexual advances, physical and emotional violence, expectations to look pretty, be pretty, and ‘perform’[7].

What we both didn’t realise is that my struggles are his struggles and his struggles are mine. They are from the same cause. Rigid gender expectations and norms influence, constrain and threaten both our lives to different degrees.

It was here I was at a crossroad.

It is only after reading Bell Hooks, ‘Understanding Patriarchy’[8], I understood that both these realities can co-exist. (1) Men do oppress women, causing considerable harm and (2) both men and women are the causes and face the consequences of the same system that sanctions this oppression.

Both women and men are also the solution to achieving gender equality. In the current political climate, which is becoming increasingly polarised, I think this wider view is more universal, allowing a broader audience to engage with feminist discourse.

Ultimately, we must all learn from each other and understand how gender impacts our everyday lives and experiences. We must talk openly, think individually on the ways we express and reinforce these norms in our lives, and act together. We should not be divided, but united in our struggle for gender justice. Whether that is under the banner of feminism or another ‘less politicised’ word.

[1]Disclaimer: I will not touch upon this point further in this reflection, however, I pose this question as food for thought as to the ways culture and varying social norms shape our worldview and attitudes towards feminism.  

[2] Violence against women Prevalence Estimates, 2018. Global, regional and national prevalence estimates for intimate partner violence against women and global and regional prevalence estimates for non-partner sexual violence against women. WHO: Geneva, 2021.

[3] Unilever, 2017. Opportunities for Women: Challenging harmful social norms and gender stereotypes to unlock women’s potential. Unilever Chief Sustainability Office: London.

[4] Phipps, Alison, Ringrose, Jessica, Renold, Emma and Jackson, Carolyn (2017) ‘Rape culture, lad culture and everyday sexism: researching, conceptualizing and politicizing new mediations of gender and sexual violence’, in Journal of Gender Studies DOI: 10.1080/09589236.2016.1266792.

[5] Domestic Abuse Intervention Programmes, 1984. Power and Control Wheel.

[6] VeryWellMind, 2020. Differences in Suicide Among Men and Women

[7] See ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty’ by Florence Given for further reading.

[8] Bell Hooks, 2010. Understanding Patriarchy. Louisville Anarchist Federation Federation: 2010.

Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc

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