Who’s afraid of feminism?

I sometimes teach the feminist theory class of a doctoral course at the business school where I work, and it’s a class I really like to teach. When the students come in, they usually look a bit apprehensive and reserved. Most of them know very little about feminist theory when they come, but they are of course highly familiar with the debate in society on feminism and whether or not feminism is about man hating, bra burning women who want to take over the world from men. And let’s face it, I think despite so many feminists out there insisting that feminism is about making the world a better place for both men and women, this other, rather extreme and unfortunate view of feminism seems to be the one that is more widespread. So the students come to class wondering what exactly we are going to talk about for three hours.

The reason I like to teach this class is of course not the students’ apprehension, but because I was one of them six years ago, with the same reservations, and I remember exactly what that was like. So I tackle that head on and have a very open and frank, but also nuanced and enjoyable, conversation with them, and spend three hours showing them what feminism really is, how diverse it is as a theoretical perspective, and how groundbreaking and influential feminist theory has been to the way we understand and do research in the social sciences. And I hope, and like to think, that they leave after three hours with a completely new perspective on what feminism is.

Because of the skewed image people have of feminism, there are many women out there who insist they are not feminists. Or that they would be, but they just don’t like what feminism stands for. In fact, I once saw a televised discussion between Elisabeth Rehn, the first female Minister of Defense in Finland and internationally acclaimed human rights rapporteur among other things; and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected head of state in Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Both women have done tremendous and inspiring things for women globally, but both women agreed in this TV program that neither were feminists. I was shocked. But I guess like so many other women, they probably just didn’t want to be associated with much of what they thought feminism stands for.

However, if we look to feminist theory, radical feminism, that had its time of glory in the 70’s, really isn’t all that popular or established anymore in feminist circles. There are so many different perspectives within the frame of feminism, for example liberal feminism, which is really quite moderate; eco-feminism, which is more spiritual than political; and black feminism, which in addition to sexism, focuses on class oppression and racism. Lately something called choice feminism has been quite debated, and focuses on freedom of choice (which can be a bit problematic, but I’ll save that for another blog post). The point is, radical feminism is only one perspective, but it is of course also the one perspective that is the most visible.

But to be honest, moderation doesn’t generally lead to change. You know, if feminists back in the day had said, “it would be nice if women were also allowed to vote”, we would probably still not have the right to vote. Sometimes you need to be a bit radical to make people listen and to make things happen. So although I am personally probably too moderate for my own good – ‘everything in moderation’, although a good motto in many situations, isn’t going to start any revolutions – I do admire what radical and other feminists have achieved. I am thankful for the work they have done, the fruits of which I enjoy every single day of my life.

So when I hear people say, “I would be a feminist, but feminism is so much about [insert whatever you personally think feminism is too much about] at the moment” it makes me frustrated. Because it isn’t true. There are so many different feminists and feminisms out there, so many different debates going on, and all they are trying to do, whether radical or moderate, outspoken or not, is simply work towards a situation where all people, both men and women, can be treated equally and be provided with equal rights to work, care for children, follow their dreams, opt out, opt in, whatever it is they need and want to do. They just go about it in different ways. So create your own version of feminism, and let’s all be feminists, because to me feminism is about being a mensch. It’s about creating a better world, and doing it in whatever way we know how.

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