“Wait, what?” you ask with incredulity. “Kara, how can feminism help everyone? I thought feminism was about hating men and women getting power over men.” No, feminism is not about hating men or women getting power over men. And yes, it does help everyone. Here’s how.
Feminism is fundamentally about liberating women—and men—from patriarchy. Its main aim is to bring about a society in which hierarchy and domination do not exist. To understand how this works, we have to understand two key principles: patriarchy and gender.
Let’s start with patriarchy. Many men are put off by the term “patriarchy,” falsely believing that it is somehow anti-male. It isn’t. A “patriarchy” is simply a term for a society in which most positions of power are held by men, and most decisions are made by men (some folks prefer the term “kyriarchy” to describe a network of intersecting systems of oppression, but let’s not go there for now). No one can credibly argue that, according to this definition of patriarchy, the U.S. is not one. There has never been a female president. Men make up 80 percent of the Senate and 81 percent of the House. Across the country, from the federal to the county level of government, 71 percent of public officeholders are male. It isn’t just in government – female leaders are rare in business (4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs), academia (26 percent of University presidents), advertising (3 percent of creative directors), medicine (16 percent of medical school deans), law (15 percent of equity partners), financial services (12 percent of executive officers), and even health and social services, which are stereotypically considered to be “women’s” work (15 percent of executive officers).
This is not to say that all men hold positions of power. Most of us know men who are unemployed, working in low-wage jobs, homeless, disabled, gay, and/or a member of a racial category other than “white”. These men do not, generally speaking, hold positions of power in government or in any other sector. Of course, it is also true that white women are more likely to be in positions of power than black women—an appalling fact that must be remedied. In fact, that is precisely the point – feminism is fundamentally about liberating all women from patriarchy. Setting aside these important dynamics having to do with race and racism, there is no doubt that in the U.S., the overwhelming majority of people in positions of power are male. This is the essence of patriarchy.
Another aspect of patriarchy can be seen in the ways in which all women are physically vulnerable. The statistics are well known: over 22 million U.S. women have been raped; 18.3 percent of U.S. women have survived a completed or attempted rape (and 12.3 percent of those were girls under 12); girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or assault. Most anti-rape ads put the responsibility for preventing rape on women. (Some, but few, do put the responsibility for preventing rape on men.) Some advertising makes light of date rape (Bloomingdale’s later apologized for this ad). Much advertising violently exploits women. No one knows exactly how prevalent street harassment is, but some studies suggest that 99 percent of women have experienced some form of leering, honking, whistling, vulgar gestures, kissing noises, sexually explicit comments, following, and/or sexual touching in their lives, in many cases on multiple occasions. Bottom line: society is not a safe place for women and girls. That too represents patriarchy.
What about gender? According to the United Nations, “A gender stereotype is a generalised view or preconception about attributes or characteristics that are or ought to be possessed by, or the roles that are or should be performed by women and men. A gender stereotype is harmful when it limits women’s and men’s capacity to develop their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make choices about their lives and life plans. Harmful stereotypes can be both hostile/negative (e.g., women are irrational) or seemingly benign (e.g., women are nurturing). It is for example based on the stereotype that women are more nurturing that child rearing responsibilities often fall exclusively on them.” Feminists generally agree that these stereotypes need to be abolished.
Most of the scientific community agrees that sex is a matter of biology (chromosomes, hormones, and sex organs), whereas gender refers to a set of stereotypes and roles that society assigns people on the basis of sex. We are all born with a sex that is either female or male (a very small percentage of people have a combination of chromosomes that does not fit neatly into either category – these people are “intersex”). Gender is entirely different. Gender is basically a set of stereotypes (e.g., women are passive and men are aggressive, women are emotional and men are logical) that we are all expected to conform to on the basis of sex. It is imposed by society, not born of biology. Most (though not all) feminists would like to get rid of gender and gender roles entirely because they are harmful – studies have shown that adhering to and teaching gender roles has a negative impact on everyone.
Gender stereotypes present a serious threat to women’s health care, especially reproductive health care. And gender is at the heart of the wage gap. These inequalities are not accidental; they occur because of gender. But even though they are not accidental, they are consequential. Lack of access to health care, especially reproductive health care, puts women at a disadvantage. And lack of access to appropriate wages results in women (especially single mothers, women of color, and elderly women living alone) being more likely than men to suffer from poverty.
Abolishing gender and dismantling patriarchy would be good for women, yes, but that doesn’t mean these actions would be harmful to men. We know that putting women in positions of leadership is good for society as a whole. For example, researchers think that genuine equality in leadership would add $1.2 trillion to the global economy. We also know that gender stereotypes harm us because they constrain us and prevent us from experiencing our full humanity. And all men have women in their lives – mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters, and friends – who suffer from physical, sexual, and verbal abuse at the hands of men, which causes serious problems in all of our lives.
A woman once asked me what the ultimate goal of feminism is. I thought for a minute and responded by saying “a world in which women have complete control over their bodies, in every way, at all times. Complete freedom to decide what happens with our healthcare and our reproductive choices. Complete freedom to walk around without fear of harassment or violence.” She said, “I can’t even imagine that.” I draw two lessons from that exchange: (1) my response did not denigrate men in any way, and (2) how hard it is to imagine freedom for women.
There are two other points that need to be mentioned here. First a world in which all women are free is also a world without racism. None of this means anything if black women remain lower on the societal totem pole than white women. In order to be genuine, feminism must center anti-racism work in its advocacy. Second, though all men benefit from patriarchy, they do not really benefit from gender. Gender is no more helpful to men than it is to women – it binds us all in boxes that do not always match up with who we think we are.
A world in which all of us are free – the world envisioned by feminism – is a world that benefits everyone.