That one word can stir up an unbelievable amount of controversy. When I tell people I’m a feminist, it seems as though I get nothing but negative reactions. An angry look and an outraged “Why do you hate men?” A repulsed look and a disgusted “Does that mean you don’t shave?” Even an eye roll and a mutter about teen angst is a common – and annoying – response. Many people seem to think that feminists are man-hating, hairy women who have jumped on the bandwagon just to rebel. What does it actually mean to be a feminist?
Feminism, by definition, is the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Many people will say, “If that’s the definition, then why isn’t it called something like ‘equalism’? Feminism sounds like a movement for and about women only.” In reality, feminism is in no way just for women, because gender inequality is everyone’s problem. In fact, there is an abundance of male feminists. The term “feminism” is used because, historically and currently, women are uniquely oppressed by society and subject to unjust treatment because of their gender.
Our culture is a patriarchy – a society or government in which men have the power and women are largely excluded. After grasping the meaning of patriarchy and feminism’s opposition to it, many will say, “We don’t live in a patriarchy; isn’t it obvious we’ve already achieved gender equality? I mean, women can vote!”
Certainly we, as a society, have come a long way. Over the course of history, for example, young girls were often forcibly married to grown men. In ancient Rome, men had full control of their wives and could punish them to the point of death. In medieval Europe, a woman who killed her husband could be charged with petty treason and burned alive; for any other type of murder – including a husband killing his wife – the punishment was hanging. In medieval Europe, courts wouldn’t convict a rapist if the victim became pregnant, because they believed the pregnancy symbolized God’s approval. Christian doctrine of the 1500s and 1600s taught that women were, from birth, instruments of the devil who lured men into sin. John Knox, leader of the Protestant Reformation, wrote, “Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man.” At the age of 50, he married a 17-year-old girl.
Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go. Less than ten years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention – with 16 million members – revised a statement of faith to read, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”
If we have in fact achieved gender equality, why is it that U.S. women earn 78 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts? Why is it that over half of the U.S. population is female but women make up less than 20 percent of Congress? Why do male politicians try to pass laws regulating women’s bodies? Why do only 16 percent of mainstream films have a female protagonist, and why are many of these women shown primarily as sex objects? Can someone please explain why we regulate the way girls dress in schools to “prevent boys and faculty from getting distracted,” instead of teaching males not to objectify women and oversexualize their bodies?
These questions show that we live in a patriarchy, and their answers lie in feminist principles and beliefs. No, we haven’t yet achieved gender equality, and women don’t just want an excuse to hate men.
In fact, the majority of women don’t hate men, but are scared of them. The prevalent attitudes and practices that normalize, excuse, tolerate, and even condone male violence against women – especially sexual assault – are summed up in the term “rape culture.” What does this mean? Sixty percent of sexual assaults in the past five years went unreported. Could this be because only 10 percent of rapists are arrested, 8 percent prosecuted, and 4 percent charged with a felony?
Rape culture is the fact that, in a survey of college-aged men, one in three said he would commit rape if he believed he could get away with it. One in three. Rape culture is the fact that 99 percent of rapists are male, yet rape is somehow a women’s issue. Rape culture is the fact that a 41-year-old man abused a 13-year-old girl and walked because the judge said, “The girl was predatory, and she was egging you on.” Rape culture is a 31-year-old man serving just 30 days in prison for raping a 14-year-old girl who later took her life. Rape culture is the fact that after a video was posted online of 16-year-old rape victim Jada sprawled out on the ground, unconscious, so many people posted pictures of themselves on Twitter lying in the same position with the hashtag “#jadapose” that it was trending. Rape culture is blaming the victim.
I am a feminist because I’m terrified when I walk home alone. I am a feminist because I hear more rape jokes than knock-knock jokes. I am a feminist because when I’ve complained about being harassed on the street, people have responded, “Well, at least someone thinks you’re attractive.” I am a feminist because I too am a sexual assault victim, and my rapist is walking the streets, living his life in peace, because I believed that reporting it would do no good. I am a feminist because after I started speaking out about my assault, people asked what I was wearing and whether I had been drinking.
There’s a fence with people on both sides. On one side are people fighting for gender equality, fighting against patriarchy and rape culture – primarily the feminists. On the other side are people stereotyping feminists and saying we don’t need feminism. If you are balanced precariously atop this fence, on which side will you fall?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the March 2015 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.