Feminism has a very long and convoluted history around the world. It connotes a broad variety of political values and social causes, often differing from one self-proclaimed feminist to the next, and when someone refuses that label, the reasons are often equally complex. The most basic definition of feminism, the one that tends to appeal to the broadest group of people, is that feminism is the belief that women deserve equal economic, social, and lifestyle opportunities. Often appended to that definition will be the sentiment “as men.” This was a definition that I was comfortable using as a baseline for many years. Even when I started questioning some of its underlying assumptions- is it possible to have the same opportunities that men currently have without reversing current patterns of discrimination, for example- and flexed the definition around to suit my contemporary purposes, the word itself was never alien to me.
Until I realized just how biased it is.
Feminism, to me, suggests the movement of or belief in femininity or females. It’s about equality for women, as far as the roots of the word are concerned. As a young second-year women’s studies student at McGill University, the narrowness of this term hit me full in the face while I was taking a class on gender and socialisation. All that happened was that someone took the time to explain the differences between sex and gender, and I was all shaken up.
To put it as basically as possible, sex refers to biological characteristics- hormones, genitalia, chromosomes- and gender refers to the meanings and attributes we assign them. A person who is born with a vagina, at least in a large portion of the Western world, will be expected to develop a gender identity based in feminine attributes (clothing, demeanour, body language, name, pronouns, etc.). This “if/then” formula gets all twisted around by the fact that, while “we” expect everyone to follow it, a decent portion of the population doesn’t. For some, the initial sex assignment is wrong. They grow up feeling uncomfortable with their genitalia or bodies, or the doctors assigned them the wrong sex to begin with (for which a literal ruler is used to determine if flesh is “too big” to be a clitoris, “too small” to be a penis, or in the middle range that’s been labeled “intersex” and which scares doctors shitless). For others, the sex is fine but the gender they are expected to embody isn’t. They prefer to pass as “the” other gender, or inhabit an entirely new gender space altogether, with self-chosen pronouns, clothes, body language, and names. This is an incredibly simplified explanation of a topic that is very complex and very personal, so cis readers (those for whom the “if/then” formula fits) please understand that there is a ton of information out there to be perused and I highly recommend that you do so.
The reason I bring my sudden awareness of gender flexibility to a feminist magazine like Go Girl is because feminism is- and has been for a while- coming to terms with the fact that its previous mission statements about gender equality have in fact left a lot of people out in the cold. While American feminism has had to self-correct over the years for its failure to acknowledge the fact that not all women are alike, it has for the most part been steadfast in its refusal to deal with the fact that gender oppression isn’t just men against women. For those of us who have grown up fighting social stereotypes- and, unless I’m much mistaken, that’s all of us- we all know how frustrating it is to be told that we “are” something by virtue of our bodies or cultures. The early days of feminism in 1960s America saw a lot of people fighting to change deeply-entrenched ideas about what (let’s be honest, White) women “really” should do, from “should want to have children” to “should be prepared to sacrifice her career for her husband.” A lot of the women fighting to change those ideas were subjected to accusations that they weren’t “real” women, and had to argue that they were in fact “real” women, because “real” women yadda yadda yadda.
So we fought and fought, and managed to make some changes, but isn’t there a problem with the idea that there is such a thing as a “real” woman? In many ways, the fight to redefine womanhood- and subsequent fights to expand acceptable definitions of manhood– have illustrated that equality often trends towards androgyny. Real men and women- real people– should have access to a variety of socioeconomic opportunity and shouldn’t have their personal identities and expressions dictated by the flesh between their legs. When we argue that “real” men and women (and not people in general) possess certain qualities to the exclusion of others, aren’t we inherently arguing that those are characteristics that no other group is allowed to have?
To me, equality has always been about more than simplistic notions of men and women because there’s so much variation in those groups. What does equality mean for men and women when we remember that some women have more social power than some men, or that working full-time outside the home has been a necessity for a lot of women for a long time? How can we have equality between men and women when we conveniently forget to talk about race, ability, economic power — in short, any category that has a positive or negative impact on one’s capacity for fulfillment? Let’s bring it back to the term that started this post: feminism. When we talk about feminism, and about boosting the social advantages of “women” regardless of race class ability x y and z, do we really mean all women? Or do we only mean the cis ones?
For a long time, we really only meant cis women. Women-only spaces, from music festivals to institutions of higher education, have historically excluded trans women and gender-queering folk on the grounds that they’re “not really women.” But as an increasing number of feminists, activists, and women-only spaces are recognizing, what makes a woman “real” is almost never easily defined, even when sex and gender aren’t analyzed. Are “real” women ones with uteri? The ones with long hair? The ones who are Black? The ones with curves? Is being a woman an experiential thing, so you’re only a woman if you’ve been assaulted? Worn high heels? Given birth? The realization that “real” women don’t belong to one homogeneous category is trickling in to our consciousness. Smith College and Barnard College, for example, have both started examining the ways in which their women-only policies have left trans and genderqueer students out in the cold. Instead of fighting for the recognition and safety of some people, we’re starting to fight for all.
Yes, a large percentage of the world’s population operates on the assumption of binary genders. Yes, a large percentage of the world’s population that calls itself “woman” experiences discrimination and disadvantages that are heartbreaking, just because they’re — we’re — women. But if you believe that simply being a majority means that we can ignore the needs of a minority, then you’ve missed the point. Equality for some, or even most, isn’t equality at all. It’s simply a new structure of disenfranchisement. It is our privilege to play a role in the expansion of rights for everyone.