Feminist activist and pioneer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defines a feminist as ‘a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.’ This seems a simple definition, however as Western society has developed through the centuries, and the impact of the patriarchy has become less overtly present in the lives of most women, the definition of what it means to be a feminist has got lost in translation.
When a woman or man publicly identifies as a feminist, they are often met with mocking and tutting from others.
When a woman or man publicly identifies as a feminist, they are often met with mocking and tutting from others. Female feminists are viewed as man-haters and male feminists as emasculated. This is because the word has been tainted by the widespread misconception that women have achieved all the rights campaigned for by groups, such as the Suffragettes, throughout history; for instance, the right to vote and earn a living. I acknowledge that many of the rights women have fought for have been granted, albeit after a great struggle, but I do not accept that they are now seen as equal to men.
Just looking at a couple of statistics reveals that equality is far from a reality. In Niger, over three-quarters of girls are forced into arranged marriages by the age of 18. In India, 70% of women suffer domestic violence. Even in the UK, supposedly one of the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to gender equality, one in ten girls between the ages of 14 and 21 have been unable to afford sanitary products due to ‘period tax’.
The fact is, no one woman owns womanhood or gets to dictate who it includes. It is a subjective term designed to be interpreted by each woman in whatever way they choose.
But how do we remove the stigma from the word ‘feminist’? I think the answer is education. But not education via social media and opinionated parents; rather government-regulated education written into the national primary school curriculum on the nature of the patriarchy and how it currently impacts both women and men in society. In secondary schools, we should teach teenagers stepping out into the world how to identify and challenge sexism, along with their specific legal rights relating to sexist discrimination in the workplace and every other area of life.
This is a movement that must be united if we have any chance of unlearning patriarchal social constructs and restructuring society to achieve gender equality.
We should be encouraging the next generation of lawmakers and enforcers to fight against the injustices of sexism and to fight for goals of the feminist movement such as compulsory equal pay regimes in every company.
Without education, how can we expect all groups of women in society to be accepted and respected by the masses? It is no secret that women attack each other within feminism due to lack of education, and in so doing these women obscure the meaning of the term and use it to isolate groups of women they deem ‘unqualified’ for equality. When I think of the women most isolated by feminism, my mind instantly turns to transgender women. This is not because I think they are the only minority group isolated by the mainstream movement, but I would argue that they are the most isolated due to the ‘strength’ of the transphobic stipulation that unless a woman is born with female biology, they cannot and should not be legally acknowledged as a woman.
There have been many women – most of whom claim to be feminist activists – who have publicly spoken out against transgender women on the basis that they are not ‘real’ women. For example, self-proclaimed feminist blogger Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull took part in a televised debate against transgender activist India Willoughby in 2018, in which she outlined her belief that transgender women are simply “men coming into a woman’s space” who create a “deluded assault on women and womanhood”.
Of course, I can only speak for myself, and certainly not for the transgender community as a cisgender female, but as a feminist, I cannot comprehend why any woman feels she has the right to tell another woman how they can identify, and whether or not they can be part of ‘womanhood’. The fact is, no one woman owns womanhood or gets to dictate who it includes. It is a subjective term designed to be interpreted by each woman in whatever way they choose.
Surely cisgender women should be welcoming transgender women into the feminist movement so that we can unite as one oppressed gender against the patriarchy? Why tear each other down when there are so many domestic and global patriarchal issues to tackle?
I identify as a feminist by Adichie’s definition, and when I read statistics like those I mentioned above, I feel anger, and a desire to fight against the oppression of all women in any way I can, regardless of whether we share the same experiences. This is a movement that must be united if we have any chance of unlearning patriarchal social constructs and restructuring society to achieve gender equality. As transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf said in a 2018 interview; “there is no leader in feminism”. We are all in this together.
By Ellie Smith
Illustration: by Alyah Albader