Happy Women's Equality Day! Reflections on Feminism from Isabel Allende, Margaret Cho, Annie Lennox
I was introduced to the concept of feminism in my mother's copies of Ms. Magazine. I was a curious teenager who understood the basic premise of feminism: political, social, and economic equality for women. But it was never something that seemed relevant to my life. While I supported feminist principles in theory, when I reflect back I realize in some ways I wasn't living them, valuing my own voice and power.
But what soon followed was a consciousness-raising wave of gradual and unexpected life developments, which included covering the 1992 March for Women's Lives in Washington for Us Magazine, interviewing Gloria Steinem, and other signposts that led me to register the domain name feminist.com in 1995. Back then, even I wasn't completely comfortable with the word, and the journey to develop a website called feminist.com, now a thriving 16-year-old nonprofit and hub of resources and information, has run parallel with my own personal journey to better define and understand it.
I'm always amazed when women say they are not a feminist. I think to myself, You're a woman and you're not in favor of your own political, social and economic equality? But perhaps one reason women are reluctant to call themselves feminist is because of the bad rap and many misconceptions about the word. Everyone is entitled to her own definition and understanding of feminism, but here is my evolving sense of what it means.
Feminism first and foremost remains about upholding that dictionary definition of social, political, and economic equality of women and the vision of women's liberation that inspired the suffragette movement. But for me, the larger picture of feminism is about how gender inequity impacts everyone--including men.
The world community is slowly coming to realize how the diminished status of women and girls is intrinsically interconnected with global issues like war, violence, poverty, the economy and the environment. There is a growing awareness that we all benefit when women and girls are educated and empowered. As for the more extreme cases of oppression--countries where women and girls are deprived of basic rights, or the pandemic of domestic violence, rape, acid burnings, honor killing and other atrocities that sometimes occur with government approval and impunity--these are not just "women's issues" but human rights abuses. Thankfully, more and more courageous and enlightened men are becoming vocal advocates on these issues, working to end violence against women and calling for women's equality and empowerment. They understand the benefit of valuing women, the positive impact women in positions of power and influence would have in the stewardship of our planet.
To help reflect and give shape to this trend, Feminist.com features a Men's Voices, Men as Allies column of male voices interested in themes such as ending gender-based violence and redefining masculinity. Feminist work must include men. When you look at the brutal rapes of girls and women in the Congo as a weapon of war, for example, it's clear that we must do more than just protect and heal the traumatized victims. We must also look honestly at the damaged men committing these crimes. We cannot end the cycle of violence until we examine the culture, belief systems and often outdated religious traditions that breed it and legitimatize it.
Boys and men can be just as negatively impacted by destructive gender stereotypes as women. World-renowned psychologist Carol Gilligan, who was appointed Harvard's first professorship in gender studies, wrote a groundbreaking book on how gender roles shape the psychological development of boys and girls. In a Different Voice showed that, for boys, this conditioning starts around four or five years old when they first enter social settings like school. As boys grow into men, the culture and the media pummel them with these same messages: demonstrating their feelings, or values like empathy and compassion, do not correspond with "masculine" expectations of strength and power. As a result, boys may unconsciously learn to cut off their emotions or not value themselves as nurturers and caretakers. And men are encouraged to deny their full range of human qualities in their careers, and as friends, sons, husbands and fathers.
This is another important arena feminism is evolving into, a dialogue not only about outer world change, but inner transformation, where it all starts.
My hope is that feminism is transforming into an all-inclusive movement. Feminism, for me, promotes unity, respect, equality, and justice for all living beings, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or any of the many other labels and dogmas that often divide us. It is less important if we use the term "feminist" to describe ourselves and more important that that we embody its loving and liberating principles. As Carol Gilligan, the author of In A Different Voice, told me, "I think of feminism as the movement to liberate democracy from patriarchy. It's in the interest of men, women, the planet, the future. And it is one of the most important liberation movements in human history."
For further reflection, here are more thoughts from my book, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice.
You can also participate in Gloria Steinem's In Your Own Words campaign at Women's Media Center, in which she poses the question, "What do you want the future of feminism to look like?"
Thoughts on Today's Feminism
I get very frustrated when I hear women saying, "Oh, feminism is passé," because I think feminism means empowerment. Men can be feminists, too! Many men are feminists. We need feminism. It's not against men; it's about the empowerment of women. It's the respect of women--giving women equal rights, the same opportunities.
I would say a feminist is somebody who believes in personal, professional, and political equality. Period. Done. Over. It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman or pink or yellow or whatever. Those three things. It's just equality.
Feminism is my life! It's who I am. For me, it's just a logical way to be. It's the way I approach everything.... Feminism to me is like the oxygen that we breathe. It's so vitally important to life because women ultimately make life happen. So feminism is really a matter of respect for life and where life comes from and what life is and respect for women's rights and what women want and respect for the earth and really respect for the planet--just respect life itself.
-- Margaret Cho
Today millions of young women who benefit from the struggles of their mothers and grandmothers and would not give up any of their rights don't call themselves feminists because it's not sexy. They believe that feminism is dated. They have not looked around, they are not aware that today, in the 21st century, women still do two-thirds of the world labor and own less than one percent of the assets; girls are still sold into prostitution, premature marriage, and forced labor.... In times of conflict, war, poverty, or religious fundamentalism, women and children are the first and most numerous victims. Women need all their courage today, as they needed it before.
It doesn't matter what word we use, if it has the same content, it will be treated in the same way. There are other words--there's "womanist," there's "mujerista," there's "women's liberationist"--all mean the same thing and they get the same ridicule. I think we just need to choose what word we feel comfortable with that says women are full human beings, and whatever that word is, it will get a lot of opposition. But it will also attract a lot of support. But this is a revolution, not a public relations movement.--Gloria Steinem
Call it what you want, but we're all fighting toward the same thing and empowering women.--Charreah Jackson
I don't know what the word is anymore, to be perfectly honest. I don't know if [the word "feminist"] is helping us anymore or not helping us. Of course, I am a feminist and I've been a feminist. But now I'm seeing there is a new way, the third way. It's not left or right. It's not Democrat or Republican. It's a third way. And the third way to me is a shift away from these principles where dominance, occupation, invasion, and violence are the tools on which the whole planet turns and operates. The new tools would be cooperation, invitation, dialogue, and care. Care would be fundamental to the principles of the world.
So many of us by now have these wonderful feminist sons and grandsons who really are allies. We should give them the respect as allies, in changing a lot of the things that are wrong and done against women in the world.
You can talk about equal rights, but essentially feminism will come into wholeness when we achieve a social paradigm that allows men and women to become full human beings--rather than women muting themselves and men hardening themselves, which I think is the root of all the problems.
First and foremost, I'm a feminist. Basically that stems from a strong belief that all people and creatures deserve equal opportunity, rights, and respect.... And I do it as a pride thing: I say "I'm Lebanese" the same way I say, "I'm feminist" because I'm proud of being Lebanese--I think it's cool--and I think it's cool to be feminist.... I think of it as equality, choice, fairness, respect for animals and children and men and women. It's something that's based in a very loving theory for me. So I'll keep saying it as many times as I can to make up for the people who are scared to or think it's a bad vibe or whatever, because I think it's a good vibe.
Excerpted from Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice by Marianne Schnall.
Portions of the above originally appeared in Marianne's monthly radio commentary for 51% The Women's Perspective.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published journalist whose work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Women’s Media Center, Glamour Magazine, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women’s website and nonprofit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.