It’s easy to think of feminism as something that’s solely about boosting up the status of women. I would argue, though, that feminism is something that can lift us all up.
People may enact feminist beliefs in different ways, but at its core, feminism recognizes how traditional gender roles, stereotypes, and expectations have disadvantaged women. These gender stereotypes are so firmly ingrained that it’s easy to assume that they’re inherent in biology, but it’s important not to lose sight of how socially based these ideas are. It’s also worth keeping in mind that women aren’t the only ones feeling the negative impact of our highly gendered society.
The stereotypical male gender role doesn’t display emotion or vulnerability; society expects males to “man up” and show no weakness. Society expects men to be competitive and self-reliant. All of this has created an environment where toxic masculinity can thrive, as males are pushed from a young age to conform to these harmful standards. I have to wonder whether incels (involuntary celibates) would exist, or at least be as organized as they are, without the seed of toxic masculinity.
Gender also plays a role in how likely men are to seek help for their mental health. The stereotypical female is expected to be emotional and “weak”, and men are expected to take care of business themselves. It’s already hard enough to access mental health care without having additional barriers related to gender.
Feminism in practice
Unfortunately, the way that feminism is put into practice sometimes excludes rather than includes. A few years ago I was attending volunteer training sessions at a women’s crisis shelter. They refused to allow trans women to stay in their shelter, and their reasoning was that trans women didn’t have the experience of being raised female from birth. All volunteers had to sign an agreement saying they were willing to comply with that policy. I didn’t end up volunteering with that organization because I didn’t agree with that and some of their other beliefs, and recently the city announced they were cutting funding to that group. In my opinion, it’s really unfortunate when feminism is practiced in a way that is divisive rather than uniting. Change on a broader scale really only comes from people coming together.
I also believe that feminism shouldn’t be about rejecting gender stereotype-associated behaviours altogether. If I were to choose to shave my legs and be a stay-at-home mom because that’s my personal preference, that shouldn’t make me less of a feminist. Feminism should be about escaping constraints, not placing new ones on people. Having freedom and choice includes being able to choose from as wide an array of options as possible, even if some of those options do fit elements of a stereotype.
Nevertheless, she persisted
In 2017, during Jeff Session’s confirmation hearing to be attorney general, Senator Elizabeth Warren raised concerns about Sessions’ civil rights record.
After quoting a statement made by former Senator Ted Kennedy in 1986, that Sessions was a disgrace to the Justice Department, Senator Warren proceeded to read a letter from Coretta Scott King that was written to the Senate Judiciary Committee that same year. Dr. King’s widow described how Sessions “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”
The Senate Chair interrupted Senator Warren’s reading, accusing her of violating Senate rules. She responded, and the Chair gave her permission to continue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell then interrupted Senator Warren to raise his own objection to her reading the letter. She responded, and he objected again. A vote was called, which resulted in Senator Warren being silenced.
Following this, Senator McConnell stated on the Senate floor:
Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Those three words, “nevertheless, she persisted” quickly became a rallying cry for strong women who would not be silenced. But it’s not just women that deserve to be heard; it’s everyone who’s having a hard time getting their voices heard.
Why is there still a gender gap?
Many occupations continue to be divided along gender lines. These social expectations limit both men and women. The fact that a gender-based wage gap still exists strikes me as bizarre; how, in this day and age, can men and women receive different pay for the same work? If that kind of pay inequity exists, that can’t bode well for people from any groups that tend to be disadvantaged, like racial minorities or people with disabilities. We need pay equity across the board, and narrowing the gender-based gap is only one step.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a world where his children “will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” I’d say that applies just as well to any other superficial characteristic by which a person may be judged. As suffragette Millicent Fawcett said, “courage calls to courage everywhere.” We need to heed that call together.
The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.