Definition of Feminism
Feminism has long been misconstrued to exclusively mean, men and women are equal in everything and therefore it’s the advocacy or fight for women to be granted same rights and be treated just as men.
The idea that the man is the sole and important comparator in the fight for women’s right is absurd—just as the idea that all women want the same thing and want to be treated as equal to men.
A better, albeit convoluted definition of feminism is; it’s “a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social rights for women.”
Feminism is the fight for women’s rights in all aspects of life—sometimes with the man as a reasonable comparator, most times not.
The traditional erroneous notion which is somewhat the popular conception most of these so called feminists I’ve seen on social media hold is as a result of the fact that, the early feminists were just looking to ensure that women were being treated as men were.
Today, that’s not really the cases—because under certain circumstances, women do not need to be treated like me, sometimes better than me and that’s absolutely acceptable.
For instance, while women have fought for and get 52 weeks’ statutory maternity leave in the United Kingdom, men get just about 2 weeks’ paternity leave. In Ghana, a man’s right to paternity leave wholly does not exist.
If feminism was simply that, women want to be treated like men; then women in the United Kingdom will get only 2 weeks of maternity and in Ghana will have no maternity because that’s exactly what men get.This is why, the intelligent contemporary feminists have reshaped the campaign and perfectly have accepted that feminism is no more about man and woman, rather, about what a woman deserves, irrespective of what the man is getting.
When it comes to international human rights law, feminist scholars like Catherine MacKinnon have argued that, even though women are abused in some instances just like men, they also suffer different forms of human rights abuses which are different from men as a result of their marginalized social positions and biological difference. Therefore, the equality provisions in international human rights’ instruments are not enough to challenge the gender bias human rights framework. As such, the only way women’s human rights would reflect their experiences is to have different body of human rights law catering for women. This contributed to the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) by the United Nations.
Here, women are not seeking to just be granted the same human rights as men, they understand and appreciate that their experiences and struggles are mostly not the same as that of men and therefore putting them in the same room or treating them like men under the same legal framework is not enough. They want and deserve laws that mirror the unique experiences of women.
For example, since women are those who largely suffer in the domestic settings or private sphere as compared to men, the public/private divide of human right law and its reflection on conceptualization of rights meant that, crimes majorly committed against women were not considered as human rights violations. Beyond the horror of crimes, matters which were primarily of concern to women such as sexual and reproductive health remained a private issue and the divide meant that they did not fall within the armpit of human rights.
So if you are a woman and feminism simply means, you want to be given the same rights as men, then you do not really understand modern feminism—you are lost.
How Feminism Has Developed and Continues to Develop
The First Wave Feminism
Over the past 30 years, feminism has evolved and progressed in series of “waves”. Over these years, different feminist movements with both converging and diverging opinions and methods of change have developed, improved upon already existing movements or supplanted by the later in their fight to change our current male structured systems. This historical reality is expressed using the metaphor “waves”.
The first wave feminism (liberal legal feminism) were dominantly concerned with achieving equality between men and women. To this wave of legal feminism movement, society was founded on patriarchal tenets to the extent that men and women are treated unequally.
The first wave feminism argued that women should be entitled to equal rights as men and in order to achieve this equality between women and men, they turned to law reforms to address the disparity between the two.
Early first wave feminists believed and made the point that women have been historically excluded from various social institutions such as education, politics, the law and others.
Holding the belief that women are equal to men and are just rational as men, first wave feminists used law reforms to fight for women inclusion in the numerous societal institutions.
They saw women as deserving of rights as men and that there was no reason to deny women the benefits which men got from their social inclusion (and women’s consequent social exclusion).
The Radical Second Wave Feminism
As can be seen above, earlier liberal feminists did not challenge the basis or core of institutions like parliament and education but simply wanted to open them up more for women’s inclusion and participation.
Through law reforms, first wave feminists who were not particularly concerned with overturning the social and political institutions but rather to work within them in order to open them up for women inclusion succeeded in so many ways.
For instance, the early liberal feminist reformers who tried to reform the electoral laws (suffragettes) to give women the right to vote eventually succeeded. Also, early liberal feminists succeeded through their campaigns to provide women access to educational institutions.
In the UK, they campaigned and were successful on the issues of women divorce and the old common law doctrine of “coverture” under which married women’s properties became vested in their husband making it impossible for married women to own properties was waved.
Despite the above achievements of the liberal legal feminism movement, they have been criticised by another wave of feminists’ legal movement called the Radical second wave feminism.
As mentioned, the first wave of feminism was not concerned with overturning the social and political institutions but wanted a mere inclusion of women. The same cannot be said of the feminists of the second wave (radical feminism).
The Radical feminists saw women inclusion as not the solution to the problem and decided to tackle what they saw as the fundamentals of our patriarchal society by seeking for a redesign or redefinition of the foundations of social and political institutions.
Here, they were not looking for women inclusion but a reform of the existing social values and structures to cater for women, a fundamental transformation in the balance of power within society.
The Radical feminists were not content with getting themselves and other women included in society as they saw society to be a reflection of masculine concepts and norms. They saw these institutions (legal doctrines, legal concepts, legal institutions and others) themselves as representatives of masculine interest and therefore were part of the problems of women’s oppression.
Owing to the above, what they saw as needed to be done was not a liberal feminist call for women inclusion or reforms but a radical redesigning and provisioning of society.
Historically, this radical second wave feminist movements grew out of women’s involvement in civil rights and peace (anti-Vietnam) movements of the 1960s and 70s.
This wave of feminist movement is associated with the sexual revolution or sexual liberations movements of the time, but in fact radical feminism was making a much more fundamental claim about society that was organized around a domination of women by men, that men held the power in society, that they used this power in order to subdue and infantilize women, and that analysis of sexual relationships in society should be focused on questions of power and dominance.
Radical second wave feminists such as Catherine MacKinnon and Anthea Dworkin criticized the liberal legal feminist position by arguing that, a simply petition for women inclusion in the existing societal structures and aim for equality was to miss the point that the structures themselves are part of the problem and that it was men who created these structures in their images and to reflect masculine ideas.
As radical as the second wave of feminism was and seems to be today, it came under sustained criticisms from within the feminist movements itself.
As mentioned above, MacKinnon noted and describe the totality of men and women relationship in society as that which men dominated women not only in the private realm but through public legal and political institutions. (A concept which she and her counterparts called the patriarchy).
Mackinnon’s critics argued that describing the fundamental societal division as being one between men and women meant that women were all the same and suffered in similar ways from men and masculine power, something the critics saw as false.
Ethnic minority feminists, Black feminists, lesbian and queer feminists, disabled feminists and other marginalised feminists (cultural/difference feminism) came to formulate their own accounts of women oppression, especially of women of color, lesbians and others.
The cultural difference feminists criticised Mackinnon and other second wave radical feminists for failing to encompass their oppression and suffering in their writings.
They argued that Mackinnon and the other feminists had in mind, white women when they were writing and not other women. This omission they argued was not a simply omission of their experience but rather a form of oppression in its own right.
The objection of these black, lesbian and other marginalised feminists to the radical feminist can be summarised as follows;
–Exclusion: White radical feminists were accused of excluding the experiences of black, lesbian and other marginalized feminists). For instance, in analysing gender problem like rape, Kimberle Crenshaw points to how the problem of rape can be seen not simply as the exercise of male dominance but white dominance as well (when a white man raped a black woman).
–White Privileges: White radical feminists were also accused of not adequately recognising that they benefited from the privilege of being white within a world divided along racial lines. They did not account for their own privileged position and how this impacted their ability to write authoritatively about women’s experiences.
–Identity: One of the major accusation channeled towards the second wave radical feminists is that they were seen to have essentialised the experiences of being women. They were accused of using their own model (white, middle class, heterosexual, etc) and portrayed it as the paradigm expression of womanhood to the exclusion of other experiences.
In response to the criticisms of exclusion of black, lesbian experiences and suffering, it was objected that the experiences of lesbianism, blackness were separate from the experiences of women, the former are just “additional” to the experiences of being a woman.
Considering the above criticisms and short falls, another wave of feminist movement called the postmodern legal feminism which takes on board the criticisms of “difference” feminists developed.
Postmodern legal feminism can be seen as the response to the perceived failure of liberal, radical and cultural/difference feminisms.
The postmodern feminism share postmodernism’s general suspicion of grand theory, it emphasizes on the fragmentation of truth and the multiplicity of the people’s perspective.
In an attempt to address the criticisms suffered by the liberal, radical and cultural/difference feminisms, the postmodern feminists present a grand acceptance of all the views of the other feminisms movements.
To the postmodern feminists, none of the feminisms movement is wrong in their presentation of woman and everyone’s perspective is equally valid. Though almost all the feminists’ legal theories have conflicting and contrasting view on women oppression and its presentation, the postmodern feminists insist on the validity of these contradictions and presentations.
The postmodern feminists therefore have been criticized for refusing to endorse the truth of claims of oppression.
Due to the grand and all-embracing nature of postmodern feminism, it has also been criticised the same way postmodernism has been as providing no basis for valid critical scrutiny. According to the critics, if every perspective is equally valid as the postmodern feminists suggest, then none really is.
More Waves of Feminism
Though academia has tried to organized the many feminism movements or waves into three or four, the truth is, feminism movements are not just these few or cannot be grouped easily this way.
As many as the issues affecting women are, so are the many views women hold on these issues—how to address them and what’s the best way to do so.
Each different view therefore is a tiny wave, mostly unaccounted for or just pushed into one of the major waves even if the view is not completely in consonance with the wave.
The Problem with Most Social Media Feminists
You are not a feminist by virtue of just being a woman and no one is surely a feminist by only claiming it. Similarly, a man is not anti-feminist just because he’s a man or because he does not constantly refer to himself as a feminist.
If you are a man and you disagree with most of the social media feminists on any issue, how to deal with an issue or what the true problem of the issue is, then magically, you are a misogynist.
If you are a woman and you also disagree with them; then you are ignorant and cannot be counted as a feminist.
The truth, one of the biggest hold back of feminism, which has always been a problem in all the movements is the fact that feminists themselves cannot even agree on what women want.
And this is expected, because, not all women want the same thing. Therefore, for one woman to collect experiences of a few or many others including hers and form an overreaching opinion that this is what all women want is intellectually dishonest.
Within feminism itself, there seems to more disagreement than outside it, and that’s healthy—because, just as women are unique from men, each woman is also unique and the experiences of women which mostly define their true wants are never the same.
A Conversation with A Feminist Who Loves Being a House Wife That Her Husband Gave Regularly Money
During a wet day in summer 2015, while I sat at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport waiting for a connecting flight to Ghana, I was greeted by a beautiful mixed race woman whom I later got to know as Serwaa. She was of Ghanaian-German descent.
After sitting next to me, we soon began a conversation—which she started because she saw two books on Feminism and International Human Rights Law in front of me. I had a 7000-word essay to submit, for a module I was taking for my first masters’ degree, Feminists Perspectives on International Human Rights Law.
She had studied law and had hoped to become a lawyer, a dream she had abandoned—and she identified herself as a feminist.
She was well informed for a conversation on the subject I was writing on so I paid attention.
Serwaa had at the time quit her job to become a mother and a house wife, and from the horse’s own mouth, most of her feminist friends had fallen out with her because of this decision—claiming, all the women-empowerment did not safe her from the shackles of the traditional male setting, where a woman sits at home and the man goes out there to work.
She actually said she found it cute that her husband took care of her, and gave her regularly money for the household which she was in charge.
The friends of Serwaa are like most ocial media or online feminists I know; they think women-empowerment ought to be from one perspective—and therefore anything else is anti-feminist.
Here is an educated empowered woman living in liberal Germany; but because she has made a personal choice based on her own desires for her life—her narrative does not count anymore in the eyes of the feminists.
Though we disagreed on several tiny issues of Law, she shared in my opinion that feminism these days is like a deranged cult, with most of its members thinking there ought to be a single narrative for all women.
The informed perspective on every woman counts—the loud feminists do not represent every woman. As discussed above, feminists mostly tend to speak for themselves or for a few others who share their inexperience—and that’s why there are multiple perspectives or waves within the feminist community on almost every issue, all said to be valid.
For instance, when it comes to p**nography in the West, those who called themselves the sexually liberated feminists somewhat support the sex industry, while a large number of even radical feminists oppose this same industry.
Now, which of these groups is right or wrong?
If you listen or read their arguments, they all make sense. We have anti-p**n feminists and pro-p**n feminists. The differences are huge but somehow, they are all feminists.
Feminism today is not caged in some nuances, the disagreements are mostly huge and sometimes all valid so do not expect your feminist perspective on an issue to be that of everyone—with any opposing figure to it being anti-feminist.
Most social media feminists are like blind followers; they lack insight and give no major credence to the cultural or individual experiences or unique desires and aspirations of women that dictate what they truly want.
You cannot go about imposing your idea of what’s good for women on all good. You can only make an argument for it and if another person disagrees, be it a man or woman, that person does not instantly become anti-feminist. That’s nonsense!
But that’s what social media feminists do.
You cannot at any point establish what is good for every woman, especially when you do not have the full narrative or you’ve not had the same experience.
Each perspective counts, irrespective of how loud some may be.
The Rise of Women Against Feminism
Since a few claim to be spokeswomen for all women, without taking into consideration the individual unique wants of women, the internet has given birth to a group of women who identified themselves as women against feminism.
Some of these women have said while some women hate to be “whistled at” on the street, they love it. While some women do not want to be house wives, they love that and while some women see male dominance as oppression, they see it as cute.
Feminism has different layers; no one woman has a celestial mandate to say because she wants this, the needs and wants of every other woman are irrelevant. Feminism as a socio-political movement does not agree on a lot of things and it’s because women have different needs, something the movement has struggled to always represent.
The women against feminism movement is rapidly growing and on Facebook, they have several pages with one having over 45,000 followers.
My Concluding Take On Feminism
While it would have been beautiful and easy for feminism to be like science, where when a theory is tested and proven, it becomes an authority—that’s unfortunately not the case because of the uniqueness of each woman.
No two women are the same, want the same thing or should be empowered the same way.
The feminism conundrum lies in the gaps in wants and the nuances in perspectives—and the fact that no feminist, be it a man or woman has the authority to claim to say she/he is speaking for all women. At best, he/she may speak for a group of women, mostly a small group who can relate to her.
The conversation must be relevant and a lot of consideration must be given to opposing perspectives—because, feminism ought to take into account the true wants of women, individually. And mostly, these wants oppose one another.
Certain structures are plainly “anti-women progress and rights” and those can be dealt with quickly, consensually. It’s the little but important issues dwelling on different spectrums that linger on, entrenching the differences in perspectives.
“Modern feminism” ought to be relevant by giving attention to the different shades in wants, the distinctiveness of women’s experiences and even cultural placements.
It shouldn’t always be about men and women—and the loud speakers, especially on social media are not the determinants of what’s good for all women or they do not necessarily capture every woman’s narrative.
About 6 paragraphs of this article were taken from written academic work: Vincent Agyapong Febiri, ‘Evaluating the Evolution of Feminist Legal Theory in the Past Thirty Years,’ 2011, Law and Society, University of East London.
Vincent Agyapong Febiri, ‘To What Extent Does the Public/Private Divide Affect the Recognition of Women’s Rights as Human Rights.’ 2015, Feminists Perspective On International Human Rights Law, University of Leicester.