Among the many questions I am asked, one of those that has been the most difficult to answer has been whether I consider myself a feminist. It is difficult because there are so many different definitions of feminism out there. I have to stop to ask about the questioner's understanding of feminism so I know how to answer, which tends to be perceived as oppositional or evasive.
According to the narrowest definition I have heard, and one that seems quite popular in the atheist community, a feminist is one who supports the equality of women (i.e., equal rights). I've even come across some people who insist that the meaning of feminism is restricted to the issue of equal pay for equal work. Using these narrow definitions, I am definitely a feminist. Politically, socially, and economically, I do indeed support equal rights for women. The thing is, these narrow definitions are not how I think of feminism.
My Understanding of Feminism
I've always seen feminism as being far more than support for equality. My view of feminism is rooted in classic feminist theory as well as some of the subsequent multicultural forms. I have great difficulty separating the definition of feminism from the feminist theories I have studied. Without going into detail, I'll simply say that feminist theory seeks to do more than describe the fact of inequality; it seeks to explain it. An example would be the social construction of gender. For me, a central part of feminism has always involved some acceptance of these theoretical explanations, especially social constructionist thought.
Another way to say this might be that I've been influenced as much by the academic side of feminism as the activist side. I don't mean that academic feminists are not also activists but that my views of feminism have been heavily shaped by my academic study of feminist theory. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I do not recognize much of what is being called feminism in today's atheist movement as being consistent with feminism.
My understanding of feminism has also been influenced by my teachers. The women from whom I learned about feminism, both in the classroom and outside, during my graduate school training had much in common. They were all highly educated with doctoral degrees or on their way to obtaining them. They were well-spoken, thoughtful, and respected among their colleagues. And they generally agreed that men could not be feminists.
They described men with positive attitudes toward feminism as pro-feminists, and this was the term I would come to adopt to describe myself. I've always seen it as a way of communicating that I support the feminist movement without trying to claim that I am a member of it.
It is also worth nothing that they shared the perspective that men were harmed by sexism and restrictive gender roles as well. While their focus was on women, they encouraged what is sometimes referred to as "men's liberation" (i.e., opposition to the manner in which a patriarchal society oppresses men) as an important part of feminism. I happen to agree with this perspective, even though a few poorly informed atheist women have suggested that I must be an "MRA" for holding such views.
Am I a Feminist?
When asked today if I am a feminist, I usually explain that I am pro-feminist but do not call myself a feminist because I'm not sure it really makes sense for men to do so. I recognize that this is just one perspective and not necessarily the correct one. And then, I'm usually criticized for holding it.
Subscribe to Atheist Revolution