Feminism is More Than Equality

Woman-power symbol (clenched fist in Venus sig...
Woman-power symbol (clenched fist in Venus sign). עברית: כוח נשים (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe that some - but not all - of the difficulty the secular community is having with feminism is due to (1) the inherent complexity and dynamic nature of the feminist movement, (2) widespread misconceptions about the nature and meaning of feminism, and (3) the behavior of a small group of atheists who identify themselves as feminists yet behave in ways that seem markedly inconsistent with many forms of feminism. I've already addressed #3 and will not repeat myself here. Instead, I'd like to take a look at some of the challenges involved in one popular way of defining feminism.

One of the most popular lay definitions of feminism is that it is simply the belief in the equality of women and nothing more. By this definition, we would say that anyone who believes that women are equal to men is a feminist. This would mean that the overwhelming majority of us are feminists, regardless of how we choose to label ourselves.

There are at least two problems with this narrow definition of feminism that I will examine in this post. The good news is that both are fairly easy to fix. In fact, all that is required is some added precision in our language and a willingness to explain the terms we are using in conversations with others.

Equality: Opportunity or Outcomes?

The first issue with our narrow definition of feminism as being limited to the equality of women is that it fails to specify what type of equality we are talking about. Many feminists focus on equal opportunities; some are more interested in equal outcomes. The difference is important. In an employment context, for example, equal opportunity would mean that a woman should expect to be treated fairly and equally throughout the hiring, pay, and promotion process. She's not any more likely to be hired than an equally qualified male applicant, but she's no less likely to be hired. She should not be penalized in any way simply for being a woman, and she gains no added consideration simply for being a woman.

When we focus instead on equal outcomes, we are usually interested in things like the ratio of female to male employees (or the proportion of women invited to speak at an atheist conference). In a traditionally male-dominated field, we might make the argument that women have been underrepresented and that measures should be implemented to alter the proportion of women in the field. If we are aiming for equal outcomes, we typically do so by allowing employers to take these considerations into account. When faced with two equally qualified applicants, one male and one female, we might give the woman an edge. This will strike some as unfair, but we must remember that we are doing it because we are trying to change outcomes.

Both approaches to equality have merit. The issue is that it can be misleading to talk about equality without specifying which type of equality one is referring to. Equality of opportunity tends to be far less controversial than equality of outcomes. Equality of outcomes tends to be more controversial because there is disagreement over the best ways to accomplish it.

Equality is Too Limiting for Many Feminists

The second and more important problem with the narrow definition of feminism as equality is that many feminists find it too restrictive to capture their view of feminism. How can we adopt a definition of feminism that is rejected as incomplete by many feminists? The perspective described here by Louise Pennington is hardly unique:

My original feminism was about equality: women were equal to men and all we needed was the laws to force misogynists to stop being misogynists. The older I get, the more I believe that 'equality' is nothing more than a smokescreen to prevent the true liberation of women. Equality before the law means nothing when violence is endemic; when women are most likely to live in poverty; when no one bothers to actually enforce the existing equality legislation.

Many feminists view feminism as a struggle against oppressive social and cultural conventions (e.g., patriarchy, privilege) and see themselves as activists pursuing the goal of increasing women's power. Such feminists are likely to argue that simply believing in the equality of women is insufficient to make one a feminist and that the "feminist" label should be reserved for those who are participating in the struggle against oppression. In Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, feminist author bell hooks wrote:

Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to me…The feminism they hear about the most is portrayed by women who are primarily committed to gender equality - equal pay for equal work, and sometimes women and men sharing household choirs and parenting.

[F]eminism is a movement to end sexist oppression.

It seems that many feminists would agree with hooks' suggestion that feminism is more than "the radical notion that women are people" and that it is about more than gender equality. Specifically, it is about social change and restructuring. For many, feminism is a fairly broad ideology that includes attention to equality but is not limited to equality. For a sense of how much broader "third-wave feminism" is than equality, consider Martha Rampton's description:

This is in keeping with the third-wave's celebration of ambiguity and refusal to think in terms of "us-them" or in some cases their refusal to identify themselves as "feminists" at all. Grrl-feminism tends to be global and multi-cultural and it shuns simple answers or artificial categories of identity, gender and sexuality. Its transversal politics means that differences such as those of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc. and are celebrated but recognized as dynamic, situational, and provisional. Reality is conceived not so much in terms of fixed structures and power relations, but in terms of performance within contingencies. Third wave feminism breaks boundaries.

For many feminists, modern feminism is about far more than gender equality. Andrea Grimes (RH Reality Check) says, "Certainly feminism, at least to me, is a lifestyle." It is a complex, rich, and all-encompassing ideology. Those who continue to insist that feminism is nothing more than the belief that women are equal to men are not accurately representing the whole of feminism.

Where Does This Leave Us?

When we attempt to discuss feminism, we need to start with a shared understanding of the concepts to be discussed. The equality of women does not seem particularly controversial among atheists, but this is not what many feminists mean by feminism (and with good reason). I suspect that there are other aspects of feminist ideology which would also not be controversial for many atheists. But until we are willing to be honest about feminism being broader than equality, I'm not sure how we will be able to find our common ground.

I'll conclude with a quote from Ruth Boettner, which I find relevant to some of the recent happenings in the secular community:

Feminism sometimes gets a bad rap, mostly because people often don’t understand that there are many different types of feminism. Sadly, sometimes the loudest feminist voices are those that scream about hating all men and shaming any women who disagree with them.