I am a feminist.
To be precise: I am a white, middle-class, over-privileged male, and I am a feminist. No caveats: none are needed. There is, in my view, very little necessary to be a feminist. You just need to assent to three related propositions:
- Women and men are fundamentally equal.
- The current structures of society deny this equality to women.
- This is not an acceptable state of affairs.
There is a fourth position—that if you consider a wrong to require mass social movement to rectify it, it is unethical to exempt yourself from participating on the grounds that “one voice has no effect.” This is the free-rider problem and, though I don’t think you have to assent to this fourth proposition to be a feminist, if you don’t then you’re a pretty piss-poor one—and, indeed, a fairly parasitic member of society in general. I have also been careful to express the propositions shorn of as much explicitly moral language as possible—partly due to a heated debate about what “moral” means anyway, and partly because even if you are an utterly self-interested man, you can still be a feminist. Again, I may think you are a feeble, unethical one, but the point is that feminism doesn’t even have to be an ethically-driven position, though it is for (as far as I am concerned) all decent people.
Of course the response to this from many people will be that this is no longer what “feminism” means. You will be cited aggressive misandrists, pointed to the likes of Angela Dworkin, who coincidentally died a decade ago, and whose appearance made her a convenient lightning-rod for the denigration of feminism, though she apparently did not adhere to the anti-male views often ascribed to her (I will be honest, for once, and admit I have not read any of her writings). There may well be some feminists whose views are unpalatable to most people simply concerned with equality, but none of you who are Christian avoid saying “I am a Christian” because of the vile activities of the Westboro Baptist Church, the abominations perpetrated by ISIS and al-Qaeda do not (I hope) prevent you from identifying as a Muslim if such is your religion, and I will staunchly and proudly declare myself an atheist despite the fact that one of our most vocal proponents—Richard Dawkins—increasing looks like an intolerant bigot who presumes that being an Oxford-educated middle-class white male is the default state of humankind. What has happened is a species of synecdoche whereby a term has been allowed (or encouraged, by the male-led media) to become associated with properties only applicable to a minute subset of its referents.
I do not deny the current negative connotations of “feminist.” And as a sociolinguist, I endorse the position that the meanings of words derive from their usage in the speech community and cannot be defined by fiat—indeed, those who seek to do so are exercising exactly the kind of privileged presumptuousness that is the fundamental problem here. But it is one thing to descriptively accept that, at present, the word “feminism” carries many connotations that discourage people from identifying as such, and entirely another to assert that this does not mean that we cannot seek to change that fact; merely that the change must come, as all language change does, from a shift in general usage, and not from some declaration on high. Other words which were once used to denigrate have, to a greater or less extent, been re-appropriated either by the deliberate, ironic application of the word for self-reference by the denigrated group or by a shift in wider societal usage.
And so, because I think it’s unethical to be a free-rider, and because I think this is a crucially important issue, I think that people like me, and you—because my readership is, for some reason, not so staggeringly vast that I don’t still know most of you, and will browbeat you about this when I next see you—need to reclaim “feminist” as a positive expression of a will to gender equality in our society. It is time for this word to be used in a simple, clear manner and the only way that this is going to happen is by the tiny little incremental changes of ordinary, everyday people using the word in an ordinary, everyday way.
So, I encourage you, say it with me. Don’t caveat it: “I’m a feminist, but not…” defeats the point, it allows for the pejorative connotations to remain the default. Have the, ahem, balls and just say it:
I am a feminist.
There, that wasn’t so hard, now, was it?