By Emma O’Hara
Exploring why feminism is still a dirty word for many.
If you were to do a quick survey asking people if they believe women and men should have equal rights and opportunities, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who said ‘no’. However, many people still shy away from calling themselves feminists, perhaps for fear of being labelled a bra-burning butch lesbian. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a bra-burning butch lesbian; each to their own. But for the most part we feminists are inconspicuously living amongst you; shockingly, we take normal human form.
Feminism has had an image problem for a long time, much like what I’ve described above. That has started to change but, many people, especially the younger generation, are still reticent about coming out of the feminist closet. If they do take the step to declare that yes they are a feminist, it’s often followed up by a “but” – “I’m a feminist but I’m not a man-hater.” “I’m a feminist but I’m not a lesbian.” We have to stop this need for justification. I’m a feminist, full stop. This uncertainty stems from misconceptions around feminism, that people are scared will become attached to themselves if they identify with the movement. These misconceptions have been peddled by the media (incidentally overwhelmingly run by men), intent on maintaining the status quo and keeping women in their ‘rightful place’.
Feminism has been receiving increasing media attention over the last couple of years, even leading TIME magazine to propose banning the word ‘feminist’ since it has become so ubiquitous. At the VMAs in 2014, Beyonce performed in front of huge illuminated letters spelling out ‘FEMINIST’. But not even ‘Queen Bey’ can convince everyone that feminism is the way to go. It is brilliant that feminism is now a talking point in a lot of celebrity interviews, but the responses vary widely when said celebrities are asked if they are feminists. They range from the non-committal such as Kim Kardashian West and Kendall Jenner, who said respectively “I don’t like to put labels” and “I don’t know much about it… I’d like to be more educated.”, to the downright bizarre, such as when actress Shailene Woodley said that no, she was not a feminist, because “I love men” and that “the idea of ‘raise women to power, take men away from the power’ is never going to work” before ironically adding “you need balance.” What Shailene fails to see is that feminism is about balance; in the UK, women make up over 50% of the population, so it’s time to see that reflected in the number of female directors of companies and the number of female MPs, as well as increasing female representation in many other public spheres.
But feminism is also about changing attitudes and challenging social stigmas, such as the overt double standard that is if a man sleeps around he’s a ‘lad’ and is congratulated by his friends, but if a woman does the same then she is a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore’. As a society, we have a massive problem with sexist attitudes that needs to be addressed, but as an individual on ground level you have the power to start challenging these outdated beliefs and questioning those who hold them. I’m not saying to go full Spanish Inquisition on the offender, but in many cases where someone has made a remark such as “I hate her, she’s such a slut”, a simple “Why is that a bad thing? How does that make her a bad person?” can go a long way and make the person question themselves, maybe, just maybe changing their way of thinking.
Since becoming involved in feminism I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders; it has helped me to stop judging myself and others and has encouraged me to live life how I want to, without worrying about it having any impact on how someone might think about me. So the next time feminism pops up in conversation, or someone asks you if you are a feminist and you’re wondering if you should out yourself, just bite the bullet and go for it. The sky won’t cave in, and neither will the earth open up beneath you to reveal a fiery pit of hairy, braless women whom you are now one of. No, you will be the same person but part of an exciting movement that’s gaining momentum all the time. If anyone does judge you for identifying with the F word then you’re better off without them.
Emma O’Hara is from Belfast and is currently in her second year of studying law at MMU. She has a particular interest in human rights and feminism. Her twitter handle is @emmaohara_ .