As feminist icon Professor Germaine Greer made headlines today for the wrong reasons
the Internet lit up once more with debate about feminism, just who is a feminist, who is not, and what ‘feminism’ means. (In the words of author Rebecca West, ‘I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.’)
One blog, Jack the Insider, wrote: ‘Do I agree that women should have equality of opportunity? Do I agree that some earnest ecclesiastical or lay types have no truck rooting around in women’s uteri? Yes, but none of this makes me a feminist.’
I argued that it makes him exactly that. His reply, ‘It makes me a humanist.’
One basic definition of humanism: ‘An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.’
And feminism?: ‘The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.’
Certainly there is room for debate here as to whether the definitions above are correct or absolute, but still, it seems to me at a glance that our friend Jack the Insider is both humanist and feminist. In fact, any person who truly believes in human rights and equality for all human beings would naturally be a feminist, wouldn’t they?
In 2003, on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, journalist and radio broadcaster Derryn Hinch said the following, with regards to whether or not he was a feminist: ‘I try to be. I’ve always said I’m as much of a…of a feminist as I could be. No man can be an absolute feminist. First of all, we don’t have a clue about the pains of childbirth and never will — that’s number one. You can’t be an absolute feminist but you try to be as much as you can. I grew up… In my 20s, I was interviewing people like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, so that gave me a pretty good grounding. No, you can’t be a total feminist, but you try.’
While I can see where Hinch is going with his assertion that he can’t fully understand the female condition without being female (which absolutely true), the pain of childbirth, of course, does not make someone a better or more complete feminist. Yes, child birth gives you some first hand experience into what is one of the major, life-changing experiences in many women’s lives, but many prominent feminists have never given birth, Germaine Greer included. No, it’s not giving birth that makes you a feminist.
Jack the Insider said of a man (Derryn Hinch) declaring that he is a feminist: ‘I’ve always thought it an odd thing for a man to say.’
So can men be feminists or not? Can they not be ‘total feminists’? Only half feminists?
Academic Brian Klocke writes, ‘If feminism is to attain its goal of liberating women, men must be a part of the struggle…’ but goes on to say that ”To be a feminist one must be a member of the targeted group (i.e a woman) not only as a matter of classification but as having one’s directly-lived experience inform one’s theory and praxis.’
As I see it, feminism is an ideology. It seems logical to me that one does not have to be born with a particular gender, or to identify as a particular gender to believe in a set of ideals, ie: that those without the Y chromosome are equal to those with a Y chromosome, and deserve to be treated as equals, given equal opportunities, rights over their own bodies and so on.
The belief in women’s rights and equality is what makes you a feminist, not your chromosomes. You don’t need to be a woman to believe in feminism any more than you need to be homosexual to believe in marriage equality. The female legislators in the US who are rolling back reproductive rights are not feminists. Jon Stewart, for example, is an awesome feminist. Likewise, Buffy creator, screenwriter and director Joss Whedon is a damn fine feminist , and also openly identifies as one.
When I asked my friends and twitter followers whether men could be feminists there were some excellent responses. Here is a small sample:
‘Feminism is humanism. Obviously, not all women will be humanists, and some men will be proud proponents. XY and feminism are definitely not mutually exclusive.’ – Kathryn Fox, Award-winning author.
‘Feminism is a belief, it is not restricted to women because it is a belief about women….You can’t be feminist if you’re not a feminist, that is all…Yes, John Stewart is an awesome feminist, and we need more awesome feminists, and I don’t care which gender they are.’ – Ella James, Broadcaster, journalist and performer.
‘Of course. And I find it quite difficult to be close with men who aren’t.’ – Feminist writer Emily Maguire.
Feminism must always be led by women, just as the fight for racial equality must be led by those who are most affected by racism. Women need to champion other women, to legislate on issues affecting women. But to subscribe to feminist ideals, to be a feminist, to champion human rights as they affect women does not require being female.
PS And now you can buy the T-shirt, above. It’s 100% cotton and while it doesn’t make you a feminist, it can express that you identify as one. Looks good on him, don’t you think?