I had this exchange in one of my university classes this week:
Young Man: I am NOT a feminist.
Me: Do you believe in equality for men and women?
Young Man: Yes, of course, but I’m NOT a feminist.
The definition of feminism is as follows:
The doctrine advocating social, political and all other rights of women equal to those of men.
It’s not burning bras, hating on men, trying to raise women above men, or shaving your head and ranting in the town square. Feminism is equality. That’s it. Full stop. And when eighteen-year-old men become angry at the idea of calling themselves feminists, in an era where equality is being discussed everywhere you go, I become dejected and overwhelmed.
These conversations matter. Clearly, the word “feminism” carries a charge and men are afraid to be associated with it. I can’t fix this and I’m not interested in fixing it. But the word itself means equal rights for both genders and I will continue to bring this up until it becomes more widely understood.
My lovely professor approached me after class to talk about the exchange and to thank me for not escalating it. She said, “I’m really glad you spoke up to define the word ‘feminism’, even if he did appear to be upset over it.” She wanted to be sure I felt supported. I did. Support was not the issue. Having a discussion about a word where the person agrees with the concept but not the word we use for it makes me want to bang my head on a table until it bleeds.
Do we need a new word for feminism? I asked some young women in my next class this question and they said, “No. If women come up with a new word so men won’t be uncomfortable with it, the men will find a problem with the new word, too.” Fair point.
At the dinner table after my classes, I asked my eleven-year-old son William if he considers himself a feminist. He said, “Yes.” (To which Ava replied, “Of course he is. Growing up in this house, what else could he be?”). Then I asked Jason the same question and he also answered, “Yes.” When pressed on what this means, both of them said some version of equality.
Let’s have more of these discussions, equating the word “feminism” to the word “equality” as they are one and the same. You can’t say you believe in equality but you don’t believe in feminism. I know that the term can be loaded for people, I do understand that, but then let’s bring it back to the definition. If you are a man who doesn’t call himself a feminist, please consider how hard a woman has to work to even get you to understand the importance of equality, let alone fighting over the words we are using.
The road to equal rights is long and arduous. If every person helps, even just a little, we’ll move closer to the goal of a fairer and more generous world for every person. A rising tide lifts all boats and language matters. I thought this was easier for young people, but after my experience this week, I’m not so sure. As a culture, we still have a ton of work to do to close this gender gap.