The Definition of Feminism


“If you believe in equality for women, you’re a feminist.”

“Being ‘feminist’ just means you’re for equality.”

This is a routine and agreeable assertion that appears every time a video of a belligerent feminist activist goes viral, like the 2012 Warren Farrell protest at the University of Toronto or the 2013 “From Misogyny & Misandry” protest, also at the University of Toronto. It serves as an appeal to common ground: who wouldn’t be for equality? And since we’re all in agreement that we’re working for equality, clearly the belligerent feminist has just gotten it wrong somehow. You agree with the person calling you scum, you just don’t know it yet.

Forgive me for thinking there’s more to it than that. How is it that the same people who furiously denounce men’s issues activists, chide the label ‘egalitarian’, and straight up mock people who call themselves ‘masculist’ can advocate such an inclusive definition? If they can say this definition is what feminism is, why would people who call themselves “equity feminists” like Christina Hoff Sommers have their feminist street cred challenged to the point that they’re called anti-feminist? Why would Susannah Breslin face bloodlust when challenging a concept that, on the face of it, may not be directly related to gender equality? Do those feminists think you can believe what Breslin believes and still call yourself a feminist?

They can’t, really, and that’s kind of the point.

The “you’re a feminist if you believe in equality” definition has nagged at me enough times that I’ve reached my breaking point. Not because of feminists, but because I dislike bad definitions. Feminists and non-feminists deserve a better definition, and this writeup will become my standard reply every time I hear “you are feminist if you are for equality.” While standard replies are certainly impersonal, they serve a practical purpose: if you spend 30 minutes every week writing “approved” on a piece of paper, it quickly becomes worthwhile to invest in a stamp which says that.

Hereafter I will refer to “you’re feminist if you’re for equality for women” as the inclusive definition of feminism. The official term for this is the normative definition of feminism, but I’m calling it “the inclusive definition” because the intent is for everyone to agree with it. And it’s a stupid definition, for several reasons:

1. The inclusive definition defines its boundaries in terms of its goal.

2. Feminism requires a specific interpretation of what “equality” and “inequality” mean.

3. Feminism assumes you think something should be done about it.

Really, I could just end the article here. Up to this point you’ve read about 400 words, and with each word the probability of you finishing the article decreases. There are a thousand to go. And there are two very good reasons for that thousand: I can account for potential misreadings, and I can account for lack of imagination. The above three points, if left to stand there alone, allow for a great deal of misconstrual:

To #1, someone could say “no it doesn’t. It’s very clear about what its boundaries are. You just have to believe in equality for women!”

To #2, someone could say “I don’t think that’s true – ‘equality’ is a pretty clear idea.”

Or to #3, someone could say “who needs to do anything? I don’t know anyone unequal.”

I’ve had these debates enough to anticipate the countless ways people can get your statements wrong. It’s better to have an analysis many people will not read, but understand clearly if they did read it, than to have an argument many read and falsely think they’ve understood. The latter scenario requires corrections and addenda, which ends up being more effort in the long run.

So I’m going to unpack those three points, hopefully eliminating any confusion in the process:

I. The inclusive definition of feminism defines its boundaries in terms of its goal.

Q: What are the requirements for someone to say they are “anti-Illuminati”?

A: Definitely not just “being against the Illuminati.”

If you’re going to call yourself “anti-illuminati” you must first believe that the Illuminati exists. I’ve chosen this specifically because unlike most things you can be “anti-” about, the Illuminati is something a lot of people believe doesn’t exist, which highlights the need for belief in [phenomenon] prior to being “anti-[phenomenon].”

In the inclusive definition’s case, you need to believe that women are unequal to men, specifically. This is because…

II. Feminism requires a specific interpretation of what “equality” and “inequality” mean.

People have different ideas of what constitutes inequality.

People have different ideas of what constitutes equality.

You may or may not be on the same page as feminists.

If you were arguing with Rush Limbaugh and you said “you’re a feminist if you’re for women’s equality,” Rush Limbaugh could ostensibly call himself a feminist. Unlike the person with the inclusive definition of feminism though, Limbaugh believes women are already equal to men. So in this sense he’s “for” women’s equality — he just doesn’t believe they’re at a disadvantage.

Or you could be talking with someone who believes that “misandry” is the sole cause of society’s present gender inequities. People like this exist; there are real people who believe these things, and far weirder beliefs happen every day. For someone like this, they are “for” women’s equality, but in the opposite direction: they believe that women currently hold an advantage over men, and that to be really equal those advantages need to be curtailed.

Or you could be Christina Hoff Sommers, who does not believe women are unequal in the way that other feminists say women are unequal. She denies that the wage gap has anything to do with inequality, and for this reason a lot of feminists don’t think she’s actually feminist. Even her Wikipedia page has an implied dig at her claim to the title:

“Although her critics refer to her as anti-feminist, Sommers is a self-described ‘equity feminist’ …”

What is so special about her critics that this merits inclusion in the introduction? For comparison, you would not see “Although Barack Obama’s critics refer to him as Muslim, communist, the antichrist, and ‘Worse than Hitler’ …” on the Wikipedia page for the 44th President of the United States. It’s included because the person who included it thought their criticism indicated some kind of noteworthy caution against Sommers’s ability to call herself a feminist.

Then there’s “self-described”, a word so difficult to use as a non-discrediting adjective that it rivals “You see,” as a non-condescending introduction. The quotemarks around “equity feminist” don’t help.

Clearly, there is a party line that has to do with what you think “equal” and “unequal” mean. Being “for” women’s equality doesn’t cut it — you need to interpret it the right way. If you differ strongly in this respect, prepare to have your feminist title put into question.

But then what happens if you believe that women are unequal like feminists do, yet you don’t think that’s a problem?

III. Feminism assumes you think something should be done about it.

To be fair, this is implied by the “for” part of “if you’re for women’s equality,” but I’ve included it for completeness.

If you are going to call yourself “feminist,” you need to believe these inequalities are problematic in some way. There probably exists a contingent of people who say “sure, I acknowledge that women are unequal to men. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Men are better.”

Dick Masterson, to my knowledge, bases his satire entirely around this shtick. And people mistake it for reality, because the possibility that someone exists who believes that isn’t outlandish. Something like “the Illuminati exists and it controls banks globally,” or “ghosts exist and this house is haunted” requires far more cognitive legwork to believe than “men are better than women.” Whatever outlandishness you find in the possibility of someone holding that belief is social, not intellectual.

So let’s run these down —

– We want a definition of feminism that does not define its boundaries in terms of its goal

– We want a definition of feminism that is clear about what “equality” means

– We want a definition of feminism that is clear about action taken toward inequality

I propose that if you are “feminist”, you:

(a) believe that women are disadvantaged compared to men, and

(b) believe that this disadvantage is indicative of a societal problem which needs to be corrected.

This definition gets complicated when you start talking about theories of intersectionality, but I feel that this defines feminism in a non-nebulous way that allows people to conclusively say whether they are, or are not, feminists. The criteria are explicit, and they don’t assume what they’re trying to prove.

This is similar to the descriptive definition of feminism as defined by the SEP, with some differences in wording.

I encourage you to link someone here or to the SEP when they use an overly broad definition of feminism like “it means being for equality,” because I’ll be doing the same thing. If they point out that I’m a man, remind them that this has zero bearing on the legitimacy of the definition because the view that personal characteristics bear on the truth of a claim is both wrong and ad hominem. If they say that I’m right but it’s obvious, then tell them to start repeating that to the legions of people who are operating under non-obvious assumptions. And if they say “I’m supposed to listen to a blog?”, remind them that Lawrence Lessig has a tumblr and that has zero bearing on the truth of what he says.

I’ve written this because I’ve responded to glib, flattering definitions of feminism more times than I can count, and I’m sick of responding to them. This is my standard reply for any time someone says “feminists  just want equality” or “feminism just means you’re for equality.” It’s demonstrably not that simple. If it were, people would not be yelling at each other in the streets or pulling fire alarms to shut out people who disagree with their interpretation of equality.

7 thoughts on “The Definition of Feminism

  1. > if you are “feminist”, you believe that women are disadvantaged compared to men

    I would extend that with “and this is caused by men”. If women have problems but they are caused by biology, solar flares or women themselves, then feminism is actually meaningless. I, for one, have never seen a feminist who did not believe the “oppression of women” is caused by men.

    But from this point it logically follows that if men oppressed women for hundreds or thousands of years, they must have been doing it intentionally, because you can’t oppress someone without you yourself noticing it. There is no such thing as ‘accidental oppression’, certainly not for extended periods of time.

    Then again, if this is true, there must be a reason why men oppressed women, and this reason must be something inherent to all men, with only the rarest exceptions possible. If there was an oppressive “patriarchy” then practically all men must have been complacent in creating and maintaining it, because otherwise there would have been confrontations between pro-patriarchy guys and anti-patriarchy guys. (“Don’t oppress my sister/daughter” comes to mind.)

    If men as a group oppressed women as a group as some kind of a class struggle (as pretty much every feminist believes) then it is inevitable to think that men as a group are evil.

    If you believe women are disadvantaged and it is somehow caused by men, you implicitly believe that all men are inherently evil.

    If this isn’t fucked up, if this isn’t the most sexist idea ever, I don’t know what is.

    • No, feminists don’t believe women’s oppression is caused by men. I certainly don’t! Women’s oppression is caused by society, which means the active participation of all of us, both men and women. People act to reinforce their own oppression all the time. Men’s oppression, which as a feminist I am also concerned about, is enforced by both men and women as well.

    • How is it caused by men?

      Did I make people somehow oppress you? Are men some sort of hivemind that make collective decisions? Did I elect people that want to take your right to abortion away (Oh wait, women make up the majority of voters)?

      And scratching everything I just said… that’s what I get for not reading the whole thing before starting to reply… I agree with what you said pretty much 100%.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s