On December 6, 1989 a man entered Montreal’s École Polytechnique, separated the men from the women and yelled, “I hate feminists” before opening fire and killing 14 women. One woman, before being shot and murdered, told him they were not feminists, just engineering students.
This tragedy is a familiar one. Every December 6th serves as a day of remembrance and a day of mourning for the lives of the women lost. It also marks a day where we reflect on the issue of violence against women. This issue has been in our mindsets for many, many years. I’m not here to discuss violence against women specifically, but to address feminism and what it represents.
Feminism, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” Feminism is the radical idea that women are equal to men in all aspects of society and in the eyes of the law. When the lone gunman shouts that he hated feminists in 1989, I can’t say for certain what it was he hated – women going to school? Women entering a strongly male-dominated field? Or just women in general? Again, we can speculate for hours, days, but it will get us nowhere. I want to discuss how I have heard this statement of “hating feminists” from men and women even recently, as recently as a week ago. And through movements such as the Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) movement, and through viewing people’s negative ideas on feminism being expressed on social media platforms, I don’t need to speculate to understand that the sentiment of hating feminists/feminism comes from a place of misunderstanding of feminism as well as a sense of defensiveness of the feminist movement.
Whenever the word “feminist” is uttered it seems it’s either a word that denotes strength, and a belief in a movement that can create equality amongst the genders. Or, it’s a slur, a disease that those who are called “feminist”, or call themselves it, should be ashamed of it. The slur of feminist has been used in areas where vitriolic garbage like the Lulu app where women rate men anonymously and, often times, scathingly. It’s a shallow and harmful app that has, for some reason, been tied to feminists. That behavior of judgment is not “feminist”. Just because a large portion of women take part in an activity doesn’t make it feminist, much in the same way that the Westboro Baptist Church is not Christian in their activities even though they worship God. It’s widely known that the Westboro Baptist Church members are simply hate-mongers and do not represent the larger Christian community. This is the same in terms of feminism. The extremists who misrepresent the gender equality movement that is feminism should not represent the movement as a whole. Nobody, woman or man, should invade anyone’s privacy in such a way and then judge them based on one’s own biased and, often times, shallow opinions.
This brings me to my next point how both women and men can be feminists. While the word itself denotes a fight for women’s rights, men who recognize the equality disparity can join women in the movement. In fact, it’s encouraged. It’s important to open a dialogue between the genders. It’s important to gain information and insight into the other’s struggles and ideas about certain issues. But, if people feel left out of the movement, they can get defensive. This is where I believe the MRA movement comes in. This is a movement inspired by the feminist movement where men can create their own space and speak freely about men’s rights issues. While there are issues regarding custody-type conflicts where the woman most often get full custody of the children in divorce proceedings, and that there are almost no real safe places for men to go when being abused in a domestic relationship, the MRA movement is inspired out of defensiveness. Men have always had their own spaces to think and speak as freely as they wish. The platforms of politics and the institutions of higher education are just a couple very large areas where men have been free to speak as they wish. Men are the ones who have enacted laws they thought would serve them well; men are the ones who defined literary genres up until only very recently; men are the ones who were allowed to walk in public, wander libraries without an escort, and receive a degree from an institution of higher learning where they would go on to own businesses, write books, work as lawyers, whatever it is they wanted to do.
The first woman in Canada received a degree in 1875 before simply reprising a traditional role as wife after her stint in higher education. The first woman to graduate from a school in England was in 1920 from Oxford University, an institution that has been around since the late 11th century. Women, however, still only had a portion of the university’s services available for them. This has changed, and now women outpace men as entrants and graduates of university in Canada. There are disparities within the gender representation in university now that need addressing on the male side. Again, it must be stressed that feminism is about gender equality, not for women to outpace men and become the new leaders. Feminists want men and women to be equal on the world stage.
The education factor may have changed in the Western world, but certainly not everywhere. Malala Yousafzai was almost killed while fighting for her right to an education in her native country of Pakistan. The feminist movement has moved to countries across the globe. This is a positive affirmation that feminism is a powerful movement. That when women in places where females are still severely underprivileged and belittled due to their gender see how the feminist movement has benefited women in education elsewhere in the world. It shows that feminism has the possibility for change. They can fight for their own freedoms knowing it is right, knowing that having equal rights is possible.
This is why feminism is still needed. Feminists (again, both women and men) can encourage fellow females across the globe to keep fighting for a noble cause while still fighting for equality here. They can encourage and fight for a woman’s right to choose her path, whether it be in the workforce, or within the home. Within the media, for example, there have been some improvements. Women are leading movie franchises such as “The Hunger Games”, and they are being represented in areas usually reserved for men (in prison). The fact that Kathleen Wynne is a woman (a gay woman at that) and has been elected as Premier of Ontario, and that Hillary Clinton is even able to be talked about as running for President for 2016 are all amazing steps forward to equality. But they are just steps. There’s still a large disparity in representation of women within the political sphere, among others, including engineering. These steps forward have also not stopped the wild objectification of women’s bodies, the discussions of a woman’s appearance first and foremost over anything she has to say, and especially the idea that if a woman gets angry at all over any issue, she will be belittled and considered hysterical. This “hysterical” label has basically been applied to women ever since it became a popular diagnosis in 19th century medical literature. While there were men hysterical patients, this was a diagnosis most popular for women who suffered the most pressure to act perfectly within their set roles as wife and mother. Hysteria was diagnosed if you exhibited behavior that could be considered erratic or anxious. But how could women not be anxious when nobody will listen to their issues or have no space for themselves simply because they are a woman? This “hysterical” label is still being applied. Whenever Hillary Clinton puts forth an issue, her voice is drowned out by people who comment on her appearance or how “Bill must be frightened” of her because, God forbid, Hillary is passionate about an issue in politics. In many areas where men have traditionally dominated the field, such as politics, women are still vilified as being “extreme” or “angry” or “hysterical”.
There have been several waves of feminism. The first wave brought out women who were seen as obscene for wanting the vote. The second wave brought out women who wanted to be a part of the workforce, and the third and fourth waves are continually working toward the equal representation of women to men in the media and on other platforms such as politics. Feminism is a movement that will benefit both men and women by breaking down gender stereotypes as a whole. With the emergence of women in the workplace, it is becoming more commonplace for men to stay home with the children while the women are the primary breadwinners of the family. The gender stereotype of a working man who “brings home the bacon” is broken down because of the help of feminism and feminists. The stereotype that men are unemotional are being broken down due to feminism because the issue of gender biases are brought to the forefront and not ignored behind the guise that since society has always been that way, there’s no reason it should not stay the same.
Feminism is not an enemy that wants to take over the world. Feminists are people who wish for gender biases and stereotypes to be broken down and to be rebuilt with the idea of equality. When the discussion of “bringing down the patriarchy” is brought up, it is not a hostile comment. It is a desire to break down the harmful societal barriers that keep women from being equal to men, and that keep men as the primary law makers and voices in society. Breaking down the patriarchy does not mean replacing it with a matriarchy, instead, it’s about creating a society where men and women have equal say in societal and political issues.
Feminism is aimed at those men and women who still belittle, degrade, and think less of a woman simply because of her gender. There is an understanding that not all men think less of women and that not all women believe women should be equal to men. Feminism is for those who need to understand that society and gender roles are a human construction. Men were not made superior to women, and women are not simply meant for the home. While, historically, it may have made sense for the woman to remain within a domestic sphere to care for children while the man hunted for food, humanity has moved beyond those stereotypes. Our society is much different than it once was, so why are we still stuck in age-old gender stereotypes? We can push past the biases and work towards a newly constructed world where a person’s worth and ability is not judged based on their gender. Unlike what the lone gunman thought in Montreal on that fateful day in 1989, feminism, and feminists, are not the enemy, they are not out to threaten society, only to alter it for the greater good of people everywhere. Within the feminist movement we can all work towards equal opportunity for each gender where we can celebrate our gender differences while still having equal opportunity and equal voices in our communities.
Rachel Ganzewinkel is a fourth year English and Creative writing student at Western. She spends most of her time reading great literature and essays and writing in hope of achieving the same level of awesomeness one day.