The rise of the feMEnist, and why it must stop

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Yesterday several newspapers were abuzz with the results of a survey claiming to show that just one in seven women identify with feminism, instead seeing it as "irrelevant", "too aggressive", and "not a positive label". The survey was carried out by parenting website Netmums, and 1300 of its members answered questions such as "Do you think there are any downsides to the successes of feminism?" and "Which of these activities is acceptable for feminists?", a list that included "baking cupcakes", "false nails", and "topless modelling".

Despite the fact that the survey seemed designed to highlight what people see as the negatives of the movement, and hardly representative ("women see motherhood as their top priority" - hardly unexpected of a survey carried out on a website for mums), the usual suspects in the national press were quick to jump on the results as representing all women. The Daily Mail's headline was "The death of feminism", while the Express plumped for "Feminism is over...say women". So far, so typical linkbait for the right-wing press, "radical feminist" stereotypes abound. Yawn.

And I have to admit that yes, right-wing linkbait and all, I did feel disappointed to read what the survey had to say, from "39% said they don't want to be equal" to "accept men and women are different and therefore need different rights", and that old classic, "feminism has gone too far". On the other hand, it was interesting to see respondents identifying which battles they believe feminists still have to fight, from affordable childcare to equal pay and bans on sexist advertising - and the fact that 70% of them held the view that "too much is expected of women".

One thing, however, stuck out to me the most: the way Netmums has branded the findings as "the rise of the feMEnist", so called because women today supposedly want the right to live their lives as they want without judgment, rather than "being dictated to by the 70s-style sisterhood", as the Telegraph put it. They want to "find their own path that works for them and their family". This is all very well and really important, but when you reduce the movement down to nothing more than choice feminism, you really miss the point.

A common criticism levelled at the feminist movement today is that we're just out to police women's lives and dictate their thoughts, either "forcing" them into one way of thinking or rejecting them as "not feminist enough". This couldn't be further from the truth, although it often doesn't seem like that when the media insists on pigeonholing us and painting us as obsessed with certain issues above all else. Women push back against the idea of "sisterhood" because they think it means having to love all women; they push back against the idea of solidarity because this one time, this one feminist said something they didn't agree with. They push back against equality because they think people will hate on them for wearing makeup.

The problem is, turning everything the other way and making gender equality all about personal choice and "me, me, me - whatever I think is good" conveniently forgets that there are a whole lot of women struggling with a whole lot of circumstances who do need - and want - collective effort, empathy, and action. Individualism is not the way forward.

It's an "every woman for herself" attitude that's heavy on "my personal choice to do x" and light on cohesion with a wider movement, and compassion for other women and their lives. It's the unfortunate state of affairs that means public debates about feminism get mired in waffle about the "choices" surrounding vajazzling and baking while serious issues go undiscussed.

The Netmums survey concluded: "While undoubtedly it's down to old-fashioned feminists for bringing society this far, now it's time for another radical change to let individual feMEnists find their own path..." We know everyone's over the idea of "having it all". We know that choices about family life are important and that every woman has the right to be respected for the choices she makes about work, motherhood, and interests.

But let's not turn feminism into nothing more than "doing whatever we want". The survey showed that women think there's a lot of work to be done by the movement, which is why it's important to work together, help each other, and genuinely want to improve the situation for women the world over. To dismiss this as old hat, the preserve of "old-fashioned" feminists, is sad - and I think, misrepresents the movement today. Yes, we have to be accessible, and yes, we have to be accepting of a wide range of views. But come on, we can do better than this.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via crl!'s Flickr

Further reading:

Salt and Caramel: Feminism is over...say women
My Elegant Gathering of White Snows: FeMEnism: Netmums re-invents "choice" feminism

1 comment:

OrigamiGirl said...

On the bright side to this I would say that so much of the response to that survey has been to dismiss it as rubbish. A great deal of people can see where something is biased and presents simplistic questions. I agree, 39%, even just of 'women surveyed on this website', wanting equal rights is very sad. I would say that it shows how much people have been convinced by the 'feminism has gone too far voices'

I wrote a post on my own blog today which I thought might interest you because of feminism + theology looking at the way Christians who believe in equal rights will put them aside because of placing 'Christian unity' first with the clever use of the phrase stumbling block. Up to you of course, but hope you have a sec to read it.


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