by: Mariann Devlin
“I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equality.”
We’ve all heard those words before, by skeptics of feminism who are almost as frustrating to me as “undecided voters.”
Rather than admit that they don’t really think much about feminism and equality, many explain that they’d “rather not define themselves according to some -ism.” But what difference does the suffix make, when we define ourselves according to groups all the time? What these non-feminists are actually trying to avoid, when they deny being a feminist, is not an -ism but the unfortunate image feminism has suffered as being a movement for misandrists, or at the very least, women who are in competition with men.
One such self-proclaimed non-feminist is Taylor Swift. In a recent interview with The Daily Beast’s Ramin Setoodeh, Swift claimed she’s not a feminist because she doesn’t “really think about guys versus girls.”
Taylor Swift clearly doesn’t know what feminism is, but it’s okay. I’m here to explain.
Feminism comes in so many different shapes, sizes and flavors that it’s impossible for anyone who believes in equality to not identify with the principles of some type of feminism. What Taylor, and others like her, are referring to when they say the word “feminism” is a kind of weak separatist feminism. I call it “weak” because even though I’m not into separatism (although it has its merits), it’s certainly not based on some “guys v. girls” principle. Separatist feminism shuns men and their institutions, even heterosexual relationships. But it’s just one type among many, and as a “type” its not too popular.
Although separatist feminism does insist on a safe space for women, it’s basis for action often alienates potential allies, including men of color and people who are queer or trans-identified. In its radical separation of men and women it ends up propping up the very heteronormative standards it seeks to demolish. Interestingly, this is a critique made by other feminists, everyone from black feminists to queer theorists to liberal feminists. It’s this very backlash against separatist feminism that proves you don’t have to be hostile toward men to be a feminist.
I can’t believe I’m actually writing that, but hey. When someone that hugely popular with young women and men says silly things about feminism, I have to step in and repeat the obvious. Everyone who believes in equality has a whole list of feminisms to choose from, not just some weak-sauce version of separatism.
Some skeptics also argue that they aren’t feminists because they don’t believe a cultural revolution is necessary to fix unequal power structures. They think that, by and large, the capitalist liberal democracy we live in is fair, and what’s not fair can be changed through legal reform.
This, again, refers to the more radical versions of feminism, like Marxist and Socialist feminism and even queer theory. There are lots of feminists who aren’t interested in the overthrow of male-dominated institutions and all heterosexual norms. Liberal feminism, which I mentioned earlier, is interested in a reform-based approach- for example, creating laws that ensure women are protected from wage discrimination and have access to safe, affordable reproductive health options. Liberal feminism can be traced to Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and to the women’s suffrage movement in the mid-1800’s. It’s since blossomed into groups like the National Organization For Women, and is the basis for the writing of famous feminists like Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth) and Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique).
It’s feminism for people who “believe in equality” but are hesitant to throw their support behind a radical cultural revolution.
What’s funny is this isn’t my preferred mode of feminism either. With the exception of libertarian or individualist feminism (yes, there is such a thing), liberal feminism is the feminism I find least interesting. Ecofeminism, Black feminism, Postcolonial feminism, Poststructuralist feminism, Psychoanalytic feminism, Marxist feminism, among many, many others, dig beneath the surface of inequality and oppression to expose its hidden social and psychological roots.
So why I am singing the praises of liberal feminism to people like Taylor Swift, if it has so many shortcomings? Because that’s where it starts. The first feminist book I read in middle school was Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and it changed my life. Although I now differ with Naomi Wolf on many things, I still appreciate what mainstream feminism offered me- one small step toward more radical feminists whose writing continues to slay me. Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, Mary Daly, Iris Marion Young, Judith Butler. Feminists whose ideas about gender, sexuality, race and other forms of identity go above a mere concern for equality under the law.
It’s not our duty to convince people like Taylor Swift that Feminism is awesome in its unity, because such unity is an illusion. My point is that feminism is a multifaceted movement that can’t be rejected on the basis that its “guys versus girls.” In fact, Taylor Swift’s belief that women can achieve anything if they work as hard as men reminds me of the libertarian feminism of Christina Hoff Sommers and Wendy McElroy, a feminism which infuriates me, but goes to show that feminism is as diverse as the people who practice it.
Feminism is a convenient word we use to describe a general idea that people, regardless of their sex or gender or how they choose to identify themselves, should be treated equally. But if we can agree with the basic principle of equality, as Taylor Swift probably does, then why not use the word feminism to describe just one facet of our beliefs? Hopefully this very short overview gives ambivalent skeptics a reason to proudly proclaim their feminism, since there really is a feminism for everyone.
Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.