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May 4, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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What is a feminist?

To be honest, I’m not sure I know. Can a man be a feminist, or just a feminist sympathiser? Can a feminist be anti-choice, or subscribe to a patriarchal religion? Does a feminist have to be part of a feminist group?

I’m not actually going to answer any of these questions, but anyone else is welcome to try. What I will say is that feminists can come in all shapes and sizes and don’t have to be hairy vegan lesbians who call themselves feminazis and shop at Savemart (sorry if this is you).

When I was about 15, a fifth former at Palmerston North Girls’ High School, I said something about being a feminist.

“You’re not a feminist!” a friend of mine said.

Back then, amongst the women and girls I knew, feminism was a dirty word. It meant bra-burning dykes who hated men and possibly lived in communes—certainly not a 15-year-old me (despite having blue hair, tunnels and wearing some really fucking weird Savemart clothes).

Around the same time, that friend and I, and two others, made a band. It was called Riot Girl. We didn’t know anything about the riot grrrl movement—the name was suggested by my sister, a punk rocker—and we were far more Josie and the Pussycats than L7, but the name meant something to us. It meant that in a city dominated by male bands, where we were one of about three chick bands, we were indominable. A girl band could be cool, we could give all the guys a run for their money—and we did.

A few years later, I signed up at Vic for Law, Politics and Gender Studies. I dropped Gender Studies after six months, finding it limited what a feminist was, what a woman should be like, and what feminism’s role in society was. In the same way I’ve found feminism presented in informal circles at Victoria and beyond—including VUWSA exec meetings—a feminist was a certain type of women.

In a 2007 exec meeting I attended as Salient news editor, there was a discussion over feminism, Cosmopolitan magazine and the Women’s Room that left me bemused. As I recall, the President had somehow gotten some free craft magazines and some copies of Cosmopolitan (I don’t know where from). The Women’s Rights Officer said they couldn’t accept the craft magazines—craft would only serve to oppress women and to keep them in subservient domestic roles. Another female exec member disagreed—feminists had reclaimed craft, it was an activity they could do separately or together which could empower them.

The same executive member said there was no way, however, the Cosmopolitan magazines could go into the Women’s Room—it wasn’t the sort of thing women should be reading. Now, I acknowledge Cosmo is fluff and repeats its 100 greatest bedroom secrets for (straight) couples bi-annually, but shouldn’t the women using the room be given the option of reading it? Perhaps they were going to the Women’s Room for downtime and wanted to read escapist fluff and 20 ways to wear a scarf, but in the end, they weren’t given that option by the exec. Feminists, ladies and gentlemen, do not read Cosmopolitan magazine.

In case you’re getting lost in what I’m trying to say, let me lay it down: I identify as being a feminist, but I disagree with a lot of what ‘feminists’ say. I fit the stereotype in that I’m a pro-choice, pro-sexual equality, bleeding heart greenie liberal. But I would rather read Vogue than feminist literature, will likely never employ the services of a Mooncup and have moved on from the time I went to Big Day Out just to see Sleater-Kinney.

The impression I get from many feminists, especially around this city, is that they believe a feminist has to be a certain way—they aren’t blonde or skinny like Barbie, they read Greer and Wollstonecraft, they visit the Handmirror Blog and some even tell the editor of Salient he’s supporting rape by not printing a full-page women’s column each week (regardless of the Women’s Rights Officer not wanting a full-page weekly column).

So what, then, is a feminist?

Anyone, I believe, can identify themselves as a feminist. It’s about empowering women, supporting women domestically and around the world and believing the sexes should be equal. Feminists look different, read different things, listen to different music, dress differently, and not all of them wear Doc Martens or enjoy tofu. They can be a lawyer, a prostitute, a nurse or an army officer. They can agree to disagree on some issues, and find common ground on others.

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About the Author ()

With her take-no-prisoners, kick-ass attitude, former News Editor Laura McQuillan adequately makes up for her lack of stature. Roaming the corridors (and underground tunnels) of the University by day, and hunting vampires and Nazi war criminals by night, McQuillan will stop at nothing to bring you the freshest news.

Comments (13)

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  1. Katie Diggelmann says:

    Hi Laura,

    I completely agree with everything you’ve said. I myself have always though myself as a bit of a feminist also, but not for the reasons of hating males, being a lesbian, not wearing a bra or any of the like. I believe in equality based on moral worth and work. Throughout my life I have always felt that I can and should be able to do anything males can and feel a strong competitiveness to do so. And don’t get me started on male macho rubbish! As far as categorising what feminists are…i believe the women fighting for the female vote were feminists searching for equality. Its all about identity and what you identify with…but that’s just my opinion :)

    Sweet article

  2. T says:

    I don’t know any feminists who are lesbians, hate men and/or don’t wear bras. I don’t really get why this stereotype is always trotted out.

  3. Shitkicker says:

    I know plenty. You need to make more friends.

  4. T says:

    Maybe you need to be more selective with the type of friends you have? Why on earth would I want to be friends with women who hate men?

  5. Sando says:

    No, no, Shitkicker wasn’t claiming that you have to make friends with people who hate men, just you need to make friends in general. You must have noticed the long lonely nights staring out at your facebook page wondering why it was so empty.

  6. T says:

    Oh cute you made a funny! I see you need my approval: Good boy! You done good!

  7. Skins De Slick says:

    what the fuck was that T?

    just what the fuck

  8. Mr Magoo says:

    Why is women’s fest now called Clitfest? Are the Vic femmies trying to stop other women from wanting to be involved?

  9. Terri says:

    There is something so incredibly annoying about feminists that you really should come up a with new word to describe yourself. You can say that feminism is not about hating men, motherhood, babies, family, christian religions, etc. but the thousands of screaming feminists who make up the special interest groups of this country certainly seem to think it is. Make up a new word to describe yourself. I believe in equality for women but I would never refer to myself as a feminist and neither would any other feminist in this country. Even though I am a university educated, successful, married female who is the sole income earner in my household (I am the feminist dream – my husband is a stay at home dad who does all of the childcare, housework, and cooking), I do not qualify for feminist because:
    1. I think abortion is murder.
    2. I believe in God and am a Christian. I do not have a problem with God being referred to in the male gender.
    3. I love men.
    4. I am not in favour of gender quotas in business and politics. I believe women are smart and capable enough to succeed on their own merits.
    5. I am married (since I was 19).
    6. I don’t believe it is a positive thing for women to be promiscuous and don’t consider it empowering. I believe sex should be reserved for marriage and I will be teaching that value to my own daughter.
    7. I can’t stand Belinda Stronach.

    WHAT AM I??

  10. Owlzy says:

    Someone who doesn’t understand that any cultural group will have multiple different strands of thought running through it. Pluralism bra, pluralism.

  11. Evee says:

    a victim ofthe patriarchy, that’s what u are

  12. Katherine says:

    T that stereotype is trotted out because some people have a problem with the feminist ideals about equality and thus are scared of us. Terri: if you buy into the myth you are only helping keep us down. If you call yourself a feminist you will help to break the stereotype!

    More Terri: Actually there was a study done that showed that feminists have better opinions of men than non-feminists. So that refutes 3. I certainly hear a lot of “lol men can’t do anything and are useless” from non-feminists.

    1. But you don’t think forcing a woman to give birth against her will, even if it will kill her, is murder? Or forcing a woman to have an illegal (highly dangerous) abortion? I am well aware that many people have a nuanced position towards abortion, but you haven’t presented yours.
    2. I don’t really see any problems with this. Christianity isn’t for me personally but as long as you’re not buying into some of the more extremist versions of it (killing for Jesus!) I don’t see Christianity as being necessarily at odds with feminism.
    4. It isn’t that women can’t succeed on their own merit, but that they aren’t being allowed to. I know one team leader at my work was driven off as they were pressuring her (illegally) about her maternity leave. Yes, it’s illegal but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Not too sure about whether we need quotas exactly though.
    5. Your personal beliefs don’t have to clash with Feminism, again. Though it depends why you were married. If your father arranged it and you think that is for everyone, then yes, that clashes.
    6. Oh noes teh dreaded promiscuity. I think you’ll find at least half of all feminists agree with you. I think it is problematic, but in an ideal world it wouldn’t be, as it would be down to personal choice.
    7. Who?

    I don’t believe you have thought your feminism through very much Terri: all these misconceptions. You probably subscribe to the “men and women are super different” views, even though there is plenty of evidence that differences are imposed by society from birth. Down with traditional unwritten rules of masculinity and femininity!

  13. lucy says:

    A lady who has morals, culture values,feel of self worthy, respect in society and is setting a good example for her children. keep it up

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