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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The ‘F’ Word

The year was 1972. Hundreds packed the student union building, men as well as women, students as well as staff to hear Germaine Greer speak at the first National Women’s Liberation Conference.

There was cheering, awe, solidarity, determination for the future. At least for Wellington, it was a telling moment of the 1970’s zeitgeist in which lefties across the globe felt the future might finally be in their hands. For feminists in particular, the contraceptive pill had been made available, the Equal Pay Act was beginning to take effect and Women’s Studies was becoming a popular subject in many universities. No one could deny that there was hope. Fast forward nearly forty years and that determination and hope has been replaced with a rise in conservatism and dire political apathy. All of which begs the question; how liberated did those devoted second-wave feminists like Ms. Greer truly get and what is left of their legacy?

It seems today that feminism is a highly loaded term and so few women (let alone men!) are willing to associate with it. Ask a random passerby at Victoria and a feminist is a humourless, hairy, militant, man-hating and nagging woman. Ask a POLS112 class of one hundred and eighty students and a feminist is any of the three women who cautiously raised their hands. There’s no denying that the angry, man-hating stereotype hurts the cause; who wants to associate with hatred and anger? Of course there are a few angry feminists, just like there are a few environmentalists who spend their days smoking joints and growing out their dreads. However, the fact remains that those are just arbitrary stereotypes, stereotypes that conveniently discredit the groups that they have unfortunately come to represent. Something else must be at play though; for all the critical-thinking, intellectual young men and women out there, one would think some of them could see past the stereotype.

Something else must account for why feminism has lost its momentum and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not because the struggle is over, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it is if you’ve heard the catchy new phrase ‘post-feminism’. Academically speaking, post feminism describes an era that recognizes the events associated with second-wave feminism. Yet as a term in more general contexts, it’s hashed out every time a company wants to make a hilariously misogynist advertisement (think that burger that will ‘blow you away’), every time someone tries to elicit laughs for his or her ‘sammich’ joke and every time someone derides modern feminists for ‘just taking it too far these days’. Inherent in this idea of post-feminism is that we are literally living in an era after feminism; that there’s no longer a need to fight for our rights because ultimately women have all the rights they’ll need. So when this idea is propagated in common jokes and advertisements, it’s really no surprise that so many women these days don’t quite know what to make of the dirty ‘f’ word.

Exacerbating that icky stereotype and post-feminism is the ‘uncoolness’ of all politics in the twenty-first century. It’s easy to see politics as the domain of textbooks or old, grey-haired men in suits. The fact that it is riddled with so much jargon and complicated bureaucracy leaves a lot of people feeling isolated, without a voice and ultimately dumping political participation in the ‘uncool’ pile. Except for when there’s been a recession. That’s right, when money’s tight, politics is pulled from the ‘uncool’ pile just a little bit and people begin pining for the brighter times of yesteryear, imaging in their nostalgic haze that progress is to account for all the money issues. This is happening all over the world, in the USA where abstinence-only sex-education seems to be winning that particular fight, where laws around abortion and rape that protect women are being repealed and where a film featuring a woman climaxing is censored as more offensive than a film where a woman is bisected with a buzz-saw. It’s happening in Europe where female politicians are routinely scrutinized for their appearance while their male counterparts go along their merry, womanizing way. It’s happening in New Zealand where domestic violence continues to increase while few political parties actually want to address it and let’s not start on pay equity. And this is just the West. There are still five countries where a woman’s right to vote is denied or limited and a whole lot more where the words ‘marital rape’ don’t quite make sense.

This recent roll-back of women’s liberation paints a very bleak history and certainly refutes any ‘post-feminist’ arguments. So let’s move on to modern feminism and what that entails, because it is not about hate, it is not to blame for any current worldly issues and asserting your rights certainly does not need to be difficult. Granted there’s a whole lot of legislation that needs reevaluation, but a lot of sexism is cultural and we can address it in our day-to-day lives. For starters there’s that good old double standard about sex where lots of it leaves men as studs and women as sluts. Fighting sexism in this case is as easy as replacing ‘Ew what a slut’ with ‘I’m happy for my friends who get a lot, regardless of gender’. So easy! There’s no reason for anyone’s sex life to be quantified by anyone else or society at large (and please don’t send the letters section a whole bunch of lock and key analogies). It’s also important to remember that this goes both ways; calling a woman a slut for having too much sex is as hurtful as calling a woman frigid for choosing not to and both are just as hurtful as questioning a man who doesn’t crave sex every waking hour of every day. This is why feminism is for everyone, men and women; traditional gender roles hurt everyone.

More sexism that hurts men as well as women can be found in the social contract that exists around money and gender, essentially painting men as as valuable as their income and women as gold diggers. For instance the expectation that a man pays on a date and in return he can expect some lovin’ to the value of the date he just paid for. Next time you’re on a date and feel like toppling the patriarchy it’s as easy as splitting the bill and having sex when both parties are keen, not just feeling obliged. You can fight sexism by looking at the way news media reports gendered issues. For example, in New Zealand, women currently outdo men in terms of university participation. This is hailed as a victory for women’s liberation or represented as a threat to men, but the reality is women need more qualifications if they want to earn the same salaries and enter the same jobs.
Which brings us to yet another easy way to stop sexism and that’s the way we think about family and parenting. Currently in NZ, the domestic purposes benefit is such that a single father has to provide, on top of all the information a single mother would have to, proof that he is the only person able to care for his children. Feminism is often blamed for this and the idea that family courts favor women. Yet that is a misguided belief as it is really just another example of gender oppression that hurts everyone, especially single fathers, by saying that men should be making money while women are in the home.

Certainly the greatest hurdle to overcome in defining feminism in the twenty-first century is escaping the belief that feminism is anti-men. Feminism does not seek to take anything from men, nor does it wish men to be discriminated against in the ways women are. Feminism is about seeing all people as intelligent, critical, empathetic human beings who deserve dignity and the responsibility and trust to be held accountable for their actions. It’s about seeing the value in the feminine as well as the masculine and seeing them as complementary; not polar opposites to be ranked and pitted against each other. I’ll finish with the words of the wise Gloria Steinem in saying that feminism ‘means you see the world whole instead of half. It shouldn’t need a name—and someday it won’t

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