When Jasmin approached me about this topic – what it means to be a feminist – I pondered over how to approach it; I had nothing to go by but the title. So I thought to myself, why not start this off with a scientific ground on which I could place my opinion? It is the easiest way for me to decide what a feminist is, in general, and what a feminist is to me, specifically.
According to Lois Tyson, English Professor at Grand Valley State University and author of several books about critical literary theory (covering feminist criticism, as well), feminism means fighting against the reinforcement of the economic, political, social and psychological oppression of women. So far, so good.
One of the claims feminists are much-maligned for, though, is that we should not use the masculine pronoun “he” to represent both men and women. For many feminists (again, according to Lois Tyson), using “he” to refer to both sexes suggests that male experience is a standard by which both sexes are evaluated, even though strictly speaking “he” can only refer to males.
A thorn in the side of feminism is the scheme of patriarchy. Patriarchy promotes traditional gender roles, which assign to men the traits rational, strong, protective, while women are considered irrational, weak, submissive. The best example for that way of thinking is the concept of hysteria. We have all heard the cases of women who were diagnosed with the psychological disorder “hysteria”, a condition deemed distinctly female and marked by overemotional and irrational behavior; now, what’s striking about this (to Ms. Tyson as well as me) is that the word hysteria derives from the Greek word “hystera”, which means “womb”.
While you are letting that sink in for a minute, I just want to add that feminist critical theory distinguishes between the term “sex”, referring to our physical and genetic make-up, and the term “gender”, which means the cultural programming as either male or female we undergo when we grow up. It is an interesting approach to look at, considering you are biologically a man or a woman (or something in between), but also that there are behaviors, habits, gestures, looks, that are being described as male or female without having anything to do with the biological or genetic make-up of the person conducting that behavior, habit, gesture or look.
So much for the scientific side. Now, what do I think?
I think I am hesitant to call myself a feminist. I despise the concept of patriarchy, of the so-called traditional gender roles, and honestly, when I learned of what hysteria means in Greek, it pulled the rug out from under my feet. But, on the other hand, I do not care about the pronoun issue; to me, “he” is a pronoun and nothing else. It’s semantics and nothing more.
Furthermore, when I hear the term “feminist”, I picture extremists, like femen, who think writing stuff on their boobs will help fighting patriarchy, but really, I think it doesn’t help much; I heard a German comedian called Maxi Gstettenbauer joke about femen and the fact that he has never read anything the femen activists had written on themselves because he was too busy looking at their breasts. And you know what? I laughed, because it is true.
But the truth is also that I am not doing feminism justice by reducing it to femen and other extremists or the pronoun issue. If you can go on and call yourself a feminist because you consider yourself a strong woman who wants both sexes to have equal rights, equal opportunities, equal payment, then I guess I can consider myself a feminist. The term still has a lingering bad connotation, but my hope is that #HeforShe can change that, and not only for me, but for everyone else, too, masculine, feminine, male, female, whoever cares, whoever wants to listen.
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