The women’s movement has an “equality” problem.
Last semester, I asked my college students to define “feminism.” Everyone bandied about the word “equality”—“equality for women,” “equality for all genders,” “equality in the workplace.” But the class grew quiet when I asked what equality meant, and what it looked like. The word has become an empty signifier, underlying a larger definitional problem in regards to the mainstream women’s movement.
My students knew that strict hiring quotas aren’t an effective, long-term solution to sexism, just as they understood that equality under the law does not ensure the equal treatment of women. In New York City, for example, women can legally walk around topless, but not one of my female students said they would ever take advantage of this legal equality—they didn’t want to risk harassment or assault.
In the age of celebrity feminism and performative male feminists, the idea that feminism is about “equality for all genders” has become increasingly fashionable. And yet, to me, nothing says misogyny like defining feminism as equality for all—as if focusing a movement, or policy, or activism on women alone is taboo. Or too risky. The knee-jerk, “all lives matter” refusal to center women in this latest iteration of feminism is, I believe, a significant cause of the stalled gender revolution. We cannot address or end the systemic oppression of women if we refuse to center women in that fight. And that means reconsidering what we mean when we talk about equality and power.
In order to succeed, feminism needs to work within the very systems women want to change. And this means that women must reconsider their relation to power and power structures. Feminism in the digital age has positioned itself as opposed to power, whether manifest in the hashtag mantra of #Resist, or through the consumerist vein of “fempowerment,” decorated with cupcakes and pink knitted hats. Women are more comfortable, arguably, with protesting and “resisting” than with leading—because leading demands that we actually try to work with, in order to reform, the very structures that oppress us. Power is complex, yet in itself is not negative, or bad, and it doesn’t have to be consigned to the sole possession of patriarchy. To quote the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, “If feminists believe that their goal is to abandon power, then they have already lost the game from which they cannot withdraw.”
Feminism’s uneasy relation to power is something that conservative women like Kellyanne Conway touch upon when they deride it as an “anti-male” movement made up of women who “have a problem with power.” The narrative that feminism is “anti-male” is a deliberate misinterpretation intended to slander the movement. But Conway and others are correct in observing the movement’s antithetical relation to power. Is power inherently patriarchal? How do women “get” it and use it? To push the point a bit further, is the pseudo-feminist cultural discourse around “empowerment” a recognition of women’s failure to actually have power? Because you don’t hear men talking about empowerment or feeling empowered.
People who have power do not daydream about empowerment.
In philosophy, freedom of thought is the ultimate form of liberation. In the context of power, reimagining how we think about power is the first fundamental step to eradicating the systematic oppression of women. As a force, power is not inherently sexist. But it has been historically harnessed to perpetuate women’s oppression. If we understand that power knows no gender, and that women can be powerful, then we can upend the traditional narratives that have fixed feminism in a spin cycle for the past 100 years.
Feminism, in order to be politically efficacious, depends first and foremost on a recalibration of women’s minds. It demands freedom—intellectual freedom, and, correlatively, bodily freedom. (Which is why I believe you cannot be anti-choice and call yourself a feminist.) And this is also how feminism launched as a movement in the early 20th century, distinct from the single-issue objective of the suffragists at that time. It is critical to remember that, while all feminists championed suffrage, not all suffragists were feminist.
It is my argument that the missing link between hope and change is power. So, how do we as feminists attempt to reimagine and positively reorient ourselves toward power when for so long we have been conditioned to refuse it; when we have become more comfortable resisting than leading in this world?
First, a successful women’s movement in America must ally the 99% and the 1%, black women and white women, straight women and lesbians. Any activism that pits women against each other is not feminism, because sisterhood is our most powerful tool. The men in charge know this, too—this is why keeping women divided and indulging in catfights in the media is a surefire way to keep women oppressed. As long as women are fighting each other, they are not fighting against the larger structures that maintain and enforce their oppression.
Second, we need to embrace feminism as both a politics and social justice movement: activism from within and without institutions. Marches and protests represent one tactic in the larger strategy of dismantling the systemic oppressions that affect women; policy changes that address unconscious bias in the workplace and progressive labor rights are another. The point is that we need both. We need both resistance tactics and operational tactics to create system-wide change.
For any social justice movement to take flight, it must be fueled by ideas and by a vision. The politics must be accompanied and preceded by an ethical awakening within individuals. The one historical strategy of feminism that is also a philosophical imperative is the cultivation of an independent mind. Independent thinking, acquired through rigorous education, is the bastion of liberalism and specifically underscores the tenet of freedom. From Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century and J.S. Mill in the 19th, Simone de Beauvoir in the 20th century to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the 21st, women’s freedom begins with their education — one that is not necessarily institutional.
Women’s full awareness of their place in the world—how the history of their oppression is localized in their bodies—only happens when they recognize they have been oblivious to it all along. “[T]he stir of new life, the palpable awakening of conscience” is how one writer reported on the new idea of feminism in a 1913 article for Harper’s Weekly. This awakening describes the process of learning.
Less than a century after J.S. Mill wrote that the intellectual infantilizing of women was a way to oppress them, Simone de Beauvoir catalogued “how woman is taught to assume her condition,” of subjection and subordination in her existential feminist treatise, The Second Sex (1949). It is Beauvoir who inspired countless American feminists, including Audre Lorde, who quoted the French feminist in her famous talk, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” For, using tools and language unthinkingly and uncritically, Lorde warns, “will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thoughts about how historical social conditioning affects the psychology of the mind are similar to those penned by Beauvoir. In her concise We Should All Be Feminists (2014), popularized in Beyoncé’s hit song “Flawless,” Adichie also expounds upon the social conditioning of women: “We teach girls to shrink themselves.” Like Beauvoir and feminists before her, she locates the solution in breaking the chain of oppression in the mind and specifically through a re-training of the mind. “What matters even more is our attitude, our mindset,” Adichie contends in her elaboration of how gender has been inscribed as a morality. “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.”
Feminism as a politics is a movement among people, but as an ethics it begins as a movement within the self. I think this is where we have to begin: within the self. Social pressure and conformity are not qualities of independent thinking but dangerous omens of fascism and cultural decline. Instead of taking the definition of feminism as truth, we need to question what it is and what feminism means in this new century. We need to question the meaning of empowerment, and seek power rather than work to corrode it in others. We need to question equality, and whether we shouldn’t replace this desired ideal with that of freedom. We need to question the impulse to decenter women. We need to imagine what feminism looks like in action, in policy, and in society. And, then, we need to develop the strategies to achieve those ends.
Because the future of women’s existence depends on it.