The virtue of the word “feminist” is still a contentious topic.
I’ve heard friends say that the term implies misandry and that the history of feminism is racist—many women of color don’t feel comfortable using the term. While these are valid arguments in a persistent debate, this tension doesn’t mean we should toss the word entirely in favor of something like “womanism” or “genderism.”
Many of these arguments are formed in lieu of mainstream feminism, which appears to suggest that the entire male sex should be disintegrated. To use the term effectively, we must be aware of this wrinkle, but I don’t think the arguments against the term “feminist” garner enough strength to eliminate it. The alternative labels, or any other we could try to make up, can’t capture all the gravitas that “feminist” does. As Noah Berlatsky writes in The Atlantic, “‘Feminist’ is a movement, a history, a faith, and a hope for change.”
Ironically enough, however, much of the debate over the use of the term comes from the men who seem to be uncomfortable using a feminine-sounding word to describe gender equality. Many men have argued that the term is inadequate and have tried to introduce a more accomadating word.
This isn’t surprising for prolific author Rebecca Solnit who, in her recent book, Men Explain Things to Me, talks about about a concept she famously helped coin, “mansplaining.” This phenomenon depicts a man explaining something to a woman from a “more knowledgeable” standpoint, though such mansplanations are always about things which the woman understands more fully. Solnit’s feminist essays have frequently gone viral because of her comedic style and her deep knowledge on the progression of women’s history.
There’s another modern development concerned with including men in the discourse on feminism, which recently covered my newsfeed. Emma Watson gave an inspiring speech to the United Nations about the need for men to be involved in the fight for equality because, she reminds us feminism is, ultimately, the equality of all genders. She introduced the U.N.’s “HeForShe” campaign, which aims to galvanize 1 billion men and boys as advocates for ending the global inequalities that plague women and girls.
As we look back at the long struggles women have faced, and the very gradual build up of support that continues today, it’s clear that society can’t truly advance if men avoid supporting feminism. At the same time, some problems arise with this new campaign—problems that Solnit often alludes to in her book. I think Watson’s speech will help usher the feminist movement into modernity, leading it to do more good than bad. However, fundamental difficulties may arise with the entry of so many men into this gender conversation.
In the first chapter of her book, Solnit recounts her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” which prompted an explosion of reader responses, including a Tumblr page dubbed, “Academic Men Explain Things to Me.” She believes that nearly all women face two wars every day: one against the people and structures which still support gender inequality, and one within herself, against the socially ingrained belief that they lack importance when compared to not only men, but also to other women.
If the “HeForShe” campaign is to be truly progressive in advancing the feminist movement globally, it needs to recognize the difficulty of having men understand what it means to be a woman. The goal of inciting 1 billion men to support this movement will certainly inspire change, but it’s also extremely ambitious to assume that all 1 billion will truly grasp what they’re fighting for. This inherent gap in understanding can lead to systemic problems later on when more difficult struggles for women’s rights may arise. Men might feel that they have enough experience to speak authoritatively on an issue they can never fully grasp, but in reality most likely do not.
Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me recounts eight of her most famous essays, including her own commentaries on the past and present effects of her works. Her concise book provides valuable insight into the nature of gender interactions and adds a respectable voice to the fierce debate about feminism.