The tiresome task of explaining feminism



6th April 2017

Words by Kate Noble-Judge

As many of us can attest, when it comes to the word “feminism”, a widespread misapprehension of that word’s meaning persists - no matter how many times it’s patiently explained. Identify as such in conversation, and you will often find yourself detailing over and over why this doesn’t mean you hate men.

So why are we still explaining that feminism does not mean man-hating? English actually has a special purpose built word for that: misandry, and the two words even have informatively distinct etymologies. Misandry has a strong family resemblance to its fellow hate-y words: misogyny and misanthropy. Feminism, by contrast, looks like its cousin feminine: because it originally just meant having female qualities or being in a feminine state. So much so that it did a stint as a biological term, meaning the development of female secondary characteristics. Not until the late 1800s did it gain its specific meaning as being about the advancement of women’s rights. 

From a semantic perspective this is an entirely natural and predictable evolution: within the conceptual domain of “female and feminine stuff” would be a related semantic field of “valuing female and feminine stuff” and not being cool with the oppression and devaluing of female and feminine stuff, so it is really no great stretch for the lexical item to change its day job a bit. The idea that feminism would naturally also come to mean “man-hating” is less clear, not least because that work was already being done by the word “misandry” and the marvellous, if fleeting, noun phrase “man-hattress”, which I feel evokes a sort of specifically misandrist style of millinery. In short, “Man hating” and “being feminine” are two distinct semantic fields, with two distinct lexical items. However, it is clear that this ongoing semantic misunderstanding goes way beyond a failure to consult dictionary entries. 

Words don’t have meaning in isolation. In the patriarchal-capitalist system in which we all live, empowerment is often perceived as a zero-sum game. In this system white masculine empowerment often depends upon the disempowerment of women, people of colour, religious minorities etc. Thus in the semantic system the empowerment of women is in the same conceptual domain as hating and threatening men, and so feminism and misandry are synonymous. Relatedly, this system also informs the clearly illogical responses to movements that advocate against the violence and discrimination experienced by women and people of colour. The “not all men” and “all lives matter” chants are semantically remarkable for their extraordinary misuse of the logic of quantifiers and set theory. Put simply, pointing out that many perpetrators of violence against women are men is a completely different proposition to claiming all men are violent aggressors (seriously guys, a quick Venn diagram would explain this in a jiffy—and who doesn’t love a good Venn diagram?). 

"The “not all men” and “all lives matter” chants are semantically remarkable for their extraordinary misuse of the logic of quantifiers and set theory."

With that, just as dictionary entries don’t explain the assumed equivalence of feminism and misandry, lectures in predicate calculus and set theory won’t rectify these mistakes because the same zero sum assumptions underlie their use. Demanding accountability for the consequences of entrenched white male privilege is a threat to that privilege, and by extension, to male empowerment so construed. So the answer to these issues is to engage with the underlying assumptions about how empowerment is understood. By advocating for the empowerment of women, feminism advocates for a different social, cultural and economic system such that empowerment is not zero sum. Intersectionality, a term coined in the late 80s by legal academic and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, is thus crucial as an acknowledgement of how the complex intersections of gender, sexuality, class, race, religion, etc. affect how people experience systemic discrimination and disempowerment. In this view, empowerment is crucially not reliant on the suppression of others, but enriches, and is enriched, by being equally shared. It’s really all quite nice and civilized in theory, and actually seeks to liberate men from the unhealthy restraints of gender expectations just as much as women. So why are people so afraid of the big bad feminist wolf? 

"It’s really all quite nice and civilized in theory, and actually seeks to liberate men from the unhealthy restraints of gender expectations just as much as women. So why are people so afraid of the big bad feminist wolf?"

Fear is a complicated subject. Studies have shown that when it comes to how different groups of people perceive and assess risk, men, on average, perceive lower risk to themselves from things like environmental and technological hazards than women do. Stereotype would say that this is because men are just naturally less risk averse than women. However, the picture is rather more complicated (we rarely consider, for example, how inured to the substantial physical, emotional and financial risks involved in giving birth many women are). Women aren’t really more risk averse, they simply calculate different social, physical and emotional costs compared to men because they experience these costs differently. Moreover, gender is not the only significant divide: white men form their own special category, and within this category, a particular wealthy and politically conservative subset outpaces everyone in terms of their generally cavalier perception of risk. 

Given that white men, especially wealthy ones, generally control and benefit from their socio-cultural environment more than women and non-white men, it is surely no surprise that they perceive less risk in that environment. We all characterize risks and threats in line with our pre-existing attitudes and our experiences. If we like something, from organic cheese, to fossil fuels, to social movements, we downplay the risks— if we don’t like it, we do the opposite. So if we like an existing status quo (because it has benefited us and continually reaffirms our sense of comfortable superiority) then we will likewise overplay the risks involved in challenging it. So just as asking people to say “happy holidays” becomes a “war on Christmas”, or requesting basic politeness is an “attack on free speech”, likewise feminism is conceptualised as an assault on the rights and dignity of men. In short, wealthy white men might need not be frightened of poverty, sexual predators or police violence, but changing the system does frighten them considerably more than it does everyone else. The difference is, while fears that women or minorities might have about their environment not being especially supportive or rewarding are borne out by reality, white male fear that a more just and equal society would ruin their lives is simply paranoid delusion.  

And yet, because wealthy conservative men tend to monopolise the largest and most powerful megaphones in our public discourse, these irrational fears are given more space and weight than the perfectly rational fears and genuine concerns of women and minorities. Much like bewildered scientists wondering why on earth they have to “debate” global warming with irrational denialists, a blunt and ineffective notion of “balance” means that too often discussions of women’s rights are forced to spend precious time and resources debating and attempting to conciliate MRA conspiracy theorists who refuse to acknowledge reality. I say it’s time they invest in a good dictionary and sit outside until they’ve done their homework and got their ‘hysteria’ under control. After all, we feminists have important work to do and we simply don’t have time for any more heavy lifting, particularly on the basic stuff.  

Laura La Rosa