Because today is International Women’s Day, I thought I would begin by providing an overview of feminism – of what it means to me as a Singaporean woman, and also an overview of what I practise. (Yes, this is a 101. Something I said I’d never attempt.)
Bolded words in this text are technical terms that may require additional reading.
What is Feminism?
At its simplest, feminism is about gender equality. However, the requirements to achieve this change by place and time.
Historically, feminism has been about women’s rights, in the first wave oriented about suffrage and in the second wave (women’s liberation) oriented about workplace equality.
Yet this discounts the essentialist construct of a gender binary and fails to acknowledge the construction of feminism in a white/Western setting.
Many feminisms exist, therefore, all of them with the same end-goal, but with varying principles and priorities.
What is Intersectionality?
In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw published a framework describing intersectionality, the idea that those who belong to multiple marginalised communities cannot separate or parse those multiple oppressions. Instead, these oppressions collude and intersect.
For example, I am queer, disabled, and a woman. All three of those are qualities or traits against which there is prejudice. It is not always possible for me to strain those out and to pinpoint an injustice as stemming from one of those traits.
In order to have a clearer understanding of intersectionality, with numerous examples, instances, and elaborations, do refer to Crenshaw’s paper, which is titled ‘Mapping the Margins’.
What is Privilege?
The notion of unpacking privilege was pushed into the spotlight by Peggy Macintosh, who elucidated what she meant by ‘white privilege’. In general, privilege is the opposite of oppression – that is, the social advantages of being born into a group that has traditionally held social power. Hence we speak of male privilege, cisgender privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege, colonial/imperial privilege, &c.
What is Sexism?
Like all other -isms, sexism is constructed of prejudice + power. Using this paradigm, -isms are perpetrated by privileged groups over marginalised or oppressed groups.
What are some concerns of the feminist movement?
The feminist movement is extremely diverse and needs vary depending on a specific community’s discourse and context. However, concerns include access to public office and political representation, equal opportunities in the public and private sphere, a rejection of gender essentialism or complementarianism, and bodily autonomy (including access to reproductive rights such as abortion and contraception access; and freedom from body policing, the latter of which includes fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and victim-blaming).
But some people reject the term feminist!
There are multiple reasons for a rejection of this terminology.
One involves internalised sexism, when feminism is seen as ‘women’s affairs’, an unseemly threat to the status quo, and derided for the same. This is a rejection that, thank you, I reject.
Another reason, to which I do subscribe, comes from the awareness that feminism originates historically and culturally from a white/Western framework, and even more specifically, a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical framework. On these terms, feminism is rejected because it does not take into account the specific needs of other marginalised women (or other-gendered people).
Aren’t men oppressed too?
Men may be discriminated against in certain instances; this is indeed unjust. At the same time, men also enjoy societal privilege, historic power, and contemporary power. It is facile to draw an equivalence between the experiences of people who are male/masculine-gendered and people who aren’t.
In fact another point of feminism, in its dismantling of gender essentialism, is the idea that patriarchy hurts men too by its enforcing of gender roles that, for example, discourage men from seeking needed medical care because it is figured as weak or womanlike.
Why is it called feminism if it’s supposedly about gender equality?
As I have discussed, the term feminism has a historical origin in agitation for women’s rights; it may not be considered fully sufficient, but it has its laudable goals; and it works to correct a societal discrimination that has put women as marginalised and men as oppressors.
Are all men oppressors, then? That’s misandry!
No, not all men are oppressors, but all men will necessarily have male privilege. That does not discount male privilege from intersecting with other forms of oppression. For example, Dan Savage has male privilege and white privilege and queer oppression. It’s not a zero-sum game.
But Dworkin said all sex is rape.
I’m not Andrea Dworkin. The feminist movement is not Andrea Dworkin. The feminist movement is not a monolith, nor is it perfect. (I’ve met with significant discrimination for being SEAsian and disabled, fr’instance, from supposed leaders in the mainstream feminist community. Even if I switch labels, though, that doesn’t negate the objectives of the feminist movement as a whole.) And Dworkin’s arguments require context to parse, which is not the main point of my article here; suffice to say that I can understand the logic behind her reasoning (penetrative phallovaginal sex, to her way of thinking, represents a violent sexuality when considered in light of an entire culture and not an individual consensual act) but need not fully agree or reject it. (See, we aren’t a Borg hivemind!)
Note: Further questions may be entertained in the comments depending on my spoon level. Plain asshattery will be laughed at.