Feminism: the new “F word”

Originally published in Emerge Magazine.

There’s a new “f word” and it has more than four letters and doesn’t rhyme with duck.

Feminism.

When I was a kid growing up in the 90s, being interested in feminism wasn’t just cool – it was the norm for girls. Perhaps there was some leftover energy from the punk “riot grrl” movement or maybe it was the influence of the Spice Girls, but every girl I knew, from ages 5 to fifteen, was declaring that girls were just as good as boys and calling herself a feminist. “Girl power” indeed.

A few years later, when I was in my early teens, my aunt, wanting to give me an inspirational book for Christmas and finding Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul a little on the bland side, bought me a copy of Rebel, Rogue, Mischievous Babe: Stories About Being a Powerful Girl. Edited by Sharlene Azam, the book features stories written by teenage girls from across Canada on topics ranging from body image to student jobs to sexuality to diversity. (The Chicken Soup series never ran any stories about growing up as a queer lady or about what it’s like to own your own summer business.)

Thanks to my aunt, Rebel, Rogue, Mischievous Babe became the book I read at night under cover of a sheet, flashlight firmly in hand. Through the stories of young women not much older than I was, I learned what being a strong woman could be like. That a woman could be smart and independent as well as beautiful. That it was okay to want a career and a boyfriend (or girlfriend). That a girl can do anything a boy can do.

And then, somewhere down the line, feminism dropped off my activist radar. I began to identify myself in new ways: as a student, an herbivore, an environmentalist, a supporter of LGBT rights. Feminism felt like an old issue – something my grandmother and aunts had championed in the 60s and 70s. Living in a town of 4,000, then in a college residence, the “take back the night” mantra didn’t resonate with me. I’d always felt safe outside, no matter the hour. The battles to vote, to gain access to the workforce and to education, to control our own bodies – these battles had already been fought, and won, by generations of women who’d come before me. And, while I valued their efforts, I couldn’t fathom the logic behind burning perfectly good undergarments.

My perplexion with the “the f-word” became part of a larger status quo. Suffragettes and birth control activists became the butt of jokes on television while terms like “bitch” and “ho” became popular synonyms for “girl.” (talk about media imagery of women, feminist stereotypes)

By my second year of university, I thought the siege on misogyny was long over. With the ice caps making a dramatic exit, animals eating themselves to death in CAFOs and earthquakes rocking nations into poverty, feminism didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.

Until one of my professors, after having heard me wax eloquent on the evils of factory farming and the dubiousness of California’s Proposition 8, asked if I was a feminist and I almost said “no.” Feminists were stern, man-hating, angry women. The picture I had in my head of a feminist had gone so far astray of my adolescent notions of feminism. With such a distorted perception of feminism, no wonder I was loath to call myself “one of them.”

The opening scenes of CBC’s 2011 documentary The F Word: Who Wants to be a Feminist show streeter clips of young women who, like me, hesitated to declare their allegiance to the pro-womyn camp. In an interview on The Hour with George Strombolopoulos, F Word director Michael McNamara remarked that he found there were “a lot of young women who are reluctant to recognize that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Despite being a man, he’s right. Estimates on how many young Western women consider themselves feminists range from 15 to 30 per cent. To flip this around, at least 70 per cent of young North American women shy away from the feminist label. Are these women all closeted patriarchy enthusiasts?

In my experience, most women believe in gender equality – that women should have the same opportunities as men, should have equal access to jobs and education, should occupy positions of political and economic power and should enjoy the same basic freedoms as men. These are all aims of the feminist movement, and yet the feminist label serves to deter young women.

And yet, despite being popularly denounced by so many young women, there is still a strong feminist movement at work. And the ranks aren’t filled with spinsters and octogenarians – young women are getting on board too. Browse through a magazine shop and titles like Bitch, Ms. and Herizons have staked out shelf space and a dedicated readership.

This past Christmas, instead of buying clothes or DVDs as a gift for my 16 year-old sister, I signed her up for a two-year subscription to Shameless, a Toronto-based feminist magazine for young women. Initially, she grimaced and made fun of the magazine’s cover stories – which included a piece for trans women on how to bind your breasts. Hours later, I found her in her room, magazine spread belly up on her pillow, absorbed by its contents.

The feminist movement still has ground to cover – in Canada, the double X chromosome crowd occupies a mere 21 per cent of the seats in Parliament, an estimated 11 per cent of corporate boardroom seats and earns about 20 per cent less for the same job than their male counterparts. On an international scale, women have a one per cent share of the global economy, yet make up 51 per cent of the population.

Women can’t take on these challenges alone. In an International Women’s Day event I recently attended, Judy Rebick, former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, said “the past 100 years have been about changing women, making them stronger. In the next century, we need to change men.”

In order for feminist goals to be achieved, women – and men – need to reclaim the f word.

In a decade of earthquakes, environmental catastrophes and growing disparity between rich and poor, do we really need feminism? I think we need it more than ever.

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