There has been a lot of confusion about why feminism is not egalitarianism or humanism, or just “equality,” plain and simple. Many argue that if feminism strives for equality, why is it called “feminism” with “fem” at its root?
It’s one of the main arguments that a lot of anti-feminists use to try to discredit feminists and shut feminism down.
So in this post, I’m going to try and explain it as best I can.
The word feminism was coined in the late 1800s by Frenchman Charles Fourier.
It was used to refer to the women’s rights movement of the time.
Beyond this, the history of the word is questionable, but most agree that “femme” inspired the French “feminisme” — the original word that Fourier coined. And femme does indeed mean woman, in French.
So yes, the “fem” in feminism does refer to women, and for good reason. When feminism was just beginning to gain traction, it was about women’s equal political and legal rights, not men’s. Men already had the rights that women sought.
Since women have apparently achieved legal equality, lots of people argue that feminism as a movement about women is no longer relevant. It should now just become humanism or egalitarianism.
Egalitarianism is the belief that all people are equal, and should be equal.
And since egalitarianism is about human equality and equal entitlement to resources, and humanism addresses problems that human people face — like equality and human rights — humanism and egalitarianism are related.
Let’s clarify this.
As I understand it, humanism is the belief that humans are good, and that problems can be solved with reason instead of supernatural or religious means.
To quote the “What is humanism?” page of the American Humanist Organization,
Humanist ethics is solely concerned with meeting human needs and answering human problems-for both the individual and society-and devotes no attention to the satisfaction of the desires of supposed theological entities.
Based on that, I think my understanding is correct.
Humanism is also focused on social issues like human rights and civil liberties — which includes women’s rights, since women are human.
As Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency puts it:
Mary Wollstonecraft … [a feminist writer] in the late 1700s, argued that if to reason was to be human, and if women could reason, then women were human. And since all humans have the capability to improve, then holding women back based on arbitrary cultural or religious traditions was fundamentally unjust.
So if women are human, and humanism is about human rights, then women’s rights are important in humanism, because feminism is about ending sexist oppression, gaining rights that all humans should have, and thus achieving equality — which also fulfils egalitarianism.
So it seems that feminism, egalitarianism, and humanism go hand in hand.
Anita goes further to argue that feminism and humanism not only go hand in hand, but “in fact being a humanist necessitates also being a feminist.”
I mean, how can you say you’re a humanist — which by definition means that you not only believe people can be good without need of religion, but that you believe in solving the problems that face humans — and then say that you are not a feminist?
Let’s ignore the fact that feminism isn’t just about women in the first place: if feminism were still only about women, what would be the issue there?
Do women not qualify for the equality that all humans deserve?
Of course they do.
The problem is that many who claim to be humanists and egalitarians believe equality has already been achieved.
Sure, at least in the United States and Canada, women have gained most of the legal rights that they have worked towards.
But we are far from finished.
Despite the legal right to vote, there are plenty of other ways in which women are very far from equal in our society.
Women are also oversexualized much more than men — especially women of colour.
And then they are shamed for being sexualized.
I won’t get into all the stats again here — you can read my post here where I’ve already done that.
Instead, I would like to point out that women’s legal right to vote is not the only way that women should be equal.
Egalitarians and humanists argue that we should ignore the gendered issues of today in favour of equality, because they’ve already achieved equality.
But it’s not just in the eyes of the law that women need to be treated equally.
It’s in our society as a whole.
To argue that feminism should move over in favour of “equalism,” is to argue that the issues of gender don’t matter.
Anita Sarkeesian made another great point: being blind to gender is to being “colour blind.”
Being blind to race ignores the problems that people of colour face, or “the consequences of being the wrong race in America,” as civil activist Julian Bond says, and as Sarkeesian quotes.
In the same way, being blind to gender ignores the problems that people of different genders face. (And that does include men!)
Feminism chooses not to be blind to the consequences of being a woman, because being a woman is not the same as being a man.
So no, humanism and egalitarianism are not the same as feminism.
But both inherently support feminism.
Gender inequality exists, and feminism, though it strives for equality as well, focuses on fighting that form of inequality.
And since humanism is about human rights, and egalitarianism is about equality, well… feminism is part of both.
If you identify as either humanist or egalitarian, you should identify as feminist as well.
Feminism is about fighting for equal rights for all genders, and recognizing that many genders don’t share the privileges that cis-gendered men do.
Yes, it all began with women’s rights.
But it doesn’t have to end that way.
How do you feel about the label “ feminism”? Let me know in a comment below!
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