What is Feminism?

I have been noticing that many women, some are very successful in business, medicine, science, media, and art, are afraid to identify themselves as Feminists. Women today tend to take for granted the current reality and forget that not long ago it was just a dream for many women around the world. I have decided to ask my friend Liora Anat-Shafir to explain more about Feminism and why it is still important for women and men. 

Liora Anat-Shafir holds a bachelor degree in psychology and a master degree in gender studies.  She is a writer, editor, and an independent gender scholar.

What is Feminism?

Feminism is an idea, a movement, a theory.  Throughout history and almost universally, women suffered from oppression and discrimination of rights and status. Feminism emerged from the need of women to correct this unjust situation. Over the years, the Feminist movement has evolved enormously, and nowadays it encompasses many different organizations, schools and directions. As a matter of fact, the differences among the many interpretations of feminism today is so great, that there are even conflicting positions.  

Why so many Feminist interpretations?

The many interpretations of the Feminist idea prove that women are not one unified group, but rather various individuals. It is a welcomed and enriching development. Also, it allows almost any woman to find the feminist direction that speaks to her.

Still, is there any general definition of Feminism?

I would say that the overall idea is that being a woman does not mean living a life of an inferior being. It means that women deserve equal rights and equal opportunities in life.

It sounds like a basic justice, so why so many women today are afraid to define themselves as Feminists?

Indeed it is a paradox, and there are several possible explanations. The first one is related to stereotypes. The term Feminism has been suffering from bad publicity. Feminism is perceived as something that has to do with "ugly angry women with no sense of humor". Another reason is what I call a negative result to a positive thing. Nowadays,
it's hard for women in the Western world to perceive themselves as a victim. We live in an era that puts the individual in the center of attention.  Women celebrate this freedom of mind and body. Women feel that they have the ability to choose to be and do whatever they want. While this is a welcomed reality, there is a false sense that women’s fight for equality is over and solved, and that whoever insists to continue this fight is stuck in the past. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.

How come we still need Feminism, given that we see so many successful women around?

Did humanity solve all racism problems, now that the president of USA is a black man? The same answer applies to feminism. The success stories, though inspiring and encouraging, are not the common life experience of most women. The fact that civilized countries state on their constitutions that there is an equality between the sexes, does not mean that in reality these equal rights apply.  

What Feminism needs to achieve today?

In the past, feminism thrived to achieve very clear goals, like the right to vote, hold property, work, study at universities, and to participate in the public life.  Today, in the Western society, women’s status is much more tricky. On the surface, women enjoy laws that give them equal opportunities. In reality, however, women (as well as men) are not yet free from many social norms and values that determine their gender roles. These determinations can be very restrictive. They route women (and men) to some specific tracks and make them think that there are places that are off limits for them. 

What do you say to those who claim that men and women should have different roles, because obviously men and women are different?

I would say that they are confusing the terms "men" and "women" with the terms  "males" and "females".  Biologically males and females are different, no doubt about that (although much less than we care to believe). Gender, i.e. Women and Men,  is only the contrast that we associate to these differences, a mere interpretation. The social definition of what is the proper role for each gender keeps on changing across time and cultures. We tend to forget this, and think that the current acceptable role of each gender is a “natural” one. 

So Feminism today seeks to make the definitions of "men" and “women” a free personal concept?

At least Feminism as I see it. Feminists like me believe that characteristics of the two genders should not dictate to men and women so many limitations in life. Nevertheless, even if one believes that men and women should have different missions in the world, one has to admit that the current division is not symmetric. Looking at what is associated with each gender, reveals that men are historically associated with the "public sphere". Men enjoy more luxurious features such as 'power', 'money', 'status', 'activity', and 'performance', while women are associated with what we call the "private sphere", and are left with less prestigious features such as 'passivity', 'dependence', and 'weakness', and roles like taking care of children and elderly.  

What prevents people from choosing freely here and now?

What prevents people from doing so, is a system of transparent social norms that constantly conveys what is proper and what is not . A society that rewards those who choose "right" and "punishes" those who choose the unaccepted. A society that makes it unpleasant to be unusual. For example, women who give priority to family life gain many positive reinforcements for staying within the consensus. Many support systems, such as day care, schools, health clinics, and tax benefits, are designed to facilitate this choice and instill a strong sense of belonging. Despite the fact that theoretically a woman can be anything she chooses to be, she will have to deal with many difficulties on her way to achieve a less traditional goal, like putting her career first. She will have to deal with feelings such as loneliness, strangeness, alienation for being in a man’s world, and guilty conscience for neglecting her duties as a woman. She might also feel less feminine. Many women are not aware that they avoid certain paths in life, to avoid dealing with the hardship that comes with it. They think and believe that they made a free choice. 

Is there a choice at all?

I believe there is a certain degree of choice for individuals, as long as they learn to be aware of social influences. This means going through a preliminary phase of disillusionment and identification of external cultural influences. In this phase nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is perceived as the existing order of "nature", but rather as a human-made reality. It requires shattering old assumptions, slaughtering sacred cows, asking questions and raising doubts.  It is not easy or fun, but whoever takes this step will come out with much more real, honest and powerful choices. Afterwards, even if a woman still finds herself choosing the more traditional feminine path, she will do so from a more conscious place.  It is a complete different kind of a choice. 

What can men gain from this approach?

Today more men understand that both genders need to cooperate to improve life for all. Many men, for example, realize that they lose a lot by not being involved in family life. Throughout history, men paid high price for living the masculine stereotypical role of strength and power. The stress to achieve more and more, especially in a capitalistic society, has taken its toll on men.  Suicide rates of men are higher. Men are more involved with death related to violence and wars. Just like not all women are the same, not all men can fit into the traditional masculine model. The ability to be more sensitive and more “domestic” allows many men the freedom to express themselves. Men have also been victims of the traditional social asymmetry. 

To sum it all up, what should be the focus arenas for a Feminist change?

Since the presence of gender is everywhere - the change should occur everywhere. There are a few specific fields that I would like to mention. Sexuality, for example. A lot has to be changed in order to create a more healthy model of female sexuality, which is not based on shame or fear. The widespread availability of pornography on the internet does not help, not to mention it takes us back. We have a whole generation of teenagers learning that sex equals humiliating women, and that women like it this way. This is a twisted message that crawls into the minds and poisons the perception.  
We also see cultural regression with beauty and body image: an impossible standard of youth worshiping that makes invasive methods and life-threatening surgeries a daily routine. This is a serious problem that brings women to abuse their body, as if life-long diet is not enough.
In family life, although women today take part in the public sphere, society still does not offer solutions to the situation of many women at home. The family and parental responsibility fall primarily on women’s shoulders. Women are in an intermediate state where they do both roles and collapse under demands and exhaustion. 

How do you see the future?

I believe that cooperation between men and women is the next step.  Right now it is in its early stages. In the process, each gender will learn to find in herself/himself qualities of the other gender. There will be a social permission for each gender to adopt and express the other gender’s characteristics. At the same time, each gender will understand that he/she must give up on something. Women will need to give up on the automatic control they have at home and in their family. Men will realize that they must give up on the exclusive presence at the top of the pyramid. My vision is to achieve gender harmony by shifting forces until we receive a balanced symmetry.