What is feminism and why we need it


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Hi! In our second meeting, on April 20th, we addressed the topic of feminism. We think it’s important to discuss feminism in order to dispel myths and misconceptions surrounding it, and to emphasize what it is actually about. We hope to make a case that feminism is something that benefits us all, both within and outside academia.

Feminism is a hugely diverse topic about which much scholarship has been produced. So in order to be concise and accessible, but still provide depth, the guiding literature comes in two “layers”: first, five short and easy blog articles, each takes about 10 minutes to read:


1) What is feminism and why it is for everyone: http://everydayfeminism.com/2012/07/feminism-is-for-everyone/

2) What feminism has evolved into in the 21st century http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/01/feminism-now/

3) What is intersectionality and why feminism must be intersectional: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/why-our-feminism-must-be-intersectional/

4) Why feminism itself is important, and why it doesn’t undermine the struggle for other types of social justice http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/05/why-not-say-everyday-humanism-instead-of-everyday-feminism/

5) Feminism as an intersectional struggle against oppression and inequality https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-feminism-p2-3026083

And for those who want to delve a little bit deeper, you can read these at your own leisure:

  • Hooks, Bell. “Feminism: A movement to end sexist oppression.” Feminist theory: From margin to center. South End Press, 1984.
  • Thompson, Denise. “Defining feminism.” Radical feminism today. Sage, 2001.
  • Delmar, Rosalind. “What is feminism.” Theorizing feminism: Parallel trends in the humanities and social sciences, edited by Anne Herrmann and Abigail J. Stewart, Westview Press, 1994.


  • There is no single one-size-fits-all feminism; feminism is a plural and diverse set of beliefs, ideas, and agendas for action.
  • That being said, feminism has a “core” that is about ending sexist oppression[i], which is oppression that affects women as a group because they are women.
  • But feminism is also about struggling to end all interconnected systems of oppression that affect people based on their gender directly or indirectly, and in the process, ending oppression in general.
  • Feminism is a struggle to end oppression, discrimination, injustice, domination, marginalization and exploitation. It identifies these as the problem.
  • Feminism is intersectional: intersectionality is the recognition that people’s identities are multiple and diverse, and that oppression and injustice may intersect many of these identities at the same time. We can’t separate multiple oppressions because they are experienced together, so our struggle must be towards liberation from these multiple oppressions as well.
  • Feminism recognizes how sexism and patriarchy[ii] also harm men (i.e. by enforcing strict gender roles and stereotypical behavior, and punishing them when they don’t conform), and struggles to liberate them as well.
  • Feminism is about unveiling aspects of our society and culture that many people don’t know about because they are taken as “standard” or “natural”; it’s about problematizing how our language reflects hierarchies and power structures, and deconstructing patterns that undermine equality.
  • Feminism requires that we
    • Self-reflect: reflect on our actions and how we might be perpetuating injustice to others;
    • De-center our perspective: try to take the perspective of others, respect and believe others when they speak of their own experiences;
    • Be willing to make mistakes and learn from them, instead of becoming defensive and reactive when someone calls you out on a specific issue.
  • Feminism is necessary: just because feminism is more specific towards ending sexist patriarchic oppression that disproportionately based on their gender, doesn’t mean that a concern for human rights and social justice is incompatible with feminism. Nor that we can do away with feminism because there are more “general” things out there. All struggles for social justice can and do work better together.

[i] Oppression: a set of structures, practices and barriers that systematically and asymmetrically harm/disadvantage one group to the benefit of another.
It does not mean that individual members of the privileged group all designed and intentionally maintain the structures for their benefit (although some do),  the oppressive structures may be a result of complex historical processes.

[ii] Patriarchy: a social system in which men hold the power and women, as a class, are largely excluded from it and disadvantaged by it.

Meeting minutes

  • How does feminism address issues of those who don’t identify as men or women? Of those who are in the middle? It was brought up that there’s a continuum of gender, and that feminism is especially helpful to those who don’t fit a specific gender stereotype. Feminism is also for gender non-binary people.
  • The “feminazi” straw-man: term was brought up to talk about extremisms in feminism, and the idea of women wanting to be superior than men. The mainstream media misconstrues feminism by both mischaracterizing the arguments of feminists and by giving disproportionate attention to those who present extremist unreasonable arguments under the guise of feminism, thus building a straw-man that is easy to dismiss. Someone pointed out that extremists will always get attention because the media likes to publicize the most polemic things. But it was also discussed that even women demanding equality can be seen as oppression and extremism by a sexist and patriarchal society.
  • Why are men defensive and reactive when they hear about feminism and how to change that?
  • Some men think the “problem” with the word feminism is that it “puts men off”. But some participants pointed out that, whatever word you put in its place, roughly the same kinds of people will have the same kinds of problems with it. The problem isn’t the word, but that some are against its message.
  • How to bring men to be allys? Talk about how sexism harms men, that feminism is good for everyone, and liberates men as well from the injustices of sexism. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that feminism doesn’t need to accommodate or benefit men in order to be a legitimate struggle for ending oppression.
  • It was pointed out how specific measures to counter sexism actually benefit the whole, i.e., when blind peer review gets more science done by women accepted, it also improves science in general, which is of benefit to all.
  • It was pointed out that, due to some progress in social equality, some people think we live in a post feminist society. However, all seemed to agree that there’s still much progress to be made .
  • It was pointed out that in addition to the more conceptual discussions we should also try to make it more “scientific” – pointing out studies that show how people are oppressed and harmed by sexist practices because of their gender.
  • Some people don’t attend these meetings because they think they are not biased, that they don’t have biases – even though everyone has implicit biases, they just don’t know they have implicit biases. Being exposed to this kind of discussions is a good way to get these biases to light, and have people reflect on them.
  • Feminism is not to be conflated with the opinions of women, women can be sexist too. Example: if the reason for a woman being offended by a man not footing the whole bill at a restaurant is because she thinks it’s a man’s role to pay.
  • No matter if someone’s intentions are good, we should always respect, listen, and try to understand the perspective of those who experience something and feel negatively affected by it.
  • Small gestures that may seem innocent (like opening doors) do matter and build up.
  • How to deal with cultural differences? How to tell cultural differences from sexism? Some cultures are more sexist than others. Just because something is cultural doesn’t mean the root is not sexist.
  • It was said that people must be willing to learn about these issues and not take things personally when their behavior is called out. They should be open to listening to the experiences of others and willing to accept them and try to change their own behavior in accordance.
  • Importantly, when pointing out injustices, we should call out behaviors, not attack people’s characters – for that makes them more defensive.
  • People who hold privilege don’t necessarily do things out of malice and don’t consciously perpetuate the oppressive systems, but they should recognize how they are benefited to the detriment of others.
  • What is equality? Hard to give a broad definition, but we can all envision specific situations where we can tell what equality is (and is not).
  • To give people equality, to correct historic wrongs, it’s necessary to enforce some “unequal” measures – i.e. quotas.

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