Why is it important to call yourself a feminist?

I was asked in a comment on my last post, why it’s important to me that people call themselves feminists.  Isn’t it enough that they believe in equality?  Why must people sign up to my label, especially when I’ve acknowledged that there are problems with the connotations and associations the word “feminist” has.  I realise this post is going to be contentious, and I realise that many people have good reasons to not want to associate with the feminism movement.  But, in spite of all it’s flaws, I do want to stick up for feminism, and I do think people should call themselves a feminist.

The reason I think it’s important that people call themselves feminist, is that avoiding it denies some of the problem.  I heard David Willetts on Radio4’s Today programme, defending his statement that the increase of women in universities had created problems with access for young working class men (read more about his original statement on Caroline Crampton’s post on Liberal Conspiracy).  Willetts was actually defending these comments, maintaining that he wasn’t sexist, he wasn’t against women or even against feminism, but it was a ‘fact’ that young working class men were now the problem.  He even claimed that middle class women had made all the advances they wanted, and that he was all for equality.  And so, he completely dismissed feminist concerns, all in the name of equality.

But any feminist sees that his statement was anti-women.  He didn’t blame middle class men for going to university and taking places away from more deserving working class women.  He didn’t talk about the lack of social mobility available to young people from low-income families.  No, he framed his argument in an anti-women way.  He thereby missed the problem, and so ultimately won’t be able to solve it.

And by the way, if middle class women really had made all the achievements they needed to, perhaps there’d be a few women ministers around the table with you Mr Willetts.

It is important to call yourself a feminist, and important to be a feminist, because it reminds you of the framework.  It reminds those leading thoughts and discussions that women are discriminated against.  If people talk about equality without feminism, it’s too easy to say “but of course women get higher grades than men now” or “male circumcision is more widespread than FGM” or “of course some women want less demanding jobs so that they can focus on their families”.  Feminism frames the discussion.

So if you do believe in equality, you do need to accept the label of feminism.  Work within the movement to make improvements, argue the things you think are wrong, and I’m not asking you to accept everything that all feminists say without question by any means.  But women’s rights have been too hard-won, and are too easily brushed aside for us to give up on the fight now.

Whoever you are, if you believe in women’s equality, please be a feminist.

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