Reclaiming The F-Word

By: Gavriel Brown  |  January 29, 2013

“I’m not a feminist.”

“So you don’t believe in equal opportunity or equal pay?” I ask. “Oh, but of course I do.”

This trope stings my ear whenever I hear it, and I hear it all too often. In my experience at Yeshiva University, feminism is treated as a pathology and feminists are labeled as liberal fanatics; admit to being a feminist, and you must be a bra-burning, man-hating lesbian or an emasculated weirdo. It is therefore not surprising that a vast majority of women (and men, but that goes without saying) don’t consider themselves feminists and many of the most committed, politically engaged and active student leaders at Stern College shy away from the term. This troubles me.

The stereotyped cliché of radical feminists, reinforced by old-school religious figures and the entertainment industry, vilifies feminists as angry, hateful, irrelevant, illogical, selfish, and uninformed. These straw-(wo)men are caricatures strung together from misconceptions, misrepresentations, and popular opinions, and are often used to construct arguments about the feminist movement as a whole. That many people seem to picture a fictional radical whenever someone uses the f-word points to the widespread damage done by this dogmatic and unfair distortion.

“Feminists are crazy,” I often hear people say. Are there and have there been radical factions within the feminist camp? I have no doubt the answer to that question is yes, but it would be unjust to judge mainstream feminism by those on its ideological edge. Every movement will have radical members that take more than their fair share of the limelight. Radicalism gains more momentum in the media and is far easier to critique in conversation. Angry hordes of feminists burning their bras (which, for the record, never happened) sounds far more exciting than a consciousness raising group discussing gender disparities in the workplace.

In reality, the vast majority of feminists (women and men) simply want to see a landscape that is devoid of sexism, patriarchy, chauvinism, and harassment, and that offers women equal opportunity to participate in the public and private sphere.

Even if there are extremist views within the canon of feminist literature, to dismiss any movement of well informed, sensible, and empowered people by deliberate mischaracterization is immature, imprudent and anti-intellectual.

There are many conceivable reasons for the distrust of feminism. I suspect that underlying the distrust of feminism there is a deeply rooted discomfort with empowered women. Perhaps this stems from a fear that women will assume typically male gender roles in the workforce, and men will have to assume traditional female roles in the home.

Another possible cause of the perceived extremist nature of feminism lies in the public’s unfamiliarity with the socio-economic realities women face and the necessary and appropriate solutions offered by moderate feminism. The inaccurate view of feminism is apparent in everyday discussions of feminism. Ask those who claim that “feminism has gone too far” to give you examples of this radicalization, and they will most likely stumble to provide a meaningful answer or fall back on straw-men arguments.

Because of common misunderstanding of issues and perceived radicalization of the movement, some would like to simply dispense with the word feminism and institute a more neutral term. “Why ‘feminism’? It is infected with so many ill associations,” I hear people say. “Feminists should restart with a new title.” However, cutting off feminism from its important ideological and historical roots not only concedes the argument to those misinformed about the history of feminism, but also disconnects the movement from its essential historical context and its significant achievements. Feminism is not merely a semantic umbrella for those fighting for women’s liberation; it has a proud history of change to which we are all indebted.

The forgotten achievements of feminism and the inaccurate views of its goals have distorted feminism into a sad slurry of misconceptions and averse associations. Today’s mainstream view of feminism has stymied much needed progress nationally and in the Jewish community. The gender wage-gap still exists in full force and women are far underrepresented on the executive levels of corporations and even government. Top executives at Jewish Organizations are much more likely to be male. Women lead only 9 of 76 major Jewish organizations recently surveyed by the Forward. Furthermore, these women earn 62 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

Here at YU, only one of President Joel’s 15 cabinet members is a woman. YU’s Board of Trustees is 80 percent male. The leadership of the Orthodox Union is almost exclusively male, while not one woman serves in a senior leadership position (director) in the leadership of NCSY. While the days of a strung-out gender discrimination case against YU’s Albert Einstein Medical School seem long gone, Education News reports that 75 percent of tenured faculty are men and only 31 percent of tenure-track faculty are women. The androcentric Yeshiva seems too obvious to mention, but it is worth pointing out the vast gender disparities that separate women’s and men’s Torah education is essentially discrimination in disguise. In a culture where textual fluency translates into power, a de jure limitation of women’s access to that currency necessarily limits the abilities of aspiring Jewish women.

At YU, in the United States, and around the world, the project of feminism is not yet over. A “blaming the victim,” and “you asked for it” attitude against victims of rape is still perceived as an appropriate defense in the United States. International advocacy for the basic rights of women around the world is crucial to liberalizing laws that will unfetter women from the legal status of chattel and protect women from the sex-slave trade.

The first step in correcting these disparities requires a recovery of the perception of feminism. We need to recognize the reasons why many people distrust feminism and we must combat this disregard for women’s issues with a pragmatic approach under a rallying cry. Feminism has, and will always mean the striving for female equality and inclusion. It’s time to restore the term to its proper place. It’s time to reclaim the f-word.