To Be Or Not To Be a Feminist

Hillary Smith

I’m going to talk about feminism.

Of late, I have noticed a trend in the media of some female figures accusing other female figures of not being “feminist enough.” Take, for example, the attacks against first lady Michelle Obama for declaring herself “mom-in-chief.” Women have claimed that this title inherently implies a non-feminist stance-but why? Because it has the word “mom” in it? Because it supplies us with an image of a mother working in her home with her kids, an image we have thrust away from ourselves in disgust? Do we consider being a mom anti-feminist? In her article in Politico Magazine, Kristin Row-Finkbeiner challenges a piece written by Michelle Cottle in the same magazine that claims the first lady is “a feminist nightmare,” in part because she hasn’t really done anything. As Row-Finkbeiner explains, the first lady has in fact taken the helm of pursuing action in important issues, including working to counteract childhood obesity, advocating for healthy eating, and supporting military families and veterans.

Then there’s the spat between singers Lorde and Selena Gomez. Normally I don’t delve into celebrity issues, but in this case it is quite relevant. According to an article on Idolator, Lorde spoke out against Gomez’s song “Come & Get It,” claiming it was anti-feminist because its message essentially perpetuated women as objects that are available for men whenever they want them. Gomez responded by calling Lorde anti-feminist because “it’s not feminism if you’re tearing down another artist.”

So. Here we come to the point where we really need to take a few steps back and look at what feminism actually is.

Here is the Merriam-Webster definition of feminism: “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”; or, “organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests.”

I’m going to focus on the first definition, because we’re not talking about the organized movement, but about people’s personal beliefs. There are a variety of ways to interpret the phrase “equal rights and opportunities.” It could mean what our minds immediately assume in regards to feminism: that women should be engaging in the workforce, in education, in basically everything in the same manner and under the same treatment as their male counterparts. This conjures up the image-at least for me-of the go-getter woman in a snappy business suit, proving to her male colleagues and superiors that she has what it takes to be just as good, if not better, than them.

But what if the phrase “equal rights and opportunities” also applies to desire and personal want, by way of legal and social equality? What if it is also saying that women should have equal opportunities to do what they want with their life, to make their own choices without being restrained by the legal system or by societal norms? This implies that, yes, women should have the right to choose to work and study alongside men, but doesn’t it also imply that a woman has the right to be a mother if she wants to, and even has the right to be a-dare I say it-homemaker?

This brings us back to the first lady. She chose to focus on her identity as a mother-which, by the way, is arguably just as time-consuming and draining as most jobs out there-and she chose to focus on issues that she cares deeply about. Does that not agree with the definition of feminism, as we have analyzed it?

Then we return to Lorde and Gomez. I think Lorde has a point about the objectifying message of Gomez’s song.  However, this message is in the majority of mainstream music.  Gomez’s song is only one small piece of the larger trend of propagating stereotypes, mainly about women. But that’s an article for another day.

I do have somewhat of a problem with Gomez’s defense of herself. I understand what she is saying about how women should not bring each other down, but I’m not convinced that a woman criticizing another woman qualifies as anti-feminism. Obviously, we’re getting into pretty subjective territory, but it seems to me that Lorde is hardly “tearing down” Gomez, merely critiquing the word choice of her song. Even so, does calling out a fellow woman in any way make you anti-feminist? Or does it just make you a little short on courtesy and respectfulness? Because, as we have established, the true nature of feminism is really that a woman has the choice to make her own choices. So theoretically, it would seem that Lorde and Gomez are both practicing feminist principles in that they are freely saying what they feel and choosing to interact with one another in this manner.

I want to end with my thoughts on the necessity of labeling oneself a “feminist.” On one hand, I wonder why a woman would not want to call herself a feminist if feminism means what we have interpreted it to mean.  Generations of women before us have fought extremely difficult battles in order to allow us to choose whether or not to call ourselves feminists. On the flip side, in choosing not to label herself a feminist, a woman is in fact practicing the feminist principle of choosing for oneself. Clearly, one can still act in a feminist manner even if one does not call oneself a feminist. Thus, I do not believe there is one right answer to this question.