A reader emailed me recently commenting on something I wrote about feminism and said the following:
Wanting what you and I want doesnt make us feminists, it makes us decent human beings.
He has a point, of course, but I see it a bit differently. Here was my response:
I think the issue is that these things combine when there is a need for them to. As an example, if I were alive during slavery I’d hope I were an abolitionist.
Once could say, “I don’t call myself an abolitionist; that’s just being a decent human being.” But when there’s a war going on it matters which side you take. And the side against slavery is the abolitionist side.
I see the same thing happening with feminism. It’s nowhere near as bad, of course, but it’s the same type of thing. I don’t identify primarily as a feminist—meaning it’s not the central theme in my life—but I do identify as one because that side needs soldiers.
I identify as an atheist in the same way and for the same reason, i.e., to oppose harm being done in the name of the opposite.
If women were treated equally and there were no religion I would be neither a feminist or an atheist, because I wouldn’t need to be.
But that’s not the world we live in.
The shorter answer, I suppose, is that I’m a feminist because feminists are needed. That’s often the origin of “ist” labels—they’re used to raise awareness about, and organize a resistance to, a particular type of oppression.
Those who use the label are—by adopting it—both acknowledging the problem and declaring that they oppose it. And on the whole I think that’s a good thing.
When there’s nothing to be “ist” about anymore I’ll happily stop using designations that are redundant with being a good person.
But it might be a while.
- A commonly raised issue is that feminism and atheism often get saddled down with negative connotations and become more harmful than helpful. This is true, but the great thing about language is that you can use it differently at different times. If the label of feminist would trigger someone and take us down a fruitless or negative path, then I’ll just say the same thing a different way. And if it would help, I’ll use the term. So I don’t think this is as big a problem as many seem to.