There is a common misconception that to identify as a feminist you must abandon certain parts of yourself that contradict the stereotypical image of being a feminist. Just the other day I came across a magazine article titled “Can Feminist Wear Makeup?” Focusing on how a feminist should look undermines the thoughts, actions, and most importantly, the histories of feminism. The modern feminist movement as we know it, began in the 1960’s with the struggle to bring women’s rights (including reproductive rights, fair and equitable wages, divorce and child custody laws, etc.) to the forefront of our society and break the cycle of oppression.
Understanding the meaning of Feminism
So what is Feminism? Feminism cannot be described with just one definition – it does not fit neatly into a box – rather by examining the goals of the movement, we can come to an understanding of what it encapsulates. Author and activist bell hooks best summarizes the goals of the movement by stating, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” This statement provides us with an understanding of the diversity of the movement and its actors. Furthermore, this statement rejects the idea of a singular (pre-conceived) notion of what feminism is and who feminists are.
Unfortunately, the idea bell hooks presents of feminist and the movement is rarely acknowledged in the mainstream of our society. Instead we see feminist as women who hate men; only women are feminist; and that feminist are all the same. Thus, the need for articles to delve into whether women can wear make-up and still be considered feminists.
Feminists are diverse; they may share different views, experiences, passions and different ways of expressing feminism. That’s the beauty of feminism! Yet the central tenet of feminism (a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression) is the unifying element. We don’t have to adopt the identity some of the leading feminist to advocate for equality. The oppression of women at a macro and micro level affects us all and its effects ripple down to the wellbeing of families.
I encourage anyone who may be stuck on all the negative labels of feminism or who reject feminism simply because they do not understand it, to read bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everyone.
Mental Health and Feminism
Feminism and mental health have a reciprocal relationship. Feminism creates a pathway for maintaining positive mental health influenced by environmental factors. This may not be a solution to ending mental illness caused by genetic dispositions, but it is an attempt to bring awareness to the issue of sexism, and an attempt to end sexual exploitation. Mental health also plays a huge role in the development of feminism. When people are empowered to make change they adopt a state of action brought upon by awareness and self-healing. When women are oppressed they lose their voice, self worth, and are more at risk for violence against them. This includes dating violence, sexual assault, workforce violence, and domestic violence – it also puts children at risk for child abuse.
Many times these negative messages have a direct impact on developing mental health issues such as Anxiety, Depression, Eating Disorders, and other self-esteem issues. When we become aware of the negative messages in popular culture that exploit and skew our self-image, we free ourselves of meeting unrealistic expectations.
Self-reflection: understanding feminism
Bell Hooks uses the term “working in the home” and “working out of the home,” which I prefer to use. The term stay at home mom/dad does not do justice to the many roles and many different hats (educators, entertainer, handyperson, accountant, cook, nurse, and psychologist just to name a few) one has to take on. I came to a deeper understanding of my identity as a feminist when I decided to work in the home for a couple of years.
I decided to work within the home because I had a choice. I knew that choosing to work within the home would mean I was giving up some things (financial independence) and pausing others (my career trajectory). But I also knew that I wanted to be there for the early milestones, to shape my children’s early development and to teach them as much as I could before they were taught what is important to the dominant culture. I also had the support from my husband one of the biggest feminists I know (a male aware of his privilege that through awareness and education broke away from traditional Latino, male role).
In a just world there would be systems in place where parents could make this decision without the entire financial burden falling on one individual. In a just world, parents could choose to stay with their babies at the most crucial time of their development longer than the 6 weeks, which is normally offered to some families with family leave policies. Equally as important, parents would be able to choose to return to work outside the home and not need to spend thousands of dollars on childcare.
So by choosing to work in the home, I took on a position of perceived less power. Being in this position, however, I understood from first hand experiences what it meant for a male and female to be working together for the same goal with mutual respect, love and equal value despite our financial contributions. Although our gender roles shifted becoming more traditional male female roles it was a natural shift that we came to accept, but also showing our children any chance we got that mom and dad could also share each other’s responsibilities not being restricted by rigid roles and expectations.
There is a lot you can do to continue or become a part of the feminist movement
There have been many accomplishments made by the feminist movement, but it is important to recognize that struggle is not over. Women today continue to be marginalized, exploited, and oppressed, particularly women of color, lesbian and disabled women. Women continue to be paid less (and in some cases significantly lower) than men employed in the same positions. We continue to see legislation (both proposed and passed/adopted) at all levels of government dictating how women should regulate their bodies. And women continue to be exploited (i.e. the sex trade) and oppressed (demonstrated by the violence against women).
One can advocate for women’s rights in any role and in the many hats they wear throughout the day. For a start, assess the power roles within your household; what are your responsibilities and expectations? What value is placed on the roles? Are they traditional or non-traditional roles? Have an open dialogue with family members about stereotypes, injustices and conversations supporting equality amongst women. Make social conscious choices on everyday products we consume. Teach children respect for others amongst all ages, gender, religious background, sexual preference and ethnicities.
hooks, bell, (2000). Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate politics. Retrieved from https://excoradfeminisms.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/bell_hooks-feminism_is_for_everybody.pdf
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