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Feminism: A Dirty Word? Only in the Eyes of a Dirty Society

Why is it that Feminism is a word with negative connotations? If you ask the British public whether they are in favour of equality the vast majority will say yes, they definitely are. They will rightly argue that we fought for it in the past and we pursue it in the present for ourselves and future generations. Now ask them if they are a feminist...

Why is it that Feminism is a word with negative connotations? If you ask the British public whether they are in favour of equality the vast majority will say yes, they definitely are. They will rightly argue that we fought for it in the past and we pursue it in the present for ourselves and future generations. Now ask them if they are a feminist. The answers will suddenly change. It's quite remarkable - and disappointing - but the sad fact is that 'Feminism' as a word has become associated with the idea of women being either above men, worthy of more attention than men, or just straight up anti-men. The question is: why is it being misinterpreted?

A quick Wikipedia search defines Feminism as a range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal; a goal to define, establish, and achieve equality across a spectrum of areas from politics to economics, culture, and social rights for women.

It is in pursuit of these aims that Feminism has gone through three waves of vital change in the past 100 years or more; from pursuing legal rights for women like the right to vote and the right to own property, on to women's rights in the workplace, issues around gender roles, and sexuality, and now it's onto the difficult stage of intersectionality: the understanding that there are different degrees and intensities of oppression and discrimination against women and that each case must be judged independently, and from this that Feminism must be all-inclusive.

Now comes the media criticism, which is where the negative connotations come in. Before I blame media and social media for the stigma that Feminism faces, I would like to point out that scrutiny is important; things can't go unchallenged and unchecked. The problem is that rather than fair critique and an educated counter-argument you get sensationalist articles from national newspapers designed to make money from scaremongering, like the one tweeted below:

Deliberately negative and misleading coverage like this perpetuates stereotypes like the idea that Feminists are wrong to be angry; anger is bad so Feminism is bad. It seems that according to the Mail it doesn't matter what terrible experiences you've had or those you know have had because they find it deeply upsetting that you would vent your outrage and dismay in a less than mild manner. How dare feminists hound Tim Hunt over his 'sexist' remarks!

Sarcasm aside, smearing leads to abuse and harassment, as well as the usual derision against Feminism. The term "feminazi" is thrown around a lot to describe angry feminists with a strong voice (nothing quite like an irrelevant Nazi connotation to taint a word) as well as the phrase "mob mentality" and I've heard both parroted by people who I KNOW are educated and aware of current affairs and the problems in society. This is the scary thing - what the national press says becomes an excuse for others of all backgrounds to lazily repeat and embellish on. People choose not step out from the comfort zone of a pre-written opinion because they're apathetic to problems that don't directly affect them and don't care to engage and enquire for themselves.

The idea of Feminist bullies in the Mail's instance stems from the case of Professor Tim Hunt - a Nobel Peace Prize winner - who was "made to cry" and resign from his honorary post at University College London. For context, this is a highly educated man who said that men and women shouldn't work in the same laboratories because women are a distraction, cry a lot, and can't handle criticism. Fortunately, this article highlights research-based evidence that proves the exact opposite of what Hunt said, and given he cried AND didn't handle the pressure I'd say this one wrapped itself up, but the fact is we got an article about how Feminists are the bad people when Tim Hunt says what he said...

A lot of news outlets, and comments from those in the public eye, called it a gaffe. Yeah, let's not dwell on it - accidents happen! You'd be forgiven for thinking that's a fair reaction to but the problem is a lot of men saying sexist remarks are dismissed as or are excused for some other reason. BBC Sport's John Inverdale used hayfever as an excuse for on-air sexism with regards a female tennis player's looks. This diminishing of the mental capacities of men enables further instances of sexism and discrimination and excuses it all as well, but worse than that it becomes ingrained into society so much so that it's considered the norm; men don't think, they just act. Men do stupid things, it's okay, right? Guess what - it's not okay, as proved by this article by The Independent, which reports findings from Bristol Student Union citing high levels of sexism against women in scientific and technical work/learning environments.

There have been cases of the "mob mentality", which it has rightly pointed out and challenged. I don't approve of abuse and harassment because it's deplorable behaviour and there are instances the collapsing on a person goes too far, but the fierceness of replies from these women derives from experience-related anger and is very often directed at the stupidest of comments, quite a lot of which are bait remarks and then cried about by the "victim". The 'grouping up' is solidarity in the face of adversity; a united force of opposition. In the case of Feminism it says no, we will not tolerate this stupidity or this offence. Women deserve better treatment, more respect, and to not be oppressed. If we have to attain that by kicking up a fuss then so be it.

If you don't already you should follow Twitter pages including Everyday Sexism and He for She, as well as read this article by Roxane Gay in The Guardian - a great explanation of why we should appreciate celebrity endorsement of Feminism but not be distracted by it. Also check out the Twitter hashtag #distractinglysexy for some hilarious responses to Tim Hunt's criticism of women in scientific roles. Finally, take a look at this short but spot on video by feminist and sex educator Laci Green:

Feminism isn't perfect, but neither is our society, the media, or this blog post. Feminism, just like society, is a divided collection of people with differing opinions and varying levels of authority to impart those opinions. The fog of war from clashing feminists, journalists, and those who are neither can be bewildering, but it's ridiculous and unfair to dismiss Feminism's worth or importance just because its complex or you can't be arsed to engage. A patriarchal society damages women by saying they're not important or as capable and it damages men with toxic masculinity pressuring how they should act, look, and aspire, rather than allowing that freedom of choice. As a movement Feminism is in the pursuit of equality for women, but it can achieve it for all. We must support it.