Feminist FAQ

“What’s the difference between feminism and believing in equality?”
Feminism is an ideological and activist movement, it is underpinned by years of political, social and economic theory and political organising. By calling yourself a ‘feminist’ you signal that you understand that this word has a political significance, that the world we live is one based on patriarchal systems of oppression that consistently place specific sections of society at risk of violence, scrutiny and explotation. You recognise that there is still work to be done to achieve true equity and justice for women, transfeminine and non-binary people. Feminism is often presented as the simple notion of “believing in equality” but it quite a bit more than that. Of course, you can believe in equality and be a feminist, but feminists fight against injustice when and where they see it. They commit themselves to working towards a liberated future for all through campaigning and activism. This is why the label is necessary.

“But I’m a humanist?”
Feminism recognises that in many ways, women and non-binary people are not viewed as full human beings. They often do not have agency over their own lives and bodies, they do not have legal or social access to the rights every human being should have nor do they have access to self-determination. Feminists conclude that things must be done to change this through social, political, legal, economic and institutional means. A humanist is therefore, necessarily, a feminist.

“Can women be sexist to men?”
From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“There are a variety of interpretations — feminist and otherwise — of what exactly oppression consists in, but the leading idea, is that oppression consists in “an enclosing structure of forces and barriers which tends to the immobilization and reduction of a group or category of people”

This is a good starting point for thinking about sexism. Sexism is a type of structural oppression, which is underpinned by social, political and economic power. Throughout history, power has be concentrated at differing levels in the hands of men (with straight, white, cis able bodied men harnessing the most structural power.) When feminists identify instances of sexism, they are identifying the social, political and economic manifestations of structural oppression which affect women, transfeminine and non-binary people to the greatest extent. They are identifying a system. All individual instances of sexism and oppression eg. speaking over a woman in a lecture, assuming someone’s gender, feed into this system and help perpetuate it.

Prejudice is defined as “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.” Whilst it is possible for women and non-binary people to hold prejudice against men and to manifest that prejudice in individual instances, they do not possess the political, social, economic and institutional power to be sexist.

“BUT, the dictionary says…”
This response by sparky, on their website ‘feminist musings’ dissects why using the dictionary to define concepts like racism or sexism is insufficient.

“If I look up “carrot” in the dictionary, most people will acknowledge I do not know all there is to know about carrots and if I truly want to understand carrots, I should probably pick up a horticultural text book. We know that legal and medical terms are going to be, at best, simplistically represented and know we need to find a lawyer or a doctor if we want to know more. Anyone deciding to base their argument on, say, a philosophical concept or term using the dictionary is going to be laughed at at best, or automatically lose whatever argument they’re trying to make at least.
Yet the minute we move into a social justice framework, the ultimate authority changes. We don’t need lived experience, we don’t need experts who have examined centuries of social disparities and discrimination, we don’t need societal context. We don’t need sociology or history – no, we have THE DICTIONARY! That ultimate tome of oracular insight, the last word on any debate!

It’s patently ridiculous and you can see that by applying it to any other field of knowledge. But the privileged will continually trot out simplistic, twitter-style dictionary definitions as if they are the last word and the ultimate authority. No-one would drag out the dictionary to debate science with a scientist. But they’re more than willing to trot out a dictionary definition of racism or sexism over any sociological analysis. A dictionary is not the ultimate authority – they’re a rough guide for you to discover the simple meaning of words you’ve never heard before – not an ultimate definition of what the word means and all its contexts.

“What are feminists even fighting for? Aren’t men and women equal now? Why do we still need feminism?”
1 in 3 women will be raped or sexual assaulted in their lifetime. 2 women a week are murdered by a partner or former partner in the UK. Across the world, poorest, most exploited and least educated workers are often women. The gender binary and essentialist notions of gender mean that non-binary and gender non-conforming people bear the brunt of gendered violence, their identities are routinely erased by essentialist notions of sex and gender. The government’s two child tax law includes a ‘rape clause’ that states that survivors must detail their assaults in order to gain tax credits for their third child, the law attempts to control the fertility of working class women by encouraging individuals to have fewer children. We do not have free, universal access to abortion across the world. Austerity has slashed benefits for disabled women and non-binary people in the UK, restricting their access to benefits, legal recourse and basic dignity. The bodies of women and non-binary are constantly scrutinised and our insecurities are exploited for profit. In the US, trans women have a life expectancy of less than 50 years old. The gender attainment gap at Cambridge still persists. 77% of Cambridge students have experienced sexual assault. We still have to include an FAQ on our website defending the most basic aspects of feminism.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Envisioning and working towards a feminist future necessitates a fundamental restructuring of the way our society functions. It means reimagining the way we think about work, sex, relationships, the social and political relationships that govern our interpersonal interactions. The list is endless.

“What are feminists so angry about?”
All of the above. Injustice. It is okay to be angry. Anger does not equal irrationality. The idea that it does is, of course, sexist. It is bizarre to expect people to calmly defend their personhood, to calmly explain to their oppressions why they deserve freedom, justice and liberation. Anger can be a productive emotion, it is the difference between those who say the want the world to change and those who do something about it.

black feminist thinker Audre Lorde tells us:
‘For women raised to fear, too often anger threatens annihilation. In the male construct of brute force, we were taught that our lives depended upon the good will of patriarchal power. The anger of others was to be avoided at all costs because there was nothing to be learned from it but pain, a judgment that we had been bad girls, come up lacking, not done what we were supposed to do… But the strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame, but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.’

“Aren’t women’s only spaces sexist in themselves by excluding men?”
In a world where aspects of your personhood are constantly under attack and you are expected to educate those around you – safe spaces exist to build networks, share solidarity and organise away from the gaze of oppressors. They are spaces where individuals come together in order to rant, share tips, provide support and talk about what it means to be a marginalised person and discuss the physical and emotional repercussions of this. They exist in many forms: gay clubs and lesbian bars, groups for survivors of sexual assault and child abuse, political organising meetings. Many of the institutions of great importance to us – Cambridge University, Parliament etc used to be the preserve of wealthy straight white men. They were spaces built on the exclusion of everybody else. They were never spaces built with us in mind. By creating safe spaces, we craft and mould spaces that belong to us and are are intended for our survival and success. Safe spaces can never really be ‘safe’ but they are ‘safer’ than a world that places pressure, stress and violence onto marginalised bodies. The existence of safe spaces does not mean we are incapable of handling debate or open discussion. Oppressed people exist in the world for the majority of their lives. We understand what it means to struggle, hard work and ‘debate.’ Safe spaces are for many, places of healing, recuperation and joy. The existence of safer spaces does not mean feminists do not want help from male allies – allies are needed to infiltrate and change spaces that women and non-binary people do not have access to. This is how we begin to change a culture.

“Can men be feminists?”
A man who is dedicated to unlearning his own gendered behaviour as well as dismantling patriarchy and oppression is committing a feminist action. It is more important to ask as a man, what are you doing to challenge patriarchy? Are you complicit in a system that oppresses other people or are you subverting it wherever possible?

“Can you be a feminist and shave your legs?”
Not every action you commit must be a ‘feminist’ action. Envisioning a feminist future is about more than classing individual acts as “feminist” or “unfeminist.” Removing body hair is, in itself, a neutral action that should be open to all.  But when placed within a patriarchal system, it takes on a new meaning. Feminism is not about personal choice but about looking at wider systems that might influence us to behave in certain ways. For example, Many women of colour and trans women find mainstream feminist discussions about body hair alienating because they do not take into account how whiteness and being cis shapes perceptions of beauty. A hairy white woman can still be considered beautiful but for women of colour and trans women, beauty standards are a lot more complex. For some, body hair can mean the difference between safety and danger. If these women choose to shave, this does not make them a bad feminists. This trend of asking whether individual acts are ‘feminist’ or not is intended to distract us from critiquing wider systems of control. You can shave your legs and still be critical of a beauty industry that positions body hair on women and non-binary people as unnatural and ugly. Your personal choices rarely disqualify you from participating in the goal of a feminist future.

“Why isn’t there a men’s officer?”
The women’s officer was created in 1993 in response to the fact that the university was not taking issues that negatively affected women (such as the gender attainment gap, sexist work cultures/supervisors and sexual violence) seriously. The push for the officer position came from women students who felt that the position was necessary in order to redress structural imbalances in the university. There has never been a push from men for a similar position. There is not a men’s officer because the university has always operated with men* in mind. The university was founded for wealthy men to receive an education. Historically, there were few negative effects for men from studying at Cambridge University. It was an all male space from 1209 until the mid 1800s.

*it is important acknowledge the fact that working class men and black and minority men were not included in the university’s original membership. Cambridge has 5 autonomous liberation campaigns that seek to redress imbalances – The Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign, the LGBT+ Campaign, the Disabled Student’s Campaign and the International Students Campaign and Class Act.

“Why are there still women’s colleges?” (See above)
Women’s colleges exist to address and remedy the structural imbalance caused by this University’s admissions history. Without women’s colleges, there would not be gender parity in the university’s yearly intake of students.

“What is Intersectionality?”
Defined by law professor Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality theory is about recognising how interlocking systems of oppressions manifest themselves in the lives of the individual. Sharon Smith summarises Crenshaw’s theory in the following way: ‘Crenshaw argues that a key aspect of intersectionality lies in its recognition that multiple oppressions are not each suffered separately but rather as a single, synthesized experience.’ You can find an introduction to the concept, here.

“Why does everyone keep telling me to google everything?”
You’d be surprised how much of women and non-binary people’s time is taken up explaining these concepts to men on the internet. Often, a lot of introductory questions that men have can be answered using a quick google search and a serious commitment to wanting to find out more about feminism. You should not expect women and non-binary people to use their own time and energy to explain things that you can find out yourself. It is not the job of the oppressed person to educate their oppressor. Google is a wonderful resource and if you can write a 2000 word essay on a topic you’ve never heard on in a week, you can use Google to find out information that is often readily available to you. If you’ve read something and have questions, there is nothing wrong with asking a friend to talk to you about it, but you are not owed a response.

‘Aren’t you exacerbating the problem by drawing attention to difference?’
Quite simply, no. It can be tempting when we learn about injustice to adopt a “gender blind” or “colour blind” attitude – one that suggests that recognising the meaningful differences between us causes unnecessary division and that we create problems by drawing attention to them. However, these problems have always existed. There is a long and well documented history of oppression and doing nothing will not make it go away. We should not have to erase the differences between us to be treated with dignity and gain access to justice. Oppression on the basis of race, gender, disability, class and sexuality must first be identified in order to be challenged. Requiring those who face the consequences of oppression and injustice to “move on” or not complain is cruel. Silence is complicity.

Alice Walker tells us “no one is your friend who demands your silence.”

What’s a TERF?
TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. TERFS use biological essentialism to maintain the harmful notion that trans women are not women because oppression is sex based. There is a long history of TERFS excluding those assigned male at birth from the feminist movement, advocating violence against them and denying their womanhood.

What is biological essentialism?
‘The belief that ‘human nature’, an individual’s personality, or some specific quality (such as intelligence, creativity, homosexuality, masculinity, femininity, or a male propensity to aggression) is an innate and natural ‘essence’ because of their sex (rather than a product of circumstances, upbringing, and culture). The concept is typically invoked where there is a focus on difference, as where females are seen as essentially different from males.’

From the Oxford Reference

What is a SWERF?
SWERF stands for sex worker exclusionary radical feminist. Feminists who took part in the ‘sex wars’ debate of the 70s and 80s deemed pornography and sex work as tools of patriarchy and shunned women involved in these practices. SWERFs view sex workers as ‘traitors’ to the feminist movement, instead of recognising the complex reasons why individuals enter sex work, viewing sex work as a form of work like any other under capitalism and critiquing the wider system of exploitation in a capitalistic economy. They advocate for the criminalisation of sex worker’s clients through the ‘Nordic Model’ despite the fact that sex workers organisations as well as Amnesty International have consistently stated that sex workers are better protected, safer and less likely to experience sexual violence if sex work is decriminalised.

A talk by Juno Mac on why decriminalisation is the best option for the sex work industry
A paper by academic Alison Phipps explaining the failings of radical feminist opposition to sex work