The latest required reading for sophomores in Sweden is outside the norm—every student in the country has just received a copy of We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Nglozi Adichie. The book is adapted from Adichie’s TEDx talk by the same title—which also has a cameo in Beyoncé’s song “Flawless”—and paints a picture via personal essay of what modern womanhood looks like, and why feminism is important. Copies of the book were donated to schools all over country by the Swedish Women’s Lobby, The U.N Association, Trade Union Confederation and book publisher in a move that inspiring a flurry of press admiring the decision.
It feels strange to read that praise, to read compliments directed towards a country in 2016 for acknowledging the need for gender equality, but what is perhaps stranger—and unsettling—is, when you look closely, how desperately needed that acknowledgement is, and how undereducated so many people are about feminism.
Feminist, in its most basic definition, is the belief that men and women deserve equal rights and opportunities. Yet recently Emma Watson, who made waves for modern perceptions of feminism during her HeForShe speech at the United Nations in September of 2014, recently spoke up about how she was encouraged not to even use the word “feminism.” She was told by her advisors it was “alienating” and “separating,” and that if she wanted to reach as large of an audience as possible, it was better to leave it out.
While this feels like an unfathomable suggestion—especially given that Watson’s speech was largely dedicated to defeating the misinterpretation that feminism is polarizing in the first place—many people hesitate to identify themselves as feminists, especially women in the spotlight like Watson. Kelly Clarkson, Demi Moore, Madonna, and Katy Perry—seemingly powerful, self-assured women—have all skirted the label because they “love men” or consider themselves “humanists.”
Their defenses exemplify Watson’s observation that “women’s rights [have] too often become synonymous with man-hating”—and there are millions more examples where that came from. Too many women and men confuse feminism with a belief in female superiority–just check out any Reddit board on the subject, this thought catalogue article. Despite knowing that so many people have the wrong end of the stick when it comes to their definition of feminism—and the fact that I write about it basically weekly–I myself even feel a bit self-conscious about being so brazenly feminist from time to time, in my life and in my writing, as if I can palpably feel the eye rolls being sent over the internet in my direction. So how can we fix these misconceptions?
First, perhaps, by acknowledging that the word can be confusing. To give Kelly Clarkson & Co credit, not only has the shape of feminism changed over the years—we’re on the third wave—feminism is currently a very complex movement with different offshoots, and many feminists are working to make sure the term is inclusive. Recently there’s been a big call for what’s named “intersection feminism”—the idea that typical feminism often means straight, white feminism, and that it’s important to expand our views beyond this and acknowledge that feminism interacts with and is inextricably woven into race, class, ability and sexual orientation.
Safe to say, the word is evolving—and that can be daunting. But rather than shy away from it, we should strive to understand what feminism means for us all, and how we can further the base line definition threading the whole thing together—equality. Educating students about the complexity and necessity of feminism seems like the perfect start, as does simply being open and honest about our relationship to the F Word. Call yourself a feminist, and if someone objects, figure out what it means to them, where you may agree or disagree, and how you can both change and educate yourselves on the meaning of the word together.