Editor's note: This feature was co-authored by Cortney O'Brien and Sarah Jean Seman.
Beyoncé is a Billboard-topping, Grammy-winning singer and actress, but did you know she’s also a feminist icon? When Bey (as her fans affectionately call her) performed at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, she did so while performing a suggestive routine (half naked dancers and all) in front of an emblazoned “Feminist” marquee. The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister called it “slick, exhilarating beauty,”—the feminist moment she’s been waiting for. But what’s behind those glittering light bulbs? What, exactly, does the word “feminism” mean these days?
A War of Words
Gail Sheehy, author, journalist, and a close friend/former colleague of social activist and feminist Gloria Steinem, told Townhall that the term ‘feminism’ has altered greatly since the 1960s, when women were fighting to be in the workplace with men, and to cast off the role of the submissive stay-at-home mom. It was about banding together, Sheehy explained.
But today, the word “feminist” has been so overused by Hollywood loudmouths and women with personal agendas that TIME magazine even suggested it be banned altogether in 2015.
To Beyoncé, the feminist movement is apparently about fighting against unequal pay. A few months before her VMA performance, for example, she penned an op-ed for The Shriver Report subtly titled “Gender Equality is a Myth!” arguing, in part, that unequal pay equals unequal respect.
Similarly, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt produced a video explaining why he’s a feminist, pointing to the “definite disparity” of salaries among men and women. The popular “fact” being, of course, that women make only 77 cents of every dollar a man makes.
Offended activists have even taken part in protests and demanded legislation to narrow this supposed pay gap.
Modern feminism is also a mentality that is obsessed with sexual liberation. It’s plastered on the pages of women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan and espoused on television shows like “Girls” and “Orange is the New Black.”
But sex is not enough. Today’s feminists also want free birth control and abortion-on-demand.
At the National Organization for Women’s convention last year, these extremist beliefs attached to feminism were on full display.
“I think young women who come from a pro-life generation would be very embarrassed to be there, to see the kinds of things they were promoting,” said Townhall News Editor Katie Pavlich, who attended the convention. “You walk in and at the first table, in highlighter construction orange, ‘Abortion On Demand’ at any time, with no apology. There’s no middle ground.”
And then there’s groups like Lady Parts Justice, which prides itself on promoting abortion rights, exploring one’s sexuality and talking about their vaginas. Last year, the group held a live online telethon for abortion in Texas, which featured vagina costumes on stage, and hours of inappropriate gestures and vulgar language.
Even more degrading is that these women claim to represent all women, and turn hypocritical when others dare to disagree.
Actress Kirsten Dunst, for instance, committed the grievous sin of distancing herself from the word and its current meaning.
“I feel like the feminine has been a little undervalued,” Dunst told Harper’s Bazaar about traditional gender roles. “We all have to get our own jobs and make our own money, but staying at home, nurturing, being the mother, cooking—it's a valuable thing my mum created. And sometimes, you need your knight in shining armor. I'm sorry. You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman. That's why relationships work.”
Her honest answer set off firestorms of criticism on social media as the actress was attacked as “insufferable,” “dumb,” and worse by women claiming to be true feminists.
The good news, however, is that there seems to be a new, more welcoming feminist wave on the horizon, the likes of which has not surfaced since the 1920s, when the right to vote was the ultimate goal. With new causes anyone could support—men included—will the negative connotation surrounding the movement soon vanish?
Modern Feminism Challenged
Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and possible 2016 presidential candidate, rejects the idea that all women must conform to these radical feminist ideals.
“Our opinions are as diverse as men’s,” she told Townhall. “We care about every issue and our talents and our gifts are as diverse as men’s. So why would we assume that all women think alike, or that all women should chart the same course, or that all women should agree with each other? It’s insulting.”
Economist and author Diana Furchtgott-Roth has also taken another one of modern feminists’ wrongheaded passions to task: equal pay.
In her book, “Women's Figures: An Illustrated Guide to the Economics of Women in America,” Furchtgott-Roth points to several factors that explain the seeming disparity. Men, for instance, typically choose more dangerous jobs than women, such as construction work, and women tend to major in subjects like English as opposed to math or science, the latter of which offer higher salaries.
The 77 percent statistic, then, is nothing more than a manufactured claim.
Not All Feminists Are Man-Haters, Either
In their fight for “women’s rights” (free birth control and abortion on demand) Hollywood stars like Lena Dunham and Scarlett Johansson also tend to do so while painting men as enemies, but they’re certainly not representative of all women.
“I don’t see people who are hating men as feminists,” Jessica Grounds, co-founder and former executive director of Running Start, an organization that encourages and helps high school girls set their sights on a political office, told Townhall.
“I think it is very important to the women’s movement in general to recognize that this is not about being anti-men by any means, this is about creating a society in which it respects women in the same way it does men.”
British starlet Emma Watson, loved for her role as know-it-all Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, similarly showed her concern for broader gender inequality issues while speaking at the United Nations Headquarters last September.
“The more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” Watson stated, “If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.”
Watson was appointed the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador last year, and championed the promotion of unity, instead of division, on the topic of gender equality. Her efforts gained her the title “Feminist Celebrity of the Year.”
“My life is a sheer privilege because my parents didn’t love me less because I was born a daughter,” Watson said.
This is more than many females around the globe can boast. Women deserve equal respect, opportunity, pay, and influence as men. And as Watson noted, the result is freeing for both men and women:
“If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.
“Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong … It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals.”
Differences Are OK
It is perfectly acceptable, and indeed necessary, to recognize that men and women play different roles in society. What feminists must fight for is the acknowledgement of their equal value and importance.
“In the early feminist movement there was a tremendous emphasis on ‘time to persuade the world that women were no different from men,’’ Sheehy explained. “Well that’s patently absurd. We have the greatest magic capacity in humanity: to give life. And to deny that, and to deny the particular advantages and needs that that entails, is foolish.”
Due to their unique programming, women and men also differ in how they approach leadership style, Grounds noted. Women tend to be more collaborative; more likely to work across party lines, and are even more comprehensive when they approach issues. Neither is wrong, she insisted, they are just different, and jointly they make the best decisions.
“Some of the biggest feminists in my life are men,” Grounds said, “and they recognize the lack of appreciation and respect for women in society and they know it’s important to fight for that.”
Feminism Going Forward
So how can we, as true feminists seeking to gain respect, equality, and justice, shake the stereotype of a misandrist, and show compassion and strength for more important causes?
Here are a few ideas:
Loosen the hard lines on gender roles. In an evolving society, a stay-at-home dad should not be viewed as any less valuable than a stay-at-home mom. Feminists today should advocate for not just paid maternity leave, but for paid paternity leave, where both parents have the opportunity to be a part of their child’s early days.
“Studies have shown that men who stay at home for more than a couple weeks with their infant children bond with those babies and remain more committed to them for the rest of their lives,” Sheehy noted, “and that also helps to take the pressure off women to be the primary, or often sole, caregiver of children.”
Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Italy offer time off to both parents.
The idea isn’t so progressive as it might sound. After all, aren’t studies always pointing to the fact that children with father figures are more likely to attain a better education, stay out of trouble, and have an overall economic boost?
It’s equally important for feminists to stop allowing themselves to be stereotyped.
“I think the real definition of feminism is that a woman, any woman, can live the life she chooses and believe the things that she wants,” Fiorina said. “So, if a woman chooses to stay home and homeschool her children, she’s every bit as much a feminist, as a woman who decides to go off and be a CEO – as long as it’s her choice.”
Rather than creating division, feminists in 2015 ought to create unity for equality in the home, workplace, and across the globe.
Grounds believes this next great step can be made through creating a sisterhood:
“Because that’s how guys have really gotten to be successful, they have an old boys club, where there are other guys looking out for them, and I think we need to do that for each other as women.”
Let’s reject the self-absorbed notion that sexual promiscuity creates equality. If women only see themselves as sexual objects, why shouldn’t men as well?
Let’s also reject the double standards we’ve embraced for so long. Stop referring to men as ‘studs’ when they sleep around while demoting women to ‘sluts’ for similar behavior.
A Unifying Feminism—Can it Be Achieved?
One surefire definition of feminism may be hard to come by, but hopefully one day we'll all agree that its goal is to be supportive, regardless of one's career choices or, more importantly, one's gender.
“Women are half the potential of the world,” Fiorina asserted. “Women are half the potential of this nation. Women also represent some of the most underutilized potential, in business, in politics; they’re among the most subjugated people on the planet, around the world. So I think the rallying cry should be that we need the potential of every man and every woman and every child to be unlocked—and that’s in all of our interests.”
Graphics by Townhall Graphic Designer Feven Amenu.