What Is Feminism, And Why Do So Many Women And Men Hate It?

Part Of The New Series “Building A World That Works For All”

Photo: iStockIn my work in the media, as a therapist and coach, a former corporate Vice President, and one who regularly covers issues about gender equality, leadership, social change, etc., I’ve received thousands of comments from people around the world. They openly share their vast array of beliefs and opinions about gender equality, women and men in life and business, and feminism.

In honor of International Women’s Day today and its theme #BeBoldForChange, I’d like to share my personal take on what feminism signifies at its core, and why so many men and women in our world still hate and resist it fiercely.

For more on this issue, check out my Facebook Live video that shares my candid views:

In exploring the latest data from around the world on gender equality, and if we read any news at all or engage in social media activity, the following is abundantly clear – there is tremendous dissent and vehement disagreement today among people around the world about the status and importance of equality.

I’ve seen this:

• There are millions of people who both inwardly and outwardly do not support the idea that there should be equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women

• There are thousands of people who feel we’ve already arrived at equality for men and women.

• There are also thousands of people who believe we’re not at all there yet, and support continuing efforts to pave the way for equal rights for men and women.

•  with their personal beliefs or values

• It’s abundantly clear that our specific views on these issues are rooted deeply in our own personal and direct experiences, rather than on any data, research or science surrounding the issues. (In other words, But if we haven’t faced it ourselves, we often doubt that it happens.)

• Finally, both conscious and unconscious gender bias is rampant within us, but most us aren’t aware of it

So, what would be helpful in this dialogue, or in this situation we find ourselves in today where there is a great divide among men and women, and among the people of our country who see things dramatically differently from each other?

First, let’s understand what feminism is meant to be.

If you look up the definition of “Feminism” in the dictionary, you’ll see these statements:

Feminism is:

1. The advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes

2. The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes

3. The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities

4. The doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men

Feminism at its core is about equality of men and women, not “sameness.” So many people offer up the argument that women are not the “same” as men so there can’t be equality. In other words, because their bodies are different (many say “weaker” and smaller), and because men and women have different physical capabilities, these physical differences mean equality is not possible.

Here’s an example of why: If there were two young boys in a classroom, and one was physically weaker and smaller than the other, would we believe it’s right to keep the weaker, smaller boy from having the same access – to the teacher, to learning, to the computers, to the books and class resources, to other children in the class — because he didn’t have the same physical strength as the other boy?

So how can we gain a deeper understanding of where we personally stand on the issue of equality?

Asking yourself these questions and answering them candidly will get you closer to recognizing what you truly, honestly believe:

1. Do you believe that women and men deserve equal rights and equal opportunities? If not, why not, specifically?

2. Do you oppose the idea that every human being on the planet deserves equal rights and equal access to all opportunities? If you oppose it, what are you concerned will happen if equality is achieved? What are the downsides, in your way of thinking?

3. Do you believe that only certain groups of people should be allowed to have access to certain opportunities and rights? If so, which groups should be favored and granted this access, and who should decide that?

4. Do you believe that it would be inherently fair to grant women access to only partial rights while men have full array of other rights and opportunities?

5. Think back on what has shaped all your beliefs about these issues. Where did they come from specifically? Childhood, early adulthood? Your personal experiences with men and women, or what you read and watch in the media? Who in your “tribe,” family or peers influences your beliefs today?

6. What makes you mad and agitated to read in the media, about men, women and equality?

7. Do you believe that a world that prevents certain people from accessing full rights and opportunities would lead to a fair, healthy, prosperous world for all?

8. In the end, do your beliefs actually feel right for you? Do they feel aligned with who you really are — healthy, whole, integrity-filled, compassionate, and fair?

The vast majority of people I speak to do believe in equal rights for men and women, but the conflict is about how that equality should be achieved. Many resist calling themselves a “feminist” or supporting the feminist “movement.” In fact, just today, a woman commented on my YouTube channel that “feminism is a cancer.”

Why do so many hate the term feminism and the feminist movement?

I believe there are five critical reasons behind this:

1.  (So much recent data and research has proved this.)

2. Many people fear that feminism will mean that men will eventually lose out – of power, influence, impact, authority, and control, and economic opportunities.

3. Many people believe that feminists want to control the world and put men down.

4. Many people fear that feminism will overturn time-honored traditions, religious beliefs and established gender roles, and that feels scary and wrong.

5. Many people fear that feminism will bring about negative shifts in relationships, marriage, society, culture, power and authority dynamics, and in business, job and economic opportunities if and when women are on an equal footing with men.

What about sexuality – what does that have to do with feminism?

In reading about the media uproar over Emma Watson’s baring a bit of her breasts in Vanity Fair this month, we see that women are fighting among themselves about what feminism is and how women should behave if they’re true feminists. Emma (and Gloria Steinem) make a powerful point – feminism at its core is about choice.  Feminists can wear whatever they want. If we cannot choose freely how to behave, speak, act and present ourselves, then we’re moving backwards.

Unconscious gender bias.

In my friend Kristen Pressner’s powerful TEDx talk “Are You Biased? I Am” she shares how her own unconscious bias against working women (in fact, against women who were just like her) was affecting her ability to treat men and women equally. Her brave revelation paves the way for all of us to think more deeply about our unconscious biases, and work tirelessly to bring these biases to light. Her suggested strategy of “flip it to test it” is an effective tool to help us do just that.

In the end, we all must honor the beliefs, values, and ideals that feel right and good to us. To help us do that, I’d ask you to think about these final questions:

• Do your beliefs and behaviors support equality for all, or just for some?

• Could there be hidden biases that color how you experience people of different genders, race, color, religion, etc? Could your personal experiences be tainting how you’re looking at the whole world?

• If you believe in equality for women, but not in feminism, can you articulate why?

• If you believe in equality for all, are you able to take a brave stand for it, in a way that feels right to you, in your own life and in your own sphere of influence?

For more from Kathy Caprino, visit her Personal Growth programs, her TEDx talk “Time to Brave Up,” and her new video What Is Feminism and Why So Many Men and Women Hate It.


The feminist movement

The changes in women’s working lives that had occurred during World War Two did not last into the post-war period. The ideal of the American dream, consumer culture and the growth of suburban areas all encouraged women to adopt what were seen at the time as ‘traditional family roles’. However, by 1960 women made up around half of the workforce. For many women, earning their own income provided them with a new sense of independence.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of a woman’s role being limited to a housewife and mother was challenged by a strong feminist movement. The movement advocated and campaigned for the rights and equality of women.

The 1963 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women

In 1961, President John F Kennedy set up the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to report on women in the workplace. In 1963, it reported that:

  • women earned around 60 per cent less than men for the same job
  • around 95 per cent of managers were men – the majority of work for women was part time and with limited responsibility
  • well-paid professional jobs, such as lawyers and doctors, were mostly done by men

The development of the feminist movement

Building on the success and methods of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement developed in the late 1960s. Activists organised using a range of methods to advocate for women’s rights.

The fight for equality

Betty Friedan became a key leader in the feminist movement. In 1963, her influential book The Feminine Mystique she expressed how unhappy many women felt with being housewives and mothers. She stated, at the time, her belief that some women were dangerously adjusted to oppressive lives as housewives and urged for progress in employment opportunities.

In 1966, Friedan and 48 other activists set up the National Organization for Women (NOW). One of their initial and continuing goals was to work towards ending discrimination in employment – to achieve equality in wages between women and men working in the same roles. They mostly tried to get laws passed to ensure equality and used legal action in the courts to win discrimination cases.

NOW also advocated for child-care provision for working mothers, the right to paid maternity leave and legalised abortion.

The struggle for liberation

NOW was one of a number of branches within the feminist movement. The members of NOW were mainly middle-class and middle-aged women. Other activists focused on confronting patriarchy as the root of women’s inequality. They believed their role was to work together for freedom from men’s control and oppression of women, rather than for just legal equality with them.

This group became known as the women’s liberation movement, or women’s lib. It especially appealed to younger women who often wanted to take direct action. For example:

  • activists protested at the 1968 Miss America beauty pageant, arguing that events like this exploited and degraded women
  • women’s liberationists held meetings to give women spaces to explore how and why they were exploited

Women’s liberation movement protesters outside the Miss America beauty pageant in 1968

The 1972 Equal Rights AmendmentSTOP ERA campaigner Phyllis Schlafly

Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1972. The ERA stated that equality “must not be denied on account of sex”. The ERA needed to be ratified by at least 38 states for it to become part of the US Constitution. However, it encountered strong opposition. The STOP ERA campaign was led by conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly, who believed equality under the law would undermine traditional family life and require women to fight in the military on the same basis as men. The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated by its opponents, as it did not receive ratification from the required number of states.

Roe v Wade, 1973An election poster from Shirley Chisholm’s 1971 bid to run for president in the 1972 elections

Americans were deeply divided on the issue of abortion. Until 1973, each individual state could decide its own policy. In that year, after a court hearing involving a woman referred to as Jane Roe to protect her identity, the Supreme Court ruled in the Roe v Wade judgement that all women had a constitutional right to get an abortion in early pregnancy.

In 2022, a Supreme Court ruling overturned Roe v Wade and individual states are now able to ban abortion if they wish.

The impact of the feminist movement

The feminist movement empowered many women and gave them a greater voice in society and politics. A generation of women became politicised and more women became notable figures in politics. For example, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman member of Congress.

The movement also encountered setbacks. For example, in 1972 Congress passed a programme to make child-care facilities more widely available. However, President Richard Nixon deemed this a threat to traditional views of family life and vetoed it.

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