Feminism is a political movement that aims for equal rights between men and women. Meanwhile, egalitarianism is a concept in political philosophy that advocates that all people should be treated as equals. Therefore, a fundamental question arises – could feminism and egalitarianism be described as advocating for the same ideals? Thus, the purpose of this essay is to critically discuss whether feminism is a branch of egalitarianism. In particular, I will discuss what feminism and egalitarianism as concepts and political movements entail. In essence, this essay will interrogate whether we should abandon the term feminism and replace it with egalitarianism, due to the name of feminism being somewhat ‘tarnished’. Through a balanced evaluation of the similarities and differences between the two movements, I will ultimately conclude that feminism is one of the many divisions of egalitarianism.
Firstly, what is feminism? In a narrow sense, feminism refers to the movement that attempts to attain equal legal and political rights for all women regardless of their race, age or sexuality (Honderich 1995). However, within the broad sense of feminism there are divisions such as liberal feminists, Marxist feminists, socialist feminists and many more. Nonetheless, these divisions are still united in the belief that something needs to change in the society’s treatment of women, though they differ in their characterisation of the issue and in their proposals for change. Importantly, feminism is not a ‘man-hating’ movement as many are led to believe. Therefore, it is more effective to explain what the broad sense of feminism is by discussing the rise of the feminist movement.
The feminist movement can be split into three ‘waves’. Firstly, the first wave began in the 1800’s and continued until the late 1940’s, and focused on getting social, economic and legal rights for women. Thus, its success is dependent on what countries allowed women to vote. John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) in his essay The Subjection of Women (1869) recognises that “the legal subordination of women is wrong in itself” (Mill 1988: p. 1). The second wave began in the late 1940’s and continued through until the 1990’s, which was concerned with the oppression of females globally regardless of their race or ethnicity. Simone de Beauvoir’s (1908 – 1986) book The Second Sex (1949) was largely responsible for the second wave. Indeed, in introducing the book, Beauvoir states: “Then from woman’s point of view I shall describe the world in which women must live; and thus we shall be able to envisage the difficulties in their way as, endeavouring to make their escape from the sphere hitherto assigned them, they aspire to full membership in the human race.” (de Beauvoir 1997: p. 29). The third wave of the feminist movement began in the 1990’s and is what we currently reside in. This wave is concerned with women simply choosing their own ‘destiny’ instead of it being determined by the patriarchy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a third wave feminist, recognises that the word feminist – and the notion of feminism itself – is limited by stereotypes (Adichie 2014). Arguably, due to the stereotypical feminist – that is, the man-hating, ‘bras are symbols of oppression’ type of feminists – means that radical feminists have tarnished the name (or brand) of feminism. Consequently, this raises the question of whether feminists should be renamed as egalitarians?
Therefore, one must ask what is egalitarianism? As noted previously, egalitarianism is the view that every individual should be treated equally. It can be seen that doctrines relating to egalitarianism have the tendency to rest upon the concept that everyone is equal in their fundamental worth. This is the very basic level of egalitarianism – the idea that if all human beings are equal in their worth and importance, then they must each be equally worthy of concern and respect. As far as Western philosophy is concerned, one significant idea relating to the idea that everyone is equal is the Christian notion that God loves all of his human beings equally (Arneson 2013). Egalitarianism has been fairly successful in Western culture as it is reasonably uncontroversial to assume that governments should not be able to discriminate on the basis of race, sexuality, gender, religion and so on (Honderich 1995). Moreover, by way of illustration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states clearly that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (United Nations 1948: Article 1), which refers to each and every individual – an egalitarian standpoint. Moreover, John Locke (1632 – 1704) in his Second Treatise of Government (1690) held the view that every individual, at all times, have the same equal, natural and moral rights that each and every person should respect (Locke 1980) – another egalitarian viewpoint.
Similarly to feminism, the broad sense of egalitarianism can be split into more specific divisions. On the one hand, we have egalitarians that focus on groups of people rather than individuals, such as ethnic minorities, the working class, the disabled and so on. On the other hand we have what are called “liberal egalitarians” (Baker et al 2004: p. 24), who tend to focus on individuals rather than groups. Liberal egalitarianism may be considered by some as “left liberalism” (Baker et al 2004: p. 24), due to the fact that they are often found in social democratic political movements. Of particular note, John Rawls (1921 – 2002) is considered by many as a liberal egalitarian due to his work in Justice as Fairness (2001), in which he theorises a society of free citizens holding basic equal rights where they come together to work in an egalitarian economic system. Moreover, in Political Liberalism (1993), Rawls portrays the theory of a legitimate use of political power within a democracy and, subsequently, imagines how a civic society may survive despite the diversity of world-views that free institutions allow.
Arguably, one major and obvious similarity between feminism and egalitarianism is that both movements advocate for equality. However, the difference is that feminism strives for equality amongst men and women (i.e. gender), whereas egalitarianism endeavours for equality amongst everybody (i.e gender, beliefs, race, etc). Once again, the question arises of whether feminism is simply a division of egalitarianism. For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” (United Nations 1948: Article 2). It can be argued that one of the most powerful political advances over the last several decades has been the development of an international movement that supports the rights of human beings, a fundamental egalitarian notion. It is clear that the Universal Doctrine of Human Rights is a document to encompass basic equality amongst people. Indeed, we can see from Article 2 of the Declaration that this basic equality should not discriminate between people of different sexes. Therefore, one could maintain that feminism is in fact egalitarianism.
Similarities can also be seen between feminism and egalitarianism throughout history, and not only in the modern day. For instance, let us refer back to the rise of the feminist movement – in particular, the first wave. The first wave was fighting against centuries worth of patriarchy and, thus, they were trying to find their proverbial ‘feet’. Importantly, the Abolitionist Movement of the 19th century gave the feminist movement a boost due to their similarities – the similarities being desires for freedom and liberation. The notion that all human beings should be treated equally was very much ‘up in the air’ during this time. Hence, it is reasonable to question whether the feminist movement was simply an act of egalitarianism at this time, similar to the Abolitionist Movement. Moreover, the United States Declaration of Independence produced in 1776 states that “all men are created equal” (National Archives 1776). However, this Declaration does not seem to refer to women and other minorities. Sarah Grimké (1792 – 1873), an American abolitionist and member of the woman’s suffrage movement, responded to this statement in the Declaration and wrote in 1837 that “men and women were created equal; they are both moral and accountable beings, and whatever is right for a man to do, is right for women.” (Grimké 1973: p. 308). Hence, the term ‘men’ is understood to mean ‘mankind’. Once again, here is a document declaring that everybody holds the right to be treated equally – another argument that feminism is a branch of egalitarianism.
Understandably, it is difficult to conceive the differences between feminism and egalitarianism when both movements are advocating for equality. However, as mentioned earlier on, feminism is limited to equality amongst the sexes. Whereas egalitarianism is not limited in what types of equality it strives for (the fight for LGBT+ rights and racial equality can also be argued to be divisions of egalitarianism). Moreover, feminism also strives to change negative attitudes about women that in turn can produce hostile policies. For instance, take the political divisive abortion issue in the United States of America. On his first day in the Oval Office in January 2017, the newly elected President Donald Trump signed an executive order (ban) on federal money going towards international groups that perform or provide information about abortions. Feminist lobbyists sought to persuade legislators to adopt the attitude that if a woman decides that she wants to terminate her pregnancy for an array of reasons, it should not be decided by a group of strangers. Indeed, “men making decisions on woman’s bodies” was a much repeated phrase worldwide on social media on this day (BBC News 2017). It could be argued that perhaps the broad sense of egalitarianism does not seek to end negative attitudes of minorities, such as racism, homophobia and sexism but the divisions of egalitarianism do; such as racial equality, LGBT+ and feminism. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBT+ marches and the Woman’s March in January 2017 illustrate this.
As a theme throughout this essay, it can be argued that feminism is one of the many divisions of egalitarianism. However, it has been questioned often on social media and a key objective for this essay, whether we should abandon the term feminism and replace it instead with egalitarianism? This is due to the stereotypical view of feminism; that is – the ‘smash the patriarchy’ type of feminism and the idea that feminists preach for equality but practice man-hating. Third wave feminists are often critical of second wave feminists as it is believed that the second wave is what gave feminism its bad reputation. In other words, it is thought that the second wave is responsible for the caricature of the ‘man-hating’ type of feminists – which is, arguably, a warped view. Indeed, this is radical feminism – another division of feminism – that pays attention to “women’s oppression as women in a social order dominated by men” (Beasley 1999: p. 54). Radical feminists strongly hold the view that men as a group are the ‘main enemy’ (Delphy 1984). As a result, the derogatory ‘Feminazi’ term has become a go-to term for ‘online trolls’ to use against people who support the feminist movement, despite the person not holding radical beliefs (Williams 2015). Controversially, and paradoxically, it can be argued that radical feminism may be responsible for this.
While feminism advocates for equal rights between men and women regardless of their race, ethnicity or sexuality, some women still feel excluded from the feminist movement. Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist (2014), recognises that “women of colour, queer women, and transgender women need to be better included in the feminist project.” (Gay 2014: p. xiii). As a black woman herself, and as a woman who has identified as queer at varying points throughout her life, she had decided that feminism was not for her; due to her claim that historically feminism has been “far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of others.” (Gay 2014: p. xiii). However, once she realised that feminism was “advocating for gender equality in all realms” (Gay 2014: p. xiii), it was easier for her to embrace the movement. However, the question still remains – why do women from minority groups feel that they have been shamefully abandoned by the feminist movement? Perhaps it is due to how feminism is represented in popular culture. For example, while the television series Girls has been praised for its portrayal of women, it has also been criticised for being racist, classist and transphobic (Gay 2014: pp. 51 – 60). For Gay, the absence of race in Girls is “an uncomfortable reminder of how many people lead lives segregated by race and class” (Gay 2014: p. 57). Furthermore, perhaps it could be the gender pay gap. Not only are women paid less than their male counterparts for doing the same job (at least typically in some sectors), women of colour are faced with an even bigger pay gap when compared to white men (Sheth and Gould 2017). That said, as a white straight woman, I cannot say for certain why minority women feel the way they do: I can only try to understand and learn from them. Once more, if women are feeling segregated from the feminist movement due to the colour of their skin, or who they are attracted to, perhaps it is time to consider abandoning the term feminism and replacing it with egalitarianism – a movement that absolutely includes everybody.
In conclusion, I have evaluated what feminism and egalitarianism entails, as well as noting critical similarities and differences. Ultimately, I suggest that feminism is a division of egalitarianism. Indeed, I have made a somewhat controversial claim that it is perhaps time to consider abandoning the term feminism and replacing it instead with egalitarianism. However, from a semantic view, this is difficult not only because of the history and popular branding of feminism and various political perspectives, but also with the somewhat unfamiliar – or even elitist – term of egalitarianism amongst the masses. Nevertheless, and as a final point to illustrate this essay let us imagine that the fight for equality is a tree and egalitarianism is the tree trunk that holds its basic fundamental values. Coming of this tree trunk are the branches; these are the divisions of egalitarianism – which includes the feminist movement.
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