If feminism is about equality, why does its name clearly favor women? I’ve heard many men (and some women) who “totally believe in equality but can’t justify calling themselves feminists” use this question to clinch their argument against the movement. The thought is usually accompanied by a triumphant snarl and an attitude of having defeated the imagined throngs of screaming misandrists at long last.
My first thought whenever someone self-importantly throws this point at me is of an exchange from Legally Blonde where Enid, an intentional caricature of man-hating feminism, argues semantics with Warner, a textbook misogynist.
“The English language is all about subliminal domination,” she says. “Take the word semester. This is a perfect example of this school’s discriminatory preference of semen to ovaries. That’s why I’m petitioning to have next term referred to as the winter ovester.”
The comedy of this moment lies in its over-exaggerated ridiculousness. Why would there be a subliminal message, the viewer wonders. It’s a semester, a session during the school year—that’s just what it’s called. Even Elle, who is mistakenly dressed in a bunny costume and probably not in a position to laugh at anyone else’s expense, chuckles at the silliness of Enid’s profound objection.
But just how absurd is this opinion? Sure, turning semesters into ovesters seems like an overreaction. But much of the English language, on further examination, includes a similar, glaring gender bias.
College freshmen. All men are created equal. Every man for himself. Intentional or not, the lurking bias in these common phrases implies that men are the standard of humanity and are more capable of achieving education, economic success, and independence.
At this point, the argument against these words seems easily refutable—we use these terms because, historically, they make more sense. Throughout most of the history of university education, first year students have been men. When Jefferson penned the powerful phrase, women were not even remotely considered equal with “all men.” And “every woman for herself” would have made little sense in a time when women had few personal freedoms.
In short, many would say that these gendered expressions are acceptable because, at least in their earliest usage, universal ideals often applied solely to men.
Can’t we say the same about the word feminism?
Feminism is a fight for equality, but in terms of historical setbacks the uphill battle has been much less steep for men. While there are certainly areas of modern culture in which women have an advantage, men have dominated human history as they currently dominate technology jobs, the film industry, and countless academic fields. No one can reasonably refute the fact that men have traditionally held the power and reaped the rewards of social dominance.
Feminists aren’t building a matriarchal society; we’re building a society that no longer includes patriarchy. We aren’t scheming to bring men down; we’re working to elevate women. We aren’t trying to take over the world; we’re just trying to make it fair.
The comedy of the argument against the word feminism lies in its over-exaggerated ridiculousness. Why would there be a subliminal message, a reasonable person wonders. It’s feminism, a belief in gender equality—that’s just what it’s called.
Maddi Kaigh (COL ’17) is a member of H*yas for Choice.