From new workplace and education opportunities to reproductive rights and the ability to vote, womens rights have come a long way in the last century throughout the developed world. Today, women experience more freedom and personal choice than any other time throughout history. However, this isn’t true for women in all societies. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.
In this post I want to focus on feminism in the west specifically, because it is this kind of feminism that seems to be so controversial. No rational person is arguing against human rights for women in Yemen. So why is it then that so many people in the west are hesitant to call themselves feminists? What is third wave feminism and why is it so contentious?
Before we can answer these questions, we must recognize a couple of things. First, third wave feminist issues are of less significance than first and second wave issues. That’s not to say that third wave feminist issues don’t matter or that they are insignificant, but that the issues third wave feminism faces are much less visible and pale in comparison to the issues millions of women face in developing countries.
One of the few ways we can shine light on these third wave feminist issues is through transparency. The insight we can gain from, for example, the Gender Gap Report is of great value. A common theme across the best ranking countries is that in 2 of the 4 categories measured, health and education, are nearly identical. We begin to see some discrepancy when it comes to economic standing and large differences in political empowerment.
Since these issues are less visible, it is difficult to see exactly how much of a role biology plays versus culture when looking at these discrepancies. One of the most obvious biological differences is testosterone. On average, in adult males, levels of testosterone are about 7–8 times as great as in adult females. Why is this important? Because testosterone increases aggression and risk-taking.
(UPDATE: After reading Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst I’m much more skeptical of this claim. Sapolsky argues testosterone increases status seeking behavior. Evolutionarily this has generally correlated with aggression, but it can swiftly change based on a number of factors.)
If men are more aggressive and more prone to risk-taking, shouldn’t we see some differences between the sexes? And we do. This may explain why men make up 93% of inmates in the United States. It may also explain, at least partly, why there are more men in leadership roles and make more money for the same work (aggressively negotiating pay raises).
Of course, culture plays a significant role as well. Just look at any of the Abrahamic religions with their uncanny obsession with virgins and blaming of women for literally everything. The majority of religious communities still believe women should hold traditional roles in society. Not surprisingly, the least religious countries in the world are rated the highest in gender equality.
So lets go back to that original question- why is it that many people don’t like calling themselves feminists in the west?
In the internet era, the loudest and most fringe groups of people are given the largest platform. The third wave feminist movement is no different. Month after month, new videos have emerged online of self described feminists and some of there more absurd radical beliefs. A quick search of the word “feminist” on YouTube prompts words like ‘crazy’, ‘triggered’, and ‘cringe’. To my surprise, #KillAllMen isn’t satire to some.
Regardless of whether you consider these actions representative feminism is irrelevant. Guilt by association has done damage to the perception of feminism in western societies. Furthermore, I think many feminists simply don’t find the amount of focus on third wave feminism appealing. Many people believe that equality between the sexes already exists, and in many circles I don’t think this is an unreasonable position. However, with that said, I don’t think the issues third wave feminists face are completely insignificant. Just because there are more crucial issues in the world doesn’t mean the lesser ones don’t matter.
At the end of the day, we must be able to acknowledge gender differences while simultaneously encouraging greater equality. The debate on the significance of third wave feminism will continue, but in the meantime, let’s not argue over the semantics of a label.