A big F or a little f

As the world gears up to celebrate International Women’s Day, I have found myself pondering how the word “feminist” became so divisive.   Why would any woman (or man for that matter) shy away from a word that encapsulates “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of equality of the sexes”?[1]

My musings started with an innocent enough booking on Air BnB on a recent trip to London.  To my delight, I found an option to stay in Germaine Greer’s former residence of almost 10 years in Lancaster Gate, near Paddington.  The opportunity was too good to miss – I signed up immediately.

As I pottered around Germaine’s old digs and admired the parts that had been left unchanged in her honour, I had a flashback to my first real exposure to her work.  I was an undergraduate student, studying politics and at some point, I read “The Female Eunuch[2]”.  As a young woman that was raised in a traditional home, the book simultaneously blew my mind and scared the living daylights out of me.  It forced me to open my eyes, but most importantly, it encouraged me to question societal norms.

Germaine’s London abode was surprisingly traditional in many ways, right down to the original floral wallpaper that is still visible inside the main bedroom wardrobe.  Here she entertained literary influencers and celebrities alike. It was no surprise to see the bookcases, which at one point housed her extensive reading collection.  Hers is a well-educated, academic mind with a consistently fearless streak.  Following The Female Eunuch, Greer went on to publish over 20 books.  At times controversial, she has always been an activist who makes you think.  This is what I have admired about her since I first discovered her work. 

‘When a woman may walk on the open streets of our cities alone, without insult or obstacle, at any pace she chooses, there will be no further need for this book” 

– Germaine Greer, 1969, The Female Eunuch
Germaine's bookcases in her former residence, Lancaster Gate, London

Germaine’s bookcases in her former residence, Lancaster Gate, London

Feminism and step changes

And of course, there are so many feminists to admire, aside from Greer.  From the incredibly brave suffragettes who fought for women’s right to vote, to Tarana Burke who launched #MeToo.   The massive step changes that many of us take for granted now, came about through the tenacity and courage of feminists.  Feminists with a big “F”.  Feminists who were proud of that label and determined to focus on equality.

Perhaps the most famous feminist of all is Gloria Steinem, who is often referred to as the “Mother of Feminism”.  She led the women’s liberation movements through the 60s and 70s and continues to do so today.  She is a writer, lecturer, political activist and feminist organiser.  Like Greer, Steinem makes you think – and that is always a good thing.

“Women have two choices: she’s a feminist or a masochist”

– Gloria Steinem

Big “F” or little “f”?

So, with all these strong women who have paved the way before us, it always surprises me that so many young women shrink away from the label of being a feminist.  Despite feminism being about equality, they don’t always wear that label proudly.   As I surveyed a number of colleagues on this topic, what began to emerge was a fairly consistent theme.  They were happy to be a feminist with a “little f”, not a feminist with a “big F”.

And in recent years, we have indeed seen a backlash against feminism and the radical thinking that comes with a “big F”.  From my observations, the big F seems to have a branding issue and instead of the clear objectives in the origin of the word, feminism for some has become associated with angry, men hating women. 

The feminists in my circle don’t hate men.  We love men – and there are plenty of wonderful men out there to admire.  The feminists that I am interested in have no judgment about what you wear, the length of your hair (or hem) and whether you choose to wear makeup.  Those feminists (with a big F) would argue that feminism is about giving you choice, as well as equality.   Being a proud feminist and being feminine (and loving men) are not mutually exclusive!

Girl power

In the 90s, a new type of feminism emerged – “girl power”.  This transformed feminists from a political movement to a more marketable type of feminism that celebrated individual women in power, regardless of how that power was used.  Sadly, not all women in power used their clout to help other women.

Feminism began to morph into a “little f”, as it was seen as apolitical, and about being a #girlboss.  Feminism was no longer about systemic change for all women and somehow the principles of lifting all women up were diminished under the celebration of those who had made it.

Although girl power was much more accessible and decidedly more easy to digest, it was a shift away from making giant strides in terms of equality.   It was less confrontational, less dangerous.  But many of the same battles around equality continued, with less progress than earlier decades.

 #MeToo

And then along came the #MeToo movement in 2017, sparking a global movement and galvanising women from all walks of life to share their stories of sexual harassment.    For women of my generation, this moment in time was something to be celebrated.  Finally, the poor behaviour that we had endured was being called out.  It felt like a step change – like something that our sisters from another era had fought so hard for.  It was a “big F” moment in time.

Despite all of excitement and relief at this newfound public dialogue, there have been some unintended consequence in the backlash of #MeToo.  Many men at work became more reluctant to engage with women, which meant that women were sometimes excluded from critical conversations or opportunities. 

The rise of the anti-feminist

In recent times, there seems to have been a backlash against feminism.   Recent research has found that most young people believe women’s rights have gone far enough – and that we are now discriminating against men.[3]   One only has to spend some time on social media to see the impact of openly misogynistic influencers and podcasters, particularly on young men. 

The Survey Center on American Life found a nearly 20-point gender gap between Gen Z men and women in identifying as feminist. Only 43 percent of Gen Z men say they generally think of themselves as “feminist,” compared to 61 percent of Gen Z women. The gender gap is more pronounced among Generation Z than any other generation. [4]

Why give an F today?

So, why is feminism still important today?  Well put simply, we don’t yet have equality for both sexes.  There is still a lack of women in positions of power, although we have made progress.  There is still educational inequality and there are ongoing issues regarding access to equal opportunity.  There is still violence against women.  Reproductive rights are still being debated.  And there is still a gender pay gap.   There is still much to be done before we can claim that we have achieved equality.

Modern feminism has also begun to proactively include and uplift the voices of people who have been left out of the conversation in the past.  This includes women of colour, as well as gender diverse people.   This new and more inclusive approach is a powerful and integral part of modern feminism. [5]   It also speaks to what we are trying to achieve with our diversity, equity and inclusion strategies.

Time for a re-brand?

It strikes me that a large part of the problem is the actual word, “feminism”.  The principles of equality of the sexes are perhaps more adequately described by the word “egalitarianism”, rather than a word that has “feminine” as its origin, as it immediately puts the focus on one sex more than the other.   Food for thought.

And now what?

For International Women’s Day as we ponder feminism, its history and its relevance, it strikes me that two recent feminist heroes have emerged and engaged the world in the feminist conversation once more.  In their own unique way, they have each made us question equality and how far we still have to travel.  Of course, I am referring to the cultural phenomenon of the Barbie movie and the global impact of Taylor Swift.

Both Swift and Barbie have redefined strength, empowerment and have proven that resilience and determination are not exclusive to any gender.[6]  They dominated a lot of the popular culture discussions in 2023 and Swift, literally changed economic outcomes with her Eras Tour.

Initial appearances may be deceptive – but both Swift and Barbie are pushing the feminist and equality conversation with a very big F.  It feels like a new and fresher conversation that is inclusive beyond gender, and not averse to pink, sequins and fun.   I, for one, am certainly down for it!

Click here to book Germaine Greer’s former apartment in London:  https://www.airbnb.com.au/rooms/22637797?source_impression_id=p3_1709539854_I93S74f2XCwfDJHI

Click here to read about 37 famous feminists:  https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/g4201/famous-feminists-throughout-history/

[1] Oxford Dictionary definition

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Female_Eunuch

[3] https://www.dazeddigital.com/life-culture/article/58452/1/young-people-and-the-rise-of-antifeminism-gender-equality

[4] https://www.americansurveycenter.org/newsletter/why-young-men-are-turning-against-feminism/

[5] https://abcnews.go.com/US/examining-modern-feminism-wave-now/story?id=97617121

[6] https://lotusmidwest.com/2023-was-the-year-of-barbie-and-taylor-swift-now-what/

Main image credit: https://2ser.com/feminism-today/

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