Is Mainstream Feminism Bad for Women’s Rights?

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer  

(Photo Credit)


Lately, the word ‘feminism’ has come to mean something quite different from its original definition. A lot of men, even some women, basically understand it as ‘men-hating’. Many cringe at the mention of the term and either feel that feminism is no longer needed or that it is simply the way some women describing themselves as feminists try to undermine the importance of being a mother, or frown upon all representatives of the ‘fair sex’ who choose to stay at home and take care of the household.

But what is more worrying than this external struggle is the internal struggle of feminism as a movement that has existed for years now, if not decades. Sarah Jaffe, for instance, argues that feminism is having an identity crisis. She describes the heart of the battle as the question of whether feminism means success for the few women, who ascend the ladders of wealth and power, or whether it means fundamentally changing how wealth and power are redistributed, so that ladders are no longer needed.

“Its latest battlefield is Beyoncé, whose every move leaves a thousand think pieces in its wake. Not just Beyoncé, either, but other high-profile women such as Sheryl Sandberg, Lena Dunham, Emma Watson, and high-end women’s conferences and binge-worthy TV from Game of Thrones to Girls.”

In her book “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement”, Andi Zeisler also claims that “the fight for gender equality has transmogrified from a collective goal to a consumer brand”.

According to her, we now live in a world where even purchasing itself is a feminist act, where high social status is wrongfully interpreted as liberation and emancipation and where “freedom is measured in what we consume or who we control, where what we wear, watch, and wax is more important than what we organise and fight for”.

Laurie Penny further insists that the feminism that sells is the sort of feminism that can appeal to almost everybody while challenging nobody, feminism that soothes, that speaks for and to the middle class, aspirational feminism that speaks of shoes and shopping and sugar-free snacks and does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transsexual women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould.

Should we then be worried that mainstream feminism is threatening the true meaning of the women’s rights movement and all that it represents? Are we losing sight of the bigger picture here?

IWI believes that the so called ‘trendy feminism’ we have been witnessing lately and the protection of women’s rights are not two mutually exclusive conceptions. In a way, it is important to have that commercial, bright, fun and even sexy side of feminism but it is also important not to forget the not so pretty one.

Despite the tremendous efforts of the international community and despite the hard work of many organisations like ours, the sad reality is that women and girls around the world are still married as children or trafficked into forced labour and sex slavery.

They are still refused access to education and political participation. There is still a large gender pay gap that needs to be bridged. Many women and girls continue being trapped in conflicts where rape is regularly used as a weapon of war.

As Human Rights Watch has observed, around the world, deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth are needlessly high, and women are prevented from making deeply personal choices in their private lives. 

The question for us, however, is not whether trendy feminism is good or bad, or whether the true feminist issues have been lost to the movement’s commercialisation. Rather, it is how can we use this trendiness of feminism to harness its power and popularity and take it beyond selling stuff to people or promoting oneself as a feminist star on the internet? 

Instead of slamming mainstream and celebrity feminism, we should be aiming at using it as a platform for addressing all existing issues around gender equality and women’s rights. By showing solidarity and adopting a new perspective, we can stop this alienation of women over whose idea of feminism is the “correct one” and instead learn from each other and engage with each other’s thoughts and experiences in order to get everyone onboard in the fight to end the injustices so many women around the world face on a daily basis.