Many people are aware of the distinction between first wave, second wave, and third wave feminism. Understanding the waves of feminism in a linear timeline helps us to recognise the emergence of each issue, and the diversity of issues that feminism addresses. First wave feminism of the 19th and early 20th century was largely legalistic, focusing on issues such as women’s suffrage. Second wave feminism, widely accepted to have taken off in the 1960s, broadened its horizons, discussing issues with sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, and more. Third wave feminism is hard to succinctly define, because it is still in the process of happening. One function of third wave feminism is the examination of what it is to be a “feminist”, what “feminism” means.
Less people, though, are aware of the distinction between differing fundamental goals of feminism. Rather than working together as a building momentum, the following ideas sometimes work in opposition with one another. Some wish to eradicate concepts of gender and sometimes sex altogether: there are no men and women. Others wish for the recognition of women as able to be and do all the same things as men: men and women are equal. Others claim that there are fundamental differences between men and women, that men are better at some things, and women are better than others. Their feminist intention is to bring about a better recognition and respect for women, and for women’s work: men and women are different, but equal. I’m sure that there are many more fundamental goals, too. So, feminism is pretty messy. It is not one pure thing, there is no one set of rules. We will not always agree with feminist thought, despite being feminists. Some people fail to recognise this fact, and for that reason: feminists are confused.
What is feminism? Well, Google says that feminism is…
“The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”
It’s not really as simple as that though, particularly on reflection of the different feminisms described above. We can also unpack several problems with this definition in itself, the first being the term “women”. There has long been discussion within feminist discourse as to how we can define “women”, and usually it leads to gender essentialism and exclusion. Gender essentialism is the attribution of certain traits or characteristics to specific genders, which often leads to exclusion where some women are not represented by the traits or characteristics attributed. The second problem we can identify here is the use of “sexes” as opposed to genders. It should be noted that sex and gender are different concepts and are not to be confused or used interchangeably. So, we can see that even mainstream ideas regarding feminism are incomplete and imperfect. We perhaps don’t always agree with them. Sometimes, they are even harmful. Does it make them “not” feminism, though? Is it right to remove the “feminist” label from problematic definitions and practices? Perhaps not.
As people that recognise trans identities and practice trans inclusive feminism, it may be undesirable to be grouped as feminists with trans exclusive feminists. As such, trans inclusive feminists tend to dismiss trans exclusiveness as “not real feminism”. But, as unsavoury as this type of feminism may be, I think it is irresponsible to try and remove its feminist label. It brings to mind times where we discuss, for example, domestic violence, and people are tempted to say something along the lines of “real men don’t hit women”. Intentions are good, but, upon further inspection, it’s actually a pretty damaging comment. Some men do hit women, they are not imaginary. And, no, they are not (always) boys. They are real men, and they hit women. It intends to remove men who hit women from the category of (admired?) men, but it actually somehow removes the blame from men altogether. It allows for people to separate themselves from this category rather than confronting the problem within that category. It passes on the problem. Stating that trans-exclusive feminism is not a type of feminism is merely attempting to pass on the problem. It is dishonest. Trans-exclusive feminism is a string of feminism, and it should be rightly criticised as such. We should face it head on.
Where black women and other women of colour felt excluded from first and second-wave mainstream feminism, they did not dismiss it as “not feminism”. They distinguished it as “white feminism”, and pursued feminist branches of their own: black feminism, intersectional feminism, womanism, etc. White feminism exists, and it is harmful. For example, some suffragettes argued for the vote (for white women) by claiming that black men getting the vote before white women purported black people as equals. It was racist, and it was white feminism. Note that white feminism does not refer to any and all feminism by white people. It refers to feminism that centres itself around mostly white, middle-class, able-bodied, college-educated perspectives: perspectives of privilege. Thus, you can be white and a feminist and not be a “white feminist”. However, it is of utmost importance that we recognise and criticise, as white women, white feminism and its failures. We must recognise the past and present failures of feminism, where it has failed and who it has failed. We must learn from the types of feminism that have let people down. We must accept that not all feminism is, or has been, savoury.
Feminists are not a monolith, and feminism is not perfect. It never has been, and, unfortunately, it probably never will be. What social movement can claim that it is? Rather than pretending that those problems are separate from feminism, acknowledge that they are a part of it and, importantly, a part of it that you do not condone. Trans-exclusive feminism does exist, and it harms trans people. White feminism does exist, and it harms many people, particularly women of colour. Pretending certain types of feminism do not exist does not mean that the problems caused by them cease to exist. Harmful strings of feminism are recognised as feminism from the outside looking in, and it does little good to pretend that they are not. Feminists are confused when they try to manipulate feminism into an idealistic, one size fits all movement because they are lying to themselves. We must be honest, and recognise feminism for the good, the bad, and the ugly. Accept unsavoury feminism as feminism first, and go from there. It is the only way to face our problems and move forward with clarity.