Contrary what some people seem to believe, the term “feminist” doesn’t represent a single, homogenous group with an agreed upon set of goals and beliefs. In fact, it’s perfectly OK for feminists to disagree about… nearly everything, really, because we are, in fact, not all the same. Feminists don’t have membership cards, they don’t elect a leader, and they don’t have a set agenda. They don’t all look the same, or have the same background, or share the same beliefs. They are not all women. The one thing that they agree upon is something very basic: That men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. To quote both Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Merriam-Webster, they support “the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” That’s it. Seems pretty simple, right?
Er, not so much. Though the mission of feminism (i.e. Equality) is very simple in itself, ideas about how to achieve that goal are diverse and often conflicting. Many feminists have, at a fundamental level, different perspectives on questions like, “How, exactly, does one define “equality” within a complex, multifaceted world? What would true equality look like? What are the most pressing sites of inequality and discrimination that need to be remedied? How do we go about effecting that change?”
From the days of first-wave feminism and the women’s suffrage movement in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, campaigns for gender equality have been characterized by inner-conflict and debate, as supporters have disagreed about how best to empower women. In the decades following women's suffrage, feminists have disagreed about all sorts of issues, from reproductive rights, to the nature of gender, to the roles of women at home and in the workforce. And throughout second and third-wave feminism, mainstream feminism has often faced intense criticism for overlooking questions of race, sexuality, class, and ability in its broader approach to equality.
And that’s all to the good. Although such conflicts have meant that feminism isn’t always (or ever) a peaceful place to be, they also have pushed feminists of all backgrounds to inquire into their own subject positioning, to become more aware of their privilege and their limited points of view. Disagreement may be messy, but it ultimately furthers a more inclusive, nuanced approach to the fight for gender equality.
Read on for 12 things about which it’s A-OK for feminists to disagree. To be honest, I feel a little strange making generalizations of any sort about what feminists can or cannot do. I am certainly not the arbiter of feminism; I can only operate within the borders of my own perspective, which, I fully admit, has its fair share of biases and blind spots. Like other feminists, all I can do is my best to promote gender equality and recognize the shared humanity of all people. And if we disagree about how to do that or what that means, that’s ultimately a good thing — if only because it will make our perspectives a little wider.
Feminists can (and do!) disagree about…
1. What a feminist “looks” like.
Stereotypes of feminists as bra-burning hippies who don’t shave or wear makeup abound, but they are about as true as most other stereotypes — that is, not very. There is no particular style of appearance that defines a feminist. If some people feel like wearing makeup is a capitulation to traditional notions of femininity that demand women conform to arbitrary standards of beauty, and they therefore choose not to wear makeup, that’s fine. If other people feel like makeup is an empowering way to define one’s own identity, and they choose to wear makeup, that’s also fine. The key is that everyone gets to make the choice that is right for them.
2. Who they are voting for.
The run-up to the 2016 presidential election has been contentious, to say the least, and it’s only going to get uglier. I think it’s fair to argue that most feminists will vote for the candidate that they believe will best support gender equality during his or her tenure as president. But not everyone thinks that gender equality can be achieved in the same way, so of course not all feminists agree on the same candidate.
3. Who they see as feminist role models.
Not everyone is inspired by the same people. Many fans, for example, have hailed Beyoncé’s recent works as resoundingly, unapologetically feminist and regard her as a major contemporary feminist role model. Other, however, have argued that Beyoncé’s brand of feminism (coupled with so-called “feminist” ad campaigns and popular media) promotes a shallow engagement with “pop feminism,” rather than real activism. (Ann Friedman recently wrote compellingly about this debate over at The Cut.)
4. Issues of public policy.
Feminists usually agree on certain major goals for gender equality (like pay equality and combatting sexual violence), but they may disagree at length about how specific legislation can be used to make those goals happen. Of course, it’s possible for people to have views that are completely valid, while at the same time being utterly opposed.
5. What constitutes a “feminist lifestyle.”
Honestly, I’m not sure what the phrase “feminist lifestyle” even means, but I am a feminist and I have a life, so I suppose I must be living one. Feminists believe in the “political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” but that belief doesn’t dictate their hobbies, what they like to eat, where they like to travel, what activities they enjoy, what media they consume, where they shop, whether they are intro- or extroverted, what their experiences with formal education have been, or most of the other things that go into the vague concept of “lifestyle.”
6. The best way to campaign for change.
You may remember that in 2015, there was a lot of debate online about “free bleeding,” the practice of forgoing period supplies and bleeding directly into one’s clothes during menstruation. A 4chan hoax was partially responsible for bringing the concept into the foreground, but the discussion turned further toward the political implications of free bleeding when Kiran Gandhi free bled while running the London Marathon, in order to protest period shaming and raise awareness of the many women worldwide who lack access to period supplies. People found the images of Gandhi running with blood between her legs polarizing; some argued that it was a bold feminist statement, while others maintained that it was just bad hygiene. The debate highlighted the fact that not all feminists agree about what feminist activism should like — and that’s OK. There are plenty of useful ways for people to campaign for change.
7. Privilege and diversity (or the lack thereof) within feminism.
Intersectionality is important, y’all. Feminism has helped women make huge strides in the last century, but it is far from perfect. Many have justifiably argued that feminism, as it is practiced by many white feminists, is myopic — that it centralizes the needs and experiences of white, middle class women and ignores other axes of identity that contribute to widespread, systemic inequality, including race, class, sexual orientation, and ability. Discussions about the privilege and unconscious biases that exist among feminists can be uncomfortable, to be sure, but they are essential to promoting a feminism that strives for equality for all women.
8. How they feel about things like changing names, wearing white, and other gendered courtship traditions.
I think most of us can agree that a lot of traditions surrounding courtship and marriage are historically rooted in really problematic, patriarchal attitudes that see women as property and equate their value with sexual purity. But that doesn’t mean that every woman now has to reject those traditions in order to qualify as a feminist. If you want to keep your name upon marriage, great! If you want to change it, go for it! If you want to wear a giant white princess gown, you rock that taffeta! If you want to wear a kickass tux with purple Chucks, I salute you! If you want your father to walk you down the aisle, say “Hi!” to him for me! If you want to walk yourself down the aisle, more power to you! If you’ve always dreamt of getting married and having a wedding, “huzzah” for you! If you think marriage is an outdated social contract that is unnecessary in a modern society, you go Glen Coco! And… you get my drift. Do what feels right for you and your practice of feminism — you get to determine what these traditions mean to you.
9. Sex! Porn!
During the feminist “Sex Wars” of the 1970s and 80s, sex and pornography became topics for heated debate among high-profile feminists. People like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon famously argued that pornography is fundamentally harmful to women, and that it promotes violence against women. A “pro-sex” feminist movement developed in response, arguing that sexual freedom — including the freedom to make and consume porn — is central to feminist ideology.
These debates have cooled since the 1980s, and I think it’s fair to say that most feminists these days have a more moderate view of sexuality. But even though few would now suggest that pornography should be illegal, plenty of feminists have different views of porn and its consumption. Some believe that “feminist porn” can be an empowering form of sexual expression, while others might argue that the term “feminist pornography” is an oxymoron. Feminists also disagree about plenty of other aspects of human sexuality, from reclaiming the word “slut” to the perceived feminism or anti-feminism of practices like BDSM.
10. Whether they like the word “feminist.”
I'll admit it: I roll my eyes as hard as anyone when a celebrity says something like “I support gender equality, but I’m not a feminist.” My first thought is always, “Um, if you support gender equality, a feminist is exactly what you are.” But my own gut-reaction aside, people have the right to use the labels they want and to reject those with which they don’t identify. Sure, sometimes the dismissal of the term “feminist” springs from ignorance (such as the assumption that to be a feminist is to hate men, which is not true). But there are plenty of people out there who have valid reasons to question and refuse the term “feminism.” For example, in her 1983 book, In Search of our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker coined the term “Womanist” as an alternative to “feminist” because she, and many other women of color, felt that mainstream feminism didn’t address their needs, or take their experiences into account (“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” she wrote). When people refuse the term “feminist,” that very refusal can act as a necessary, and ultimately beneficial, critique of feminism as a whole.
11. What makes a “good” feminist.
Often when people describe another person as a “bad” feminist, what they really mean is “That person disagrees with me” or “That person’s feminism doesn’t look like my feminism.” I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “bad feminist.” If a feminist doesn’t believe in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, then that person isn’t a bad feminist — he or she simply isn’t a feminist at all. Beyond that, feminists can have endlessly different viewpoints because people are endlessly different. The best thing we can do is try to listen and learn from each other.
12. A whole lotta other stuff.
I’m a little afraid to say “Feminists can disagree about EVERYTHING” because I don’t want to dilute the idea of feminism down to the point that it becomes meaningless. But because no two feminists (or two people, for that matter) are the same, there are always going to be points of disagreement and differing perspectives, about all sorts of issues. As long as feminists agree on one major point — that all people should have equal rights and opportunities, regardless of gender — that disagreement isn’t a bad thing.