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What is Contemporary Feminism?: Feminism as a learning process

Lila O'Rourke

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Croydon, Great Britain: Vintage, 2008)

TRIGGER WARNING: Rape, sexual violence.

‘Feminism’ can be a difficult label to define, as it can be open for interpretation. People who choose to be feminists and those who vehemently disagree with feminism have extremely differing views as to what feminism is. However, even within the ongoing movement, those who identify as feminists have differing views as to what that role entails. There are no universal guidelines as to what does or doesn’t make a “good feminist.” This is one of the amazing things about feminism, as there is no singular way of being feminist, just as there is no singular way of being a woman. The various and unique identities of women are represented in the various and unique ways of being feminist. However, this can mean that the range of voices and subject matter in feminist discussion can make it difficult to pinpoint exactly what feminism is, and what the primary concerns of the movement are. This piece is an endeavour to articulate my own interpretation of the concerns of feminism as a movement.

To become a feminist is to engage in a learning process that reveals the nature of our societies. Feminism is learnt by listening to the experiences of other women and by thinking critically about our own experiences and actions. Every person, regardless of gender, is in a different stage of their own feminism. This can be hard to accept, especially when trying to discuss feminist issues with people whose views vastly differ from one's own. I lived with a girl who once spoke with so much pride about how the men in her life helped out with the cooking. This seemed to be an almost revolutionary act in her opinion. Sure, men doing domestic tasks would have been revolutionary in the 1950’s, however, in 2016 I was rather shocked to hear another woman discuss what I thought were such basic concepts with such enthusiasm. Upon reflecting on my reaction to her statement I quickly realised my judgemental attitude. Why couldn’t that be revolutionary today? Every person on this planet is unique, and we experience varied and diverse lives. Coming from a traditional background that maintained strict gender roles would make breaking the mould of those roles a revolutionary act. Challenging what is expected of you based on your gender is a personal revolution in itself. We can engage in revolutionary change on a personal level  as much as on a societal level. 

My interpretation of feminism is what some would refer to as ‘equalism’ - equal rights and opportunities for all people, regardless of gender. I reject the term equalism in favour of feminism, as the former does not acknowledge the institutionalised systems of oppression that have worked against women for centuries. The barriers to equality that women have faced are systemic in almost all modern societies, and are so extensive that the beneficiaries of this systemic injustice are often unaware of how they profit from it. As seventeenth century feminist Poulain de Barre has articulated, “Being men, those who have made and compiled the laws have favoured their own sex, and jurists have elevated these laws into principles.” If it was evident in the seventeenth century that men have transformed their patriarchal domination into ‘principles’, these principles have only solidified over centuries past, resulting in a society today where these principles of patriarchy are invisible to those who benefit from them. Feminism involves taking this historical injustice into consideration when fighting the discrimination women experience in patriarchal societies today. Many people who would identify as ‘equalists’ claim that feminists are unfairly providing women with more than men - and that this is an injustice in itself. This claim relies on such a limited view of the history of feminism, it is simply foolish. It is difficult to understand the movement today without an understanding of its history. 

Similarly, without attempting to understand how injustice diversely affects all women, our view of contemporary feminism is limited. The phrase ‘contemporary feminism’ can bring to mind images of women, usually white, proudly showing off their armpit hair. This image, representative of twenty-first century western feminism, is reductive and unhelpful to the struggle for equality for all women. That does not mean that white women who choose to grow their armpit hair are counterproductive feminists, but simply that there is more to feminism than this stereotype. Definitions of feminism vary so greatly that, as with any group, reducing the term to a stereotype or trend misrepresents and excludes key contributors to feminism. Feminism can mean something different to every feminist. The varying interpretations of feminism across cultures create barriers to understanding feminism as a global movement, as these interpretations can often be polarised. For example, as mentioned, a common stereotype of feminists in western culture is the woman who refuses to conform to patriarchal beauty standards by growing out her underarm hair or perhaps not wearing make up. However, in countries like Iran, where strict dress codes are in place, removing body hair and wearing make up can be a revolutionary act. In Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, she recounts being a young woman and feminist in Iran, where wearing lipstick was a political statement strong enough to have her arrested. In both situations, even though the outcomes appear to be polar opposites, these are inherently feminist acts of rebellion as they challenge standards set by men. The standards of appearance in modern society, whether in Australia or in Iran, are dictated by a culture of patriarchal domination. To reconcile the different ways in which feminist acts are expressed, we must acknowledge that these acts are a reaction to the ways in which women are oppressed, a reaction to  how the dominance of the patriarchy manifests in everyday life.

Without acknowledging the source of feminist acts of rebellion, the reaction to patriarchal culture, we cannot consolidate feminism as a movement for the equality of all women. Additionally, we cannot consolidate feminism as a movement for the equality of all women if our feminism is not intersectional. Intersectionality is an important concept that refers to “the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.” Fighting for freedom from oppression for women necessarily involves rebelling against and dismantling capitalist-patriarchal-racist-heteronormative power structures. These institutions of privilege work to keep the powerful in control and everyone else in the dark, uninformed, uneducated, and without any tangible way of creating the impactful change we need to create a just world. Without an understanding of intersectional feminism we cannot truly grasp how all of these power structures continue to exploit and oppress women. 

The pervasive and influential power of patriarchy in our society is exemplified especially in the culture of distrust and rivalry between women. Magazines aimed at heterosexual women frequently contain features on how to ‘win’ a man, implying that landing a date is akin to a competition. The way in which language is used to perpetuate these attitudes is often subtle. Headlines such as “Quiz: Are You Sending Him the Right Signals?” And “Love Lessons: Learn them and land a BF by New Years!” place the emphasis on women to alter the way they act or dress in order to attract men. By using language that implies responsibility on the woman’s behalf we are creating a society in which women must compete for attention. It is not only in terms of attracting a partner that women are made to compete either. Due to the very few spaces available to women in certain occupations, women who aspire to such positions often view successful female peers as competitors. Women are hugely underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields. For example, women make up only 13% of the U.S. workforce in engineering. The disparity increases for women from diverse backgrounds with minority women representing less than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers in the U.S. The situation in Australia is comparable, with only 14% of roles in engineering and only 25% of roles in information technology held by women. Carmen Rios, writing for Everyday Feminism, has revealed the gender inequality present in senior positions across the industries, “Among Fortune 500 companies, women are only 5.2% of CEOs and 17% of board members. Among Fortune 1000 companies, women are still only 5.4% of CEOs – and 8.1% of top earners… Women make up only 21% of nonprofit leaders, despite 75% of the sector being comprised of women.” Rios articulates how the struggle increases for those women “who live at the intersections of oppression in positions of power. Women of color make up only 11.9% of managerial and professional positions in the country, with Latina women filling 3.9% and African-American women 5.3%. Only 2.7% of Asian women fill those high-ranking positions.” When looking at statistics like that, it is all too obvious that being a woman in the workplace is to be involved in a brutal competition for the limited spaces made available for women.

The lack of representation and opportunity in senior management across sectors is an important issue for women of privilege, however contemporary feminism should be a reaction against all fully integrated forms of oppression that dictate how we live our lives. Women in the western world are inherently complicit in the oppression of other women as these forms of oppression intersect with other power structures, such as capitalism. In the Bangladeshi garment industry, where the infamous collapse of the Rana Plaza factory caused the deaths of 1,127 people in 2013, the workforce is predominantly women. Nanjala Nyabola writes “the cost of being the engines for the economic growth of their country is that women are more likely to be uneducated in Bangladesh than in just about any other south Asian country.” By continuing to purchase clothes made cheaply in developing countries we continue to fund the oppression of women. For Western women to conform to the standards set by men and perpetuated in patriarchal culture, women purchase clothing that is usually more expensive and of lesser quality than men’s clothes, resulting in a higher turnover of trends. This acceptance of fast fashion in mainstream Western culture directly contributes to the poor quality of life that women in countries like Bangladesh experience. By consuming goods made unethically in an attempt to  get ahead in a male dominated capitalist world, we are forcing into cycles of poverty those women who do not have the same opportunities as women of privilege. Women are still playing a man’s game, by their rules.

By pursuing profits rather than the rights of people, governments directly cause oppression and suffering to women worldwide. In his book How the World Works, American academic and political activist, Noam Chomsky has outlined the multifaceted way in which wealthy nations exploit developing countries and create terror and war. It is no secret that rape is commonly used as a war tactic, so when governments knowingly create policies that instigate war, such as the U.S. government's support of tyrannical regimes in South America, they are supporting and funding the oppression of women. In El Salvador in the 1980’s battalions were organized and trained by the U.S. to suppress popular movements for democracy and human rights. A U.S. trainer described one particular battalion as “particularly ferocious… We’ve always had a hard time getting them to take prisoners instead of ears.” The Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, appealed to the U.S. president in 1980, begging “him not to send military aid to the junta that ran the country. He said such aid would be used to ‘sharpen injustice and repression against the people’s organisations’ which were struggling ‘for respect for their most basic human rights.’” Romero was assassinated shortly after, and the military aid continued to flow into the country. Reverend Daniel Santiago, working in El Salvador at the time, detailed the sickening tactics used by the U.S. trained and funded militaries, “Salvadoran women were not just raped by the National Guard; their wombs were cut from their bodies and used to cover their faces.” When we elect to power governments that pursue policies of oppression, we are complicit in the subjugation of women all over the world. Western nations and institutions profit from the relationships maintained with oppressive regimes in developing countries. The International Monetary Fund forces developing countries to prioritize export production at the expense of local Indigenous agriculture. When local agriculture is no longer produced, the community becomes reliant on imported products. For many, the only employment available is in sweatshop style factories. Those who had been farmers are driven out of the industry, or are forced to grow crops for agricultural exports, where the majority of profits do not return to the local economy. Following ‘successful’ IMF intervention in Bolivia the country’s currency has stabilised and debt had been reduced. However, at the same time, “poverty has rapidly increased. Malnutrition has increased. The educational system has collapsed.” The consequences of increased poverty, malnutrition, and lack of education will disproportionately affect women, due to the patriarchal dominance present in all contemporary societies. Contemporary feminism must address issues like this if it claims to be for the advancement of all women.

Feminism is a unique struggle, as Simone De Beauvoir articulates, “women lack concrete means for organizing themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own… They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to other men - fathers or husbands - more firmly than they are to other women.” The competitive nature of existing in contemporary society as a woman (as outlined above) contributes to the ways in which women are isolated from one another. Women exist in just about every sphere of society; there are lesbian women, Black women, trans women, Asian women, wealthy women, disabled women, and so on. However, women have been unable to unite across these spheres as, to quote de Beauvoir again, “the bond that unites her to her oppressors is unlike any other.” Society often shifts focus onto our differences rather than our similarities. Without embracing intersectionality as a foundation for feminism, the fight for equality for all women will be futile.

In the introduction to her study of women, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir asks a question that, to me, summarises feminism and its mission; “...women on the whole are today inferior to men; that is, their situation affords them fewer possibilities. The question is: should that state of affairs continue?” Our goal as feminists is to bring about an end to this state of affairs.

Words by Lila O'Rourke





Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Aylesbury, Bucks, Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1972), 22 

Bridey Heing, "Confronting Modesty: Feminism in Iran," The Mantle, April 30th 2015 <>

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (Croydon, Great Britain: Vintage, 2008), 287

“Intersectionality,” Geek Feminism Wiki <>

“Women’s Magazine Cover Lines,” <>

“Statistics: State of Girls and Women in STEM,” National Girls Collaborative Project <>

Professionals Australia, “Women in STEM in Australia: What is the current state of play, what are the key issues, and why does it matter?” (Professionals Australia, 2012), 4 <>

Carmen Rios, “We have a Women’s Leadership Problem – And It’s Not for the Reasons You Think,” Everyday Feminism, October 19th 2015 <>

Jerome Small, “Making a killing: Rana Plaza and the global garment industry,” Red Flag, April 23rd 2015 <>

Nanjala Nyabola, “Uniting global feminism,” The Guardian, August 16th 2010 <>

Noam Chomsky, How the World Works (London, Great Britain: Penguin Books, 2011)