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What is a feminist?

By Cireena Simcox - posted Thursday, 25 January 2007

There are few words in the public sphere today as inflammatory as the words feminist or feminism.

Both in media and social circles the word feminist is often preceded by adjectives such as hairy, rabid, crazy, evil, pathetic, repressed, lesbian, frustrated, whining, whingeing and worse. It is not surprising then that the concept of feminism itself is regarded by many as synonymous with Nazism, sexual deviance, demonisation, mental instability, anti-Christianity, Leftism, Rightism, immorality and even the breakdown of modern society.

Feminism is not a new phenomenon. Traditionally Mary Wollstonecrafts’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 heralded its appearance. In fact many scholars are now finding that the hitherto undiscovered works of women from as early as the beginning of the 1600’s disclose a feminist tradition that precedes even Wollstonecraft.


Why then is it still such an emotive subject?

First, there is a large section of the population who, knowing very little about the subject, regard it as a new discipline: a product of the swingin’ 60s. There are, after all, few people around who remember further back than the ‘60’s in terms of The Woman Question. Although some people, it must be acknowledged, have a hazy idea of the suffragist’s political movement used as comedic sidelines in such children’s classic movies as Mary Poppins or the perennial favourite My Fair Lady.

In a society which many regard as bedeviled by violence, failing economies, religious zealotry, and increased social welfare dependence, it is inevitable that some people will hark back to a largely mythical past when all was right with the world.

Though sifting back through two world wars, a worldwide depression, influenza pandemics, high infant mortality rates, low life expectancy rates, plagues, crusades, witch hunts and primitive medical experiments it is difficult to pin-point exactly when this utopia existed.

With such a worldview however, anything perceived as modern and controversial - the abolition of capital punishment, feminism, the Greens - can be seen as the scapegoat factor. Anxious to make sense of an increasingly non-sensical world situation it is tempting to think “Ah, but if it weren’t for Them all would be well”.

The advantage of choosing feminism as the scapegoat factor is that, to date, no feminists have claimed responsibility for either blowing something up, shooting anyone or taking hostages. They are relatively safe protagonists.


Second, it is fact that the human species exists only as male or female. Therefore each one of us who has been treated unfairly or badly at the hands of another must, by necessity, have received that treatment from either male or female hands. Those who, for whatever reason, find themselves unable to come to terms with their life experiences often succumb to the temptation to decry instead the entire opposite sex our opponent represents.

This serves a twofold purpose: as each gender comprises approximately half of the total population it is inevitable that support for one’s stance will be found. Additionally, by claiming victim status the wider question of how or why to come to terms with the fact that bad things happen to good people need never be faced.

While the above could supply the answers to the question of why feminism and feminists are so often targeted, the reasons for the inflammatory rhetoric could probably be ascribed mainly to complete misunderstanding or indeed widespread ignorance.

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About the Author

Cireena Simcox has been a journalist and columnist for the last 20 years and has written a book titled Finding Margaret Cavendish. She is also an actor and playwright .

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