What Is Feminism Really All About?

Women hold up protest signs, with the largest sign reading, "Women Strike for Peace - and Equality!"
The New York Historical Society

What feminism means is a hotly contested debate in the twenty-first century. Often, efforts to define feminism are hatched in response to critiques or dismissals of it as angry, irrational, and man-hating. The term itself is so widely contested and derided that many people adamantly state that they are "not feminists," despite espousing what many consider feminist values and views.

Key Takeaways: Feminism

  • The definition of feminism is hotly contested and the term is often misunderstood.
  • From the sociological perspective, feminism can be defined as an attempt to promote equality by challenging patriarchal social structures.
  • Feminists today take an intersectional perspective, considering how factors such as race and socioeconomic status affect people’s experiences in patriarchal systems.

Feminism Is a Response to Patriarchal Social Structures

So what is feminism really all about? Equality. Not just for women, but for all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, culture, religion, ability, class, nationality, or age.

Studying feminism from a sociological perspective brings all of this to light. Viewed this way, one can see that feminism is about trying to change patriarchal social structures. The focus of a feminist critique is a social system that is designed by men, guided by their particular gendered world views and experiences, and designed to privilege their values and experiences at the expense of others.

Who those men are, in terms of race and class, among other things, varies from place to place. But at a global level, and especially within Western nations, those men in power have historically been wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual, which is an important historical and contemporary point. Those in power determine how society operates, and they determine it based on their own perspectives, experiences, and interests, which more often than not serve to create unequal and unjust systems.

Feminism Is About De-Centering the Male Perspective

Within the social sciences, the development of a feminist perspective and feminist theories have always been about de-centering the privileged white male perspective from framing social problems, the approach to studying them, how we actually study them, what we conclude about them, and what we try to do about them as a society. Feminist social science begins by casting off the assumptions derived from the particular standpoint of privileged white men. This means not just reconfiguring social science to not privilege men, but also, to de-center whiteness, heterosexuality, middle and upper-class status, ability, and other elements of the dominant perspective in order to create a social science that combats inequality and fosters equality through inclusion.

Feminism Isn’t Just About Gender

Patricia Hill Collins, one of the most accomplished and important American sociologists alive today, referred to this approach to seeing the world and its peoples as intersectional. This approach recognizes that systems of power and privilege, and of oppression, work together, intersect, and rely upon each other. This concept has become central to today's feminism because understanding intersectionality is central to understanding and fighting inequality.

Collins's articulation of the concept (and the lived reality of it) is what makes race, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and many other things necessary to include in a feminist perspective. For one is never simply just a woman or a man: one is defined by and operates within these other social constructs that have very real consequences that shape experiences, life chances, perspectives, and values.

What Feminism Is Really About

Because feminism is so misunderstood, many people—including some high-profile celebrities—have avoided calling themselves feminists. For example, Taylor Swift avoided calling herself a feminist in a 2012 interview but clarified in 2014 that she does consider herself a feminist and that her earlier remarks on feminism were based on a misunderstanding of the term. In other words, many people distance themselves from feminism simply because they have misconceptions about what feminism actually means.

So what is feminism really all about? Feminism is about fighting inequality in all of its forms, including classism, racism, global corporate colonialism, heterosexism and homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and of course, the persistent problem of sexism. It is also about fighting these on a global level, and not just within our own communities and societies, because we are all connected by globalized systems of economy and governance, and because of this, power, privilege, and inequality operate on a global scale.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Is Feminism Really All About?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-feminism-p2-3026083. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). What Is Feminism Really All About? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-feminism-p2-3026083 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Is Feminism Really All About?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-feminism-p2-3026083 (accessed May 30, 2023).