Did you ever start a sentence with “I’m not a feminist, but—”? Do you sometimes ridicule feminists because they’re so extreme/illogical/irrelevant? Do you feel that being described as a feminist would be insulting? Then I have news for you: you might be a feminist anyway.

Here’s a simple test. You are a feminist if:

  1. You believe men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.
  2. You realize we’re not there yet, with the gender imbalance affecting women most of the time.

It’s as simple as that. Don’t believe in equality? Not a feminist. Or do you believe women and men have equal opportunities in our society right now? Not a feminist. But if you do believe in equality and think we’re not there yet, you’re probably a feminist.

Of course I have no intention to force a label upon you. If you’re one of the many people who start with “I’m not a feminist, but—” before saying anything in support of gender equality, that’s your call. But you might want to review your reasons for shying away from that label. Do you really disagree with the core tenets of feminism, or are you mostly afraid of all the negative cultural associations surrounding feminism?

In the next two parts of this article there’ll be some details on what feminism is and what it isn’t. Feel free to stop here if you don’t care or if you know all that already; read on if you have a few minutes to spare and want to know more.

What feminism is

Feminism, as a value system, is the combination of a moral belief in gender equality and of a sociological analysis that says that, by and large, women happen to be at a disadvantage.

This definition is quite broad, but that’s on purpose. The truth is that, in practice, feminism is not a cohesive movement. You’ll find a lot of people with contradicting views. Marxists and right-wing feminists and what have you. Feminists and feminist groups may disagree on the definition of issues (“is that really a feminist or sexist issue?”), on priorities (“should we focus on A or B?”) and on means of action (“how should we tackle this issue?”).

Now this might come as a shock to some but, even if you think of yourself as a feminist, you don’t have to give up the right to use your brain and to disagree with people. So don’t be afraid of being told something like “WTF!? You’re a feminist? Does that mean you believe that [X]?” (where X is some crude misconception, or a political view you don’t share, or maybe something you do believe in). You retain your right to not accept people’s preconceptions, and your right to explain your opinion.

In addition, many people are not comfortable with the word “feminism” because it implies a focus on women’s rights (femme means woman in French). They say that if the core belief of feminism is gender equality, we should ditch that word, “feminism”, and talk about anti-sexism instead. As long as it’s not used as a way to shut people down (and sadly it very often is), that’s a fair point.

I think “feminism” is still a legitimate and useful word for two reasons:

  1. Given that, even today, most gender inequalities affect women, it’s reasonable to focus on women’s rights and gender representations that limit women’s social opportunities. Sure, men get discriminated against from time to time, but it’s much less prevalent than what women must face through most of their lives. So maybe it’s okay to have focus and use a word that reflects that focus? Action without focus often ends up in wishy-washy “everyone should just get along” talk.

  2. Using “feminism” is also a way to pay respect to all the women who fought hard in the various “waves” of feminism in order to: achieve equal rights to property, education and vote; curb discrimination in daily life and in the workplace (and can we really say that this fight is over?); raise difficult and often taboo issues such as the prevalence of sexual harassment or “rape culture”. Lots of courageous work here. We should celebrate and take up this work, not disparage it and write if off as something of the past.

What feminism is not

There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism. I can’t possibly list them all here, but here are a few I care about.

  • Feminism is not only for women. I’m a man. I care about women’s rights for reasons that are both altruistic (I want the women in my life to enjoy the same rights and social opportunities I have) and selfish (I don’t want to conform to preconceptions about how a man, as opposed to a woman, should live).

  • Feminists are not inherently better or worse than anyone else. I don’t believe that feminists have more or less sex or are more peaceful or more aggressive than the next person (of course the common preconception is that they have less sex and are more aggressive). And, anyway, how is that even relevant to a discussion of political and philosophical views?

  • Nobody has a monopoly on what feminism is. In particular, feminism is not limited to the last few PR stunts from the most visible feminist group out there.

  • Feminism is not some relic of the past. In most Western countries, men and women enjoy equal rights (with a few exceptions or pain points, see e.g. the war on birth control in the US), but they don’t enjoy equal opportunities. We’re all used to treating men and women differently, and most of the time we don’t even notice it. Habits die hard. (It starts with the kind of toys we gift to kids and the different ways we expect them to behave — e.g. “you know how boys are, always running, getting dirty and climbing things”.) Our laws are mostly gender-neutral, but our culture isn’t, and it has very real consequences on what women think they can do, what men and women think other women can do, etc. Not enough women in leadership roles? That’s a direct consequence of our culture. And we can all work a bit on shifting that.

That’s all for me, thank you for reading!