Feminists Are NOT Humanists – And We Should Not Be Renamed

BY SHERRIE SILMAN • AUGUST 21, 2014

(Originally published on the now defunct site «Feminspire’)

There’s a question that many Feminists are sick of being asked:

“If feminism is about equal rights for everyone, why don’t you call it equality-ism or humanism?”

Here’s the short answer:

Feminism isn’t called Humanism or Egalitarianism because Feminism, Humanism, and Egalitarianism are three distinct theories.

Feminism isn’t called Humanism or Egalitarianism because Egalitarianism and Humanism pre-existed the idea that ‘women could or even should be recognized as persons’ and didn’t care to take up the cause of gender equity, or to combat homophobia, or racism, or other prejudices that human rights law seeks to eradicate.

Feminism declines to change its name to not include the ‘fem’ because the desire to erase the feminine is negatively prejudicial.

Feminism is called Feminism precisely because of the anti-fem sentiment infecting this planet.

The explanation:

Feminism is a social movement advocating for equal recognition of human rights and associated protections for all genders – and not just rights and protections on paper or in theory, but rights and protections *in practice*.

Feminism operates on the tenet that gender is not an acceptable basis for discrimination, subjugation, marginalization, oppression, enslavement, and/or eradication. The very first distinctly unifying grounds upon which the movement arose was the concept that gender should not dictate whether or not an individual was granted personhood under the law or provided with basic human rights. It’s called Feminism because the gender being denied personhood and subjected to other oppressions was (and still is) female, hence the “fem” in feminism.

Feminism began in places where female-gendered persons were being subjected to discrimination, marginalization, oppression, enslavement, eradication, and other violence. Historically, in most parts of the world, female persons were considered less than men, property of men, and even less than human. This sexism continues in the majority of the world today (and anyone telling you that things aren’t that bad is really just telling you that they don’t experience sexism, marginalization or subjugation directly and don’t care to advocate for those who do).

So, yes, Feminism advocates for female persons to have equal rights with non-female persons. Feminism advocates for equal rights for all persons regardless of gender, because gender is not an acceptable basis for discrimination. To advocate that gender is not an acceptable basis for discrimination is to advocate that sex, orientation, age, nationality, socio-economic status, literacy, ability, and so on are also not acceptable bases for discrimination. Many of us reading this would agree: human rights are for everyone. However, violations of basic human rights, including outright acts of enslavement and oppression, happen every day everywhere on the planet. How does change get enacted? Through action. You start a movement. You prepare for battle.

Feminism is a movement for gender equality.

Who was around before Feminism to advocate for and demand equal rights for all persons regardless of gender? That’s right: No one. There’s no memorable movement identifiable before Feminism. There were movements before what spawned Feminism, and those movements contributed to the social climate that allowed Feminism to coalesce, but none of them had Feminism’s focus. Feminism is the movement against using gender as a basis for discrimination.

So-called ‘feminist claims’ that do not support the aim to achieve equality in terms of human rights and protections for all genders (and by extension, for all persons and social locations suffering under abuses of power) are not actually feminist claims.

Humanism is a branch of philosophy (and ethics) that advocates for equality, tolerance, and secularism (what is commonly known as “the separation of church and state”). Humanism recognizes that human beings do not “require” religion in order to develop moral systems or behave morally. In other words, Humanism is the theory that human beings are able to use logic to determine what is ethical (right and wrong) and do not require dictations from a spaghetti monster (or other deity) in order to understand morality. Humanists advocate for education, tolerance, representative politics (rather than monarchies), and freedom of thought (from religious tyranny). Humanism is not currently an active socio-political movement.

Egalitarianism is a form of political philosophy that advocates all human beings are fundamentally equal and therefore equally entitled to resources (e.g., food, shelter, respect, social status). Egalitarianism, for all its merits, has some distinct limits in applied practice. Equality was originally conceptualized as a means to give everyone the same things, the same means as it were, and although concepts and theories of equality morphed and grew from that starting point, the fact is you can give everyone the exact same items and still have not alleviated inequality and/or unfairness. For example, stating that everyone is entitled to two apples and then handing out two apples to every person does not address the inequity of resources that pre-existed the handing out of apples (in other words, some persons might have already had two apples while others had none, some people are allergic to apples, and some people were more in need of blanket than an apple). Egalitarianism, while a fundamental ethical concept, often fails to address inequities through an intersectional lens. Egalitarianism is not currently an active socio-political movement.

Humanism and Egalitarianism are important intellectual movements whose philosophies inform Feminism as well as global human rights legislation. But Feminism is the only movement actively advocating for gender equality. Feminism is called Feminism because it began as a socio-political movement to achieve gender equality for females and, through its own logic and rhetoric, therefore is a socio-political movement to achieve equality for all persons regardless of gender (or any other demographic characteristic). By logical extension, Feminism supports Equity Theory.

Equity Theory recognizes various and intersectional spheres of power dynamics that create locations of domination/subordination based on value-judgements assigned to various concepts or actualities (e.g., race, gender). Unlike Egalitarianism, Equity Theory tackles how to create equality without treating everyone like they are all exactly the same. People are not all exactly the same, and differing social actors in differing social locations face differing challenges within the social environment.Handing everyone an apple does not create equality if anyone is unable to actually grasp the apple. Barriers, physical, social, and discursive, create inequality of access and require individualized approaches to be overcome. Equity Theory is an intersectional approach to ethics, human rights, and socio-political thought.

To break this down more simply: Egalitarianism tries to give every person the same two loaves of bread despite that some people are allergic to bread. Humanism argues that we should give the loaves of bread to everyone not because the spaghetti monster told us to but because it is logically ethical to do so. Equity Theory recognizes that what some people need (for equality) is two different types of bread, or one loaf and one apple, or no loaves and two oranges (because everyone is different). Feminism reminds us that no one gender is entitled to more loaves of bread, or the freshest loaves of bread, and that certain social locations (genders, sexual orientations, ethnoracial identities) have been pushed to the back of the line unfairly, frequently, and often violently. Feminism points out that, despite the kind thoughts and well-meaning beginnings of Egalitarianism and Humanism, those pushed-back social locations are starving on the crumbs left behind by those who think only certain types of people are entitled to bread in the first place. And Feminism points to the humanists and egalitarians stepping on the heads of those in marginalized social locations to point out that there’s someone beneath their feet, and that if they could just shuffle their position a bit then the person beneath their feet would no longer be trampled.

So the next time someone tells you that they’d get behind Feminism only if it changed its name to some other movement that doesn’t actively combat oppression and inequity, go ahead and congratulate that asshat on the whopping size of their prejudice. And, if you’re feeling kind, maybe send them to this article.

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