Explainer: What are Gender Feminists and Equity Feminists?

In our ongoing quest to inform readers, we've taken to periodically explaining terms that come up in discussions of feminism. Today's topic is inspired by this Ask Dr. Helen column, on which I will have more to say later. For now, however, I hope to explain two terms you will hear if you go read Dr. Helen, Glen Sacks, Camille Paglia, or really anyone in the anti-feminist set: gender feminist and equity feminist.

What are gender feminists and equity feminists?

Well, first of all, you need to know that these are not terms that actual feminists use.

Nuh-uh! Dr. Helen says she's an "equity feminist," and that has the word "feminist" in it, so she's a feminist, and she uses the terms all the time! So does Christina Hoff Sommers, Glen Sacks, that one conservative guy at work, Ladies Against Women...

Okay, you're right: all those people do claim to be feminists, and they do use those terms. So let's first take a look at what they claim those terms mean.

The gender/equity construct was created by Christina Hoff Sommers in her seminal anti-feminist trope, Who Stole Feminism? Sommers claims that she herself is an equity feminist; that is, she believes in equal rights and equal opportunity for women under the law. But she does not believe in addressing or changing gender roles; that falls under the rubric of gender feminism.

In the standard dichotomy as developed by Sommers, gender feminists are seeking to undermine women's innate goals. While an equity feminist might believe that women should have the equal right to work as men, equity feminists believe that it's okay if outcomes are different, because women and men are just plain different. Women like staying home, men like working, and that's just the way it is, some things will never change.

The mean ol' gender feminists, meanwhile, try to claim that women and men aren't "just different," but that many of the differences we attribute to "the way things are" turn out to be societal constructs. They spend their time trying to eliminate those differences, which is, according to the equity feminists, a very bad thing.

Is it?


Well, why not?

Because there is a difference between equality under the law and actual equality. Take race, for a contrasting example. While one can argue about certain points of law and the way the law is enforced, from a strictly statutory standpoint the law is pretty color-blind, especially when contrasted with how it was written in, say, 1957.

But only a benighted fool or Will Saletan (but I repeat myself) would claim that therefore, racism has been eliminated, and those working to change society's opinions on race are doing something wrong. Indeed, it's well-understood that society still functions in an unequal manner, and that we all need to do more work to eliminate racism. Even when conservatives try to argue that racism has been eliminated, one can tell that their hearts aren't in it; it's too obviously false.

So it is with gender. While the laws are certainly far more gender-balanced now than they were a half-century ago, only someone willfully blind would say that sexism no longer exists in our society, or that we've reached a point where reverse sexism is targeting men. Women have made many strides, but one only has to take a look at the average state legislature or Fortune 500 company board of directors to see just how much work society has to do before we reach true equity.

So are you "gender feminists" saying men and women are exactly the same?

No. But we are saying that many of the differences we see are pushed on us, literally, from the day we're born. My daughter has two strongly feminist parents, and she still has come home from pre-school to ask if it's okay for girls to play with dinosaurs. When three-year-olds are being pushed to adopt their correct gender roles, it's impossible to argue that those gender roles are constant as the northern star.

So you don't like "gender feminist" and "equity feminist." What are better terms?

What Sommers and her ilk rail against is the idea that women should be able to define for themselves what "conforming to gender" means. (And, for that matter, that men should be able to define it for themselves.) But self-determination -- the ability to live one's life as one pleases, without having to bow and scrape before society's arbitrary definitions of gender -- is at the core of modern feminism.

The patriarchy is all about placing people in boxes that define who they are. Soi disant equity feminists think that's okay, as long as the boxes are all the same size. It doesn't matter if one box holds slide rules while the other holds baby dolls -- those things are just natural. Soi disant gender feminists think that you yourself are the best person to pick out your own box, and fill it with your own stuff; indeed, they think it's okay to choose no box at all.

In short, there's no such thing as gender feminism; those people who think that society and government must both strive to support equality and self-determination are feminists. And there's no such thing as equity feminism, because one can't reach true equity without changing society as well as government. Because "equity feminists" are against actually achieving feminist goals, they are anti-feminists.

Isn't that a bit harsh?

Look, the anti-feminists know that for all their griping, people no longer believe that women should be barred from the workplace. Nobody supports laws that give men unfair advantages. So the fact is that technical equality is already a fait accompli. The battleground for feminism now is over the definition of gender roles. "Equity feminism" says, essentially, that we're done, that we've reached true equality between men and women, and the feminists should shut up. In other words. If you think that we truly have reached a point when men and women are truly equal, in all senses of the word, then fine, you can call yourself an equity feminist if you wish. Here in the real world, those of us who are truly feminist will continue to fight for actual, real, and lasting equality between men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, cisgendered and transgendered. That will have some legal components -- the law isn't completely gender-balanced yet -- but most of the work will be in changing the minds of people in our society, one at a time. That's the battleground we have to engage in. And those arguing we should avoid it are arguing that the battle for equality, true equality, is a battle that should be left unfought.

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