What does it mean to be a feminist in the 21st century?

‘I’m not a feminist, but I do believe in equal pay for both sexes’.

‘I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist, but I really hate it when women are objectified’.

‘I have strong opinions about the reproductive rights of women, but I’m definitely not a feminist’.


These are some of the common phrases I hear from my female friends who do not want to be directly associated with feminism, yet still believe in equal rights for women. This distancing led me to realise that ‘feminism’ has become a heavy word. The problem is that there is no clearly defined meaning. There is no succinct and formal guide written on ‘how to be a feminist’ – because the truth is that feminism encompasses a range of ideologies and movements. There is no ‘one size fits all’ policy.

Are feminists a bunch of angry women who burn bras and refuse to shave their arm pits? Are they inherently unfeminine and angry? Do they strive to take over the world? Many misrecognitions and stereotypes surround feminism to the point where women feel that it is a no-go zone. Even celebrities such as Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have outright declared that they are not feminists, mainly because of the connotations that feminists complain about and hate men. This is worrying considering that they are meant to be role models for young women.

What is interesting is that, just like many of my friends, these celebrities are not necessarily shunning the ideas behind feminism. With Katy Perry saying, ‘I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women’. If she believes in the power of women, then why wouldn’t she believe in their empowerment? Most likely she does, but she’s not willing to use the term feminism to describe it. As such, feminism has been reduced to a label and not just a set of ideas.

Yet there are celebrities who still identify as feminists and aim to draw attention to gender related issues. Emma Watson urges men to embrace gender equality through her speech about the United Nation’s ‘HeForShe Campaign’. Another public figure, Jennifer Lawrence has also recently addressed the gender pay gap in her essay titled ‘Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?’.

But celebrities are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are now copious amounts of social media campaigns addressing feminism. ‘Women Against Feminism’ encourages females to submit photos of themselves with signs explaining why they are anti-feminist. One of the signs reads ‘I don’t need feminism because I believe in equality not entitlements and supremacy’. The campaign has over 34,000 likes on Facebook.

Contrastingly, there are plenty of women who are advocates of feminism too. Other hashtags dominating social media include ‘Yes All Women‘ and ‘Free the Nipple’. These hashtags aim to draw attention to stories of misogyny, violence and repression of sexuality.

Closer to home, Bahar Mustafa from Goldsmiths University London was scrutinised for tweeting the hash tag ‘Kill All White Men’. What’s even more concerning is that she is the university union’s welfare and diversity officer. She explained that such comments were ‘in-jokes and ways that many people in the queer feminist community express ourselves’.

All these opposing and headstrong views demonstrate that the meaning of feminism in the 21st century is hazy. The strict definition of the word is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. A strict interpretation of the word would argue that anyone who believes in gender equality is a feminist. On the other hand, it can be argued that the ‘fem’ part of feminism implies the superiority of women. There is also a movement called ‘men-inism’, which promotes gender equality for men. Although it is mainly used to mock hardcore feminists. Therefore a movement which advocates for the rights of one gender is not gender equality in the strictest sense. Some have put forward the idea of a ‘humanist’ instead.

Perhaps the problem is not the definition of feminism, but what constitutes the movement. If it should send messages of female empowerment, how should it achieve this? By encouraging women to join the workforce? Should it promote gender fairness by suppressing men? The reality is that there are always going to be extremists and people who claim to be feminists – but who may seem to have the most illogical and even bizarre views.

Dismissing feminism is unprogressive and unbecoming. Why wouldn’t we as women want to celebrate the liberties we now have? Even though feminism is a multifaceted idea and movement, the fundamental principle of gender equality is still relevant today. Being a feminist in the 21st century shouldn’t deter people, instead the idea of gender equality should be self-propelling.


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