When we encounter the concept of feminism, we associate a lot of different things with it. Often our feelings are influenced by our own gender – whether we are a woman or a man. But our perception of feminism more strongly tied to our ideology. Feminism has, in some way, become a social separation tool, which, among other aspects, strengthens the line between the two ideological camps of conservatism and liberalism. Just as topics like EU integration, the refugee crisis or opinions on certain politicians, feminism increasingly fulfils the role of a decorating label for well-behaved liberals, while being a target for huffy conservatives. In any case, feminism triggers strong emotions. On one hand, feminist activists use indecent language or protest naked, because they feel like they are not seen or heard otherwise. On the other hand, some people reduce feminism to an egalitarian gender role perception and try to reinforce patriarchic views, in an attempt to protect their cognitive comfort zone.
This article departs from these views and introduces a different, more powerful and useful view on feminism. Feminism is often perceived to be an ideology, a movement or a lifestyle that centres around promoting equality between the two genders; and there are plenty of reasons to do so! When we look around the world, we see many different forms of oppression against women. In Saudi Arabia, women are subject to public dress codes. In Christist European and American countries, women are often reduced to sexual objects. In some African societies, women’s value is mainly tied to her fertility. In India, women live under the constant fear of rape. These situations are horrific in their own right, but there is a lot more to it: domestic violence, gender pay gap, birth control debates ( in some countries at least), fear to walk alone in the dark and many more things. Also women cannot grasp all the problems that other women somewhere else encounter; a Japanese woman has to battle other aspects of patriarchy, compared to a Kyrgyz woman.
Unfortunately, protesting and ripping clothes off will not bring significant change. Demanding equality is a reinforcement of patriarchy in its own right, because in that way one implicitly acknowledges the legitimacy of men in power and subordinate oneself to them by demanding a change from them. Additionally, demanding something that is a natural given, also damages its naturalness. On the other hand, there is little more women can do. Well, in democratic political systems one solution could be to force change trough concerted voting. Here, the problem is simply that women are just not all the same; neither are women equally committed to change, nor have they all the same views, experiences or problems with patriarchy. It harms the idea of feminism to assume that all women are more or less the same and they need to take coordinated action against men. Accordingly, feminism as a solely equality promoting ideology is somewhat problematic, because its ontological core is porous and conflicting.
However, feminism unfolds its true power in the form of a paradigm or lens, a cognitive tool that originates from the academic field of International Relations, the study of politics on the international stage. Here, scholars started to dismantle power relations in politics from the perspective of the genders – a wonderful idea, as it turned out. To illustrate this, we can think about the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. At first, one would be confused, as there is no obvious direct connection between this political event and feminism. However, in an article from 1987 (“Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals”), Carol Cohn talks about her experiences from a summer workshop at a nuclear technology development facility in 1984. She describes in great detail how the predominantly male academics talked about the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. One of the core findings is that the male group used clean language and metaphors to talk about a horrific topic. On the sexual side, the language displayed the scientists as the birth-givers and their bombs as babies – you probably heard about the infamous label “Oppenheimer’s Baby”. Basically, the male scientists used the gender role perception of women, who are perceived to be nice, clean and innocent, and applied it to their profession, in order to palliate their destructive projects. By doing so, the scientists glamorised their work and encouraged each other to develop even more destructive nuclear weapons. Having a monopoly of knowledge and being invested with certain powers in the field, the small circle of male scientists had considerable influence on politicians at that time, because as laymen they had to rely on the technical knowledge of the scientists.
Next to being an amazing read and highly-valuable academic work, this article just opens up one tiny window, showing how the structure of patriarchy is influencing our world. Because the world is so male dominated, we often do not realise the hidden perversity of political acts. In other words, we could not say which colour oxygen has, because we are surrounded by it all the time. Therefore, feminist scholarship has an immense societal value, because it allows us to re-evaluate what we are experiencing on a daily basis by drawing our attention to underlying power relations between women and men. Adopting a feminist lens means to give meaning to actions in the light of gender relations. Returning to Cohn’s work, we could ask ourselves whether the gendered discourse by the scientists increased the support for nuclear weapons and their use. In the next step, we can ask whether it would have been different with predominantly female scientists.
The unequal power relations between women and men are omnipresent and significantly influence politics and society. While most of us are concerned with micro-level issues of patriarchy, this article aimed to show that the structural problems can have much larger implications. But it has also shown that feminism provides an amazing tool to uncover these deficiencies and pave the way to create solutions on a macro-level. A take-away for our everyday lives is to adopt a feminist lens more often and be attentive to hidden power relations.