Feminism and Humanism

Posted by on April 13, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 4 comments


As I touched on in my recent article “Methodological Humanism“, there are many aspects within the humanist stance which should be included within the this humanist label. The idea of “well-being” is not something that should only be enjoyed by those fortunate enough to have been born in western cultures, or male white middle-class heterosexuals. To make such a claim would be ludicrous, for that would be an exclusionist idea, overlooking a large majority of humanity. From the article:

If we first see humans as humans, understand what it is that makes us well, in conjunction with an understanding of what we require, ignoring the differences between people, our base level needs and our well-being will take care of themselves, and we can concentrate on our need to thrive. This means, not discriminating against someone based on gender, race, religion, culture or nationality, but first looking at their situation, looking at their problems and looking at their needs, and making a judgement from there as to a solution. It needs to be employed both on an individual level and as a whole.

How does feminism figure into this equation?

For me, feminism is a label that ought not exist. In a perfect world, there would be no need to single out the troubles of women, for in a perfect world, these troubles should not exist. However, this world is far from perfect, therefore feminism is something that must exist. The goals that feminism strives for, such as gender pay equality, bodily autonomy, and safety in public places, are not issues that should only supported by women; We should all support them. Why? In my article “Why I Am A Feminist” from August last year, with a particular focus on education for women in poorer countries, I wrote:

Studies have shown that, while women make up 50+% of the global population, they also represent a staggering 70% of the world’s poorest people. There is no doubt that educating women is the best way to bring communities up from poverty…

Education for women goes well beyond just strengthening their communities. It also has an affect on population; women who are educated are far more likely to make better choices surrounding having children, as this study shows. The education of women could be the solution to not only their own localised problems, but to global problems also.

Women, if allowed to grow past infancy, represent more than half of the world’s population. Human equality, one of the guiding principles of  of humanism, if it ignores more than half the population, is in no way “equality”. But there’s more to the picture than these stats and studies might show.

Sexism, in its many forms, rears its ugly head all over the world and in many guises. From the Rape Blame Game (where women are blamed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time for men raping them), to everyday inequalities such as job security, pay discrepancies, and issues of bodily autonomy, women are subjected to a world that no man can fully understand. The rights to education for girls in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan is under constant threat, as we are reminded by stories like that of Malala, who was shot in the head by a man for promoting just such an education. Traditions in some countries uphold an idea of women as chattels, or part of a spoils of a marriage agreement. Other traditions see the testimony of a woman as worth half that of a man.Traditions, be they religious or secular, if harmful to women in any way, go against the humanist stance.

The fact that feminine hygiene products are called a “luxury item” in Australia (therefore subjected to GST as with condoms and cigarettes), or the fact that building regulations stipulate that a women’s toilet should have the same amount of cubicles as the men’s, ignoring the fact that men’s also have an added urinal, may give a clue to just how little thought is given at a governmental level to women. Open this type of thinking up to the wider community, and we have a big problem.

The inequality that has been dealt to women is so deeply seeded within our cultures that we often fail to acknowledge it. The “Everyday Sexism” project seeks to gather stories from women (and men) and catalogue instances of sexism within our societies. One glance at this site is enough to bring to the fore some of the things we might take for granted in our daily lives as “sexism”, and it is worth a look through the archives, if your stomach can handle it.

But you don’t need me to point this all out. It’s all around us, and it’s damaging.

As I have written in my article “Expanding on the Definition of Humanism“:

Without exception, all of humanity has, at its core, a group of physical and emotional needs that need to be met if we are to meet a minimum standard of well-being in our lives. To me, that is the definition of the “human” in “humanism”.

It only stands to reason then, given just how skewed the world is against women, that a major focus of humanism should be on gender equality, and within that, a subset focused on righting the wrongs of cultures and traditions that specifically harm women, i.e. feminism. This in no way dilutes specific feminist movements, in fact one should see it as complimentary to feminist movements.

Apart from the aspects of sexism that relate to human rights, equality and the bolstering of the status of women in the world can only be a beneficial for the well-being of humanity as a whole. Education is a key part of this, including educating men (and women) on the right and wrong ways to perceive and treat women within their own societies. However, a specific focus on the education of women in poorer countries may actually be the solution to population problems, financial hardships within communities, and an increase in the well-being of whole cultures. From this UN article, written by Hoon Eng Khoo, Acting Vice-Chancellor and Provost of the Asian University for Women, Bangladesh in 2010:

There is no question that educating girls is a prerequisite for eradicating poverty. Education empowers and transforms women. It allows them to break the “traditional” cycle of exclusion that keeps them at home and disengaged from decision making. Education, especially higher education, can prepare women to take on roles of responsibility in government, business and civil society. Women make ideal leaders: numerous studies have demonstrated that they tend to allocate resources more wisely than men. For example, women spend a larger percentage of their income on food and education for their children. Thus, strengthening the economic and political role of women directly benefits the next generation. To provide an excellent university education for women is to make long-term investment in their and their children’s futures.

As societies open up, they often create new opportunities for women to take on leadership roles, but these opportunities are lost when there are no trained women to assume such roles. Changes in Afghanistan, for instance, have created possibilities for women to accept more responsibilities in government and society; however, such possibilities become meaningless without a population of appropriately-qualified women. Rwanda serves as a positive example; the large numbers of women in its government have undoubtedly contributed to the peaceful and effective rebuilding of the country after the 1994 genocide. Since leadership often determines the directions of change, the ability of women to rise to leadership positions affects the progress of women’s rights, as well as their future prospects.

So often, and more frequently these days, I see an argument against feminism as an attempt to “bring down” the males to a perceived lower level of status. This is not how it works, however. The aim of equality is to “bring-up” those on the bottom floor of humanity to a level that their well-being is not only catered for, but exceeded. So many mistake feminism as an attempt to destroy the rights of men, and take away the privilege they enjoy on a daily basis. The way I see it, we need to smash the privilege by allowing all people the same rights and opportunities, autonomy, and self-rule. The privilege then simply vanishes, as there is no longer a privileged position to be had. Nobody loses in a situation where we all gain.

I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a woman, nor should I. My viewpoint on this issue can only come from my own experience, as a man, for that is the only one I have. I can, however, use my position as a platform from which to observe, empathise, sympathise and act from. I have no doubt that, on top of the benefits of gender equality for women, the whole of humanity will benefit by becoming a more balanced, educated and equitable society. The bottom-line is, humanism strives for the well-being of humanity, and any structure or system that helps achieve this. Anything that is harmful to the well-being of humanity is anti-humanist. Gender inequality is harmful to us all, and is therefore an issue that humanism needs to have at the forefront of its agendas.

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  1. Well stated article. I personally try more toward the Humanist rather than the Feminist as we are all human beings and shouldn’t be defined only by a gender. The points made regarding education are spot on. If education is stunted or withheld we only cripple those valuable resources. How can anyone make a change of any kind or make informed choices if one has limited knowledge. Making changes in equality should be about bringing the bottom up – and a true feminist does see it that way. The best ones do.
    I do like hearing from the men in this debate. After all, this is about the men too. I like that you strive for the balance here and I think you’ve presented that in your series.

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  2. Firstly, good post.
    Secondly, like JenniferMFoss  I too try more towards Humanist than Feminist, for the same reasons, we’re all human and gender shouldn’t come into it, what we happen to have betwixt our legs and on our chests is unimportant in regard to everything over than perhaps certain aspects of healthcare. 
    To deny women education is to deny humanity of betterment though learning, to view women as “second” is a gross violation of human rights and furthermore utterly ignorant, selfish and cruel.
    The world has much to learn, and improve on.. But with your kind of thinking I’m certain one day, we’ll get there. 
    – Killerma.

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  3. I agree with almost everything you’re saying here, Martin, but does it seem to you that invention of a lexicon for punching up against priviledged white guys (like yourself) is intended to  “bring up” rather than “bring down” as you say? Google “philosophy dudebro” for one outstanding example of trying to bring people down. Or “mansplaining” for several more. Or “Schrodinger’s rapist” for an example of how men (and only men) are portrayed as potentially violent criminals. This sort of generalizing to an entire gender doesn’t speak to the ethos of humanism, from where I’m sitting.

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  4. “a major focus of humanism should be on gender equality” Show me a Homo Sapiens with a vested interest in one or another cause who WOULDN’T crave more focus? That doesn’t mean we change the definition of humanism to accommodate “more feminism” or to somehow assert that feminism is “more vested” in women than humanism. It isn’t.

    I chalk this up to a very understandable propensity for humans to crave meaningful identities–a sort of Matrix-esque residual self-image. I guess “humanist” just isn’t enough for some.

    With respect.

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