Everyone is either a sexist or a feminist

// 10 April 2016

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The 8th of March was International Women’s Day so, naturally, lots of people that don’t usually talk about feminism were discussing it. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but as is always the case when this happens I’m increasingly frustrated by people misunderstanding the meaning of the word.

As hard as I try, I can’t seem to manage to hide my frustration when people act either surprised or impressed when I refer to myself as being a feminist: “oh wow, a feminist man, good for you!”

If I am in a small minority (which for the record, I don’t believe I am) then we have a major problem. Can you imagine a situation, in polite society, where it would be generally acceptable to say something like “oh wow, you’re white and you’re anti-racist, good for you!” People will say to this that there is a difference between being anti-sexist and being a feminist, but this is where, in my opinion, the misunderstanding of the term occurs.

It seems clear to me that everyone must, by definition, be either sexist or a feminist. Feminism is the belief that all sexes are equal and should be treated equally. On this basis, there is a simple way to discover which camp you fall into: simply pose to yourself the question “do you believe that all sexes are equal and should be treated equally?” – a simple “yes/no” question. Anyone who answers “yes” is a feminist. That just leaves the people that answer “no”: try to imagine someone stating that they don’t think men and women should be treated equally. I think most people would agree here that this person is a sexist.

Luckily, apart from clear sexists (if you know one of these people you probably don’t need to pose the above question to them to find this out), most people (regardless of gender) would answer “yes” to this question – meaning that actually most people are feminists.

Unfortunately, feminism suffers from having a word describing it. It enables people to think, “well I’m not sexist but I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’m a feminist”. Using the race example again, imagine someone saying “we’ll I’m not racist, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I’m anti-racist”.

You’ll often hear people described as feminists in situations when gender isn’t even being discussed, for example “Dan, a feminist man” or “feminist author, Jo”. Now take away the defined term and it would read “Dan, a man who isn’t sexist” or “non-sexist author, Jo”. You shouldn’t have to introduce someone as not being sexist, it should just be assumed that people aren’t sexist unless you are told or find out that they are.

A while ago now I read an article by Bridget Christie in which she summed this up brilliantly in reference to the “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, saying that she wouldn’t want to go bowling with someone wearing an “I’m not a racist” t-shirt, as she would just be worried she was bowling with an ironic racist, and this image has really stuck with me.

I am well aware that actual sexists are still far too common and that actual very harmful sexism is almost everywhere we look. My point is that you don’t have to be a feminist activist to describe yourself as a feminist. Feminism shouldn’t be thought of as an extreme and rarely held belief. The answer to “are you a feminist?” for most people should be met with a similar response to the question “so are you someone who thinks racism is bad?”, and this should be something along the lines of the simple phrase “of course!”

Dan Burdge is a former lawyer now lecturing in postgraduate law. He’s a new father, a feminist and a vegan and enjoys running, swimming, cycling, playing poker and spending time with his family as well as supporting his local football team.

The image used depicts a graffiti stencil which says “I love feminism”.

Comments From You

Max // Posted 11 April 2016 at 12:50 pm

Dear Dan,

I want to let you know that I appreciate your article. However, I feel a strong need to add some notes with quite a contrary position. I think that those positions can and should coexist and maybe some points might also be considered as orthogonal to your article. Based on your name and pronouns, I am taking the liberty of assuming that you identify yourself (partially) as male in this context.

What I am writing here is not new. However, I want to take opposition to men defining what feminism is or should be. This comment could easily end by telling other men, just don’t do that – ever. At the same time this would be a distinguished instance of male laziness. So, I will partially brake my own advice by explaining what feminism is to me as a supporter.

No one is either a sexist or a feminist. No one is either a racist or an anti-racist. Talking about anti-racism might constitute the wish and the effort that the mere category of race dissolves. But as long the word ‘race’ can be thought or spoken, we and our brains will repeatedly act racist and also reproduce the category of race in some instances. This is not less true for a person calling them selves an anti-racist. Equal concepts can be applied to being sexists and anti-sexist. Society and how it formed our brains, will not allow us to evade sexist behavior. Saying that one can be an anti-sexist while acting sexist is a useful foundation for allowing people to call you out on sexist behavior without ending up with the shame and disgrace of not being a ‘true’ anti-sexist.

I want to invite allies to acknowledge that they are acting sexist, racist, ableist, classist, …, while demanding that this is not taken as an excuse or as an occasion for laziness.

So far I avoided talking about feminism. I do not call myself a feminists, but a radical pro-feminist or feminist supporter. I think this might not be are mere matter of taste. For me, feminism is essentially about womxn. About womxn’s experiences, history, the process of making them invisible, about the lack of words for their experiences, about the impossibility of being female without being marked or marking yourself as ‘non-male’, about the unthinkability of femininity with the reference to male people, and about the power structures based on sex and gender pervading our ‘civilized’ societies; just to shed light on a few of many aspects. I think it is almost self explaining why men can only play a fundamentally different role in feminism. A list of oxymorons like, men making womxn visible, could follow.

Those thoughts also serve as opening for developing why feminism should not be confused with something like anti-sexism. While emancipation is a process that should be performed by the society as a whole, in this context feminism has to play the role of not making this process an assimilation of womxn into the male world. Clearly, womxn should choose and perform their sex and gender as they like, and take the roles in society that they which to take. In other words: I do not think there is such a thing as male or female naturality that should be the focus here. However, assuming that society is doing fine and womxn just have to be integrated, is not only a violent process of (cultural) assimilation, but will also produce a new category of ‘outlaws’. Those ‘new others’ might be called out for ‘still being female’, for choosing the ‘wrong’ (i.e. less payed) jobs, for not being autonomous or strong enough, or for not assigning the reproduction work to people of color [1].

The question “do you believe that all sexes are equal and should be treated equally?” is a very difficult question to me. As a first approach I would say that every person feeling fine with a simple “Yes!” is an anti-feminist. You cannot give a simple “Yes!” without neglecting that society has produced ungraspable huge differences based on categories like sex. Based on the opinions of the womxn in my surroundings I would answer with a clear “No!”. There are many aspects where I will intentionally treat womxn differently, for example to help them displacing social categories and realities or by investing labor in supporting them to deal with the shit society throws at them. Also, not all sexes are equal since not all sexes are fulfilling certain requirements to carry children, where this ability has diverse implications.

One might be tempted to think about, what about the perfect world? Shouldn’t be the answer “Yes” in a perfect world? Well, actually this is not the question right now, because we are not in a perfect world. However, I think it is important to note that the concept of ‘deliverance’ or ‘liberation’ from the ‘oppression’ of sexism, resulting in the perfect world, is quite transcendent. Instead, my focus is to develop the mindsets that then (hopefully) proof themselves useful in continuously developing society such that all people experience a nice or fulfilling as possible existence.

Finally, why are so many investing so much into performing and understanding their sex and gender? Just for being equal and being treated equally? Personally, I would again go with some kind of shaky “No”. While it is compelling to thing about a society without categories like sex and gender (the only way to be equal in this respect) and to “just be who you are”, the reality is, that society forces us to position ourself with respect to sex and gender. It is crucial to end the suffering that those social demands brings to so many people. At the same time it is a great experience for me to say:

No, I am not equal. I have certain needs, wishes and characteristics that I also attribute to my sex and my gender identity. And while I am cis-male privileged and writing those notes manly under this aspect, I am taking the liberty to say that my personal identity is strongly related to womxn too. And it is great to be different and to be treated differently.


[1]: As a white person, I am marking people of color as ‘the other’ here. Claiming that I actually have a broader perspective feels presumptuous to me. My intention is not to exclude people of color from the thoughts but, rather to make a strong point about how white people tend to fix ‘their’ issues on the back of other people, that are reproduced as minorities.

D Burdge // Posted 11 April 2016 at 7:44 pm

Comment from Ben Price on Facebook (reproduced with permission)

“No, I still don’t understand why I have to label myself or accept another’s labeling of me to simply not be sexist. It’s a false dichotomy if there ever was one.

Also, there is a large problem with this definition of feminism: it does not define equality. Some feminists think that equality means equality of opportunity, while others think it means equality of outcome. While I support the former, I am opposed to the latter. (You cannot have both, btw)

What kind of feminist are you? Are you a sex-negative feminist or sex-positive? Radical or intersectional? Are you able to look past white feminism? These qualifiers only amplify the problem.

People aren’t defined by labels. They are defined by their actions.”

D Burdge // Posted 11 April 2016 at 7:46 pm

Thanks for your comments Ben.

I agree with you that actions are more important than labels, as I said, I actually think Feminism suffers from having a label attached to it, and I agree that Feminism means different things to different people, as does what constitutes equality; even when two people agree on what equality means they may not agree on the best way to achieve this, I don’t see this as a problem though. One of the most important elements of Feminism for me is choice, so it would be counterintuitive for there to best a prescribed set of strict things that you were forced to think upon deciding that you were a Feminist.

I also agree that the use of the label can be problematic, see my example of people being referred to in such a way when gender isn’t even being discussed, it is often used by commentators or the ‘person on the street’ as a way to dismiss someone’s anti-sexist opinions: “well they would say that, they’re a feminist”.

I also think that the terms ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of outcome’ can be slightly misleading without further qualification; I have heard people dismiss the campaign for equal pay as being about equality of outcome, as in a capitalist system ‘we all have the same opportunity to negotiate a better salary’ but of course this doesn’t work if the people making the decisions are prejudiced and discriminate against certain classes of people (I don’t mean every employer as I’m sure you realise), it also falls down if it is difficult to keep or reach a senior position if you take a career break, as while we all have the same opportunity to not take a career break, in terms of the actual having of the baby, options here are biologically limited.

Thanks again for taking the time to read my article and I appreciate the comments.


Ania Ostrowska // Posted 15 April 2016 at 9:43 pm

We included it in our weekly round-up but perhaps useful to paste here too, a blog post inspired in part by Dan’s post:


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