The Humanist Community of Harvard awarded me the 2014 Humanist of the Year award for my work with Feminist Frequency. Below is a transcript of my acceptance speech.
I have to be honest here. When I first found out that I had been nominated for this award my initial response was one of skepticism.
I know that might seem like a strange reaction to news of being honored with an award. I mean “humanist of the year?” That is quite an extraordinary honor. Who wouldn’t be thrilled and excited by this kind of recognition, right?
Well, the reason for my initial apprehension has to do with the not always fun experience of being a feminist, and more specifically being an open feminist on the internet.
Let me explain…
Back in 2009, while I was still in grad school, I had the idea of starting a web series on YouTube focusing on the representations of women in popular media. I’d take academic feminism, make it more accessible and then use it to deconstruct sexist patterns in movies, tv shows, videogames and comic books.
“Ok fantastic, this is gonna be great”, I thought to myself… but wait, what should I call this new show? I struggled over the name for about six months. Since every episode would be built around feminist ideas and theory I eventually settled on “Feminist Frequency”. I really liked the name, it was catchy, but I also knew that since it had the word feminist in it, that alone would generate backlash.
So I was prepared for some amount of push back to labeling myself a feminist on the internet. I should say I *thought* I was prepared — I guess I was a little naive back then because I certainly couldn’t have imagined the absolute avalanche of vile hatred I now receive on a daily basis.
I get plenty of messages stating that women are biologically inferior, weak minded, overly emotional, incapable of reason, only good for sex or belong in the kitchen. I expected that detractors would repeat this misogynist drivel day in and day out, like a broken record.
What I did not at all expect, however, was to be bombarded with hostile attacks from men who in the same breath will insist they are pro-equality, egalitarian and yes even humanist.
The unfortunate truth is that when I’ve encountered the term Humanism online, it has more often than not, been in the context of an attack on me or my work. This was the main reason for my skepticism about being given a “humanist award”.
I often hear things like, “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist” or “Feminism is sexist, that’s why I believe in humanism”. I’m sure most feminists on the internet can relate to this experience.
I should also probably note that the most vile and sustained harassment I have faced during my time on the internet has come from self-described atheists. If you had asked me 6 years ago where the vitriol was most likely to come from I would have guessed from religious conservatives, and while there is a tiny bit coming from those quarters, it’s cyber-atheists, especially on YouTube, that are the most obsessed, angriest anti-feminists i’ve encountered.
Let me read you a handful of the messages relating to this topic that regularly appear in my inbox.
“I have a special hatred of feminism. Not the equality bn (in) the sexes of humanism, but the self absorbed types”
“you’re fighting a minority of Males who opress women and shaming all men, you’re only moving the sexism not stopping it. #humanist”
“you say Females are opressed name 10 ways it true and i’ll give you 20 of why men are objetified by women #Humanist”
“you misandrist piece of shit #egalitariamism
The “Humanists United Against Feminism” facebook page I was sent declares “We are Humanists United against the oppressive bond of feminism. We stand for logic and reason against their fallacious ideology.”
These comments, and the thousands more like them, demonstrate a gross misunderstanding of feminism as well as what appears to be an enormous amount of confusion about humanism.
In the minds of these folks, feminism exists in direct opposition to humanism. Which is strange because the two philosophies seem quite compatible to me…
My understanding of Humanism is that it’s an enlightenment philosophy based on the belief in the potential goodness of human beings, positing that without a supernatural mandate, people can and should still strive to be our best selves. And critically that a fundamental part of our individual happiness stems directly from actively contributing and working together towards a just society for all people.
And broadly speaking, Feminism, at least in its western formation was also born from the enlightenment philosophy of proto-feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft who, in the late 1700s, argued that if to reason was to be human, and if women could reason, then women were human. And since all humans have the capability to improve, then holding women back based on arbitrary cultural or religious traditions was fundamentally unjust. Feminism focuses on the struggle to end sexist oppression in order to achieve political, social, and economic equality for women.
I‘d argue that these two philosophies are not only complementary but that in fact being a humanist necessitates also being a feminist.
So why is there such an underlying hostility and even rage directed at women working to end sexism? And critically, why do so many seem to believe, or at least claim to believe, that their opposition to feminism is some kind of “humanist” and “pro-equality” position?
I believe there are two fundamental misconceptions relating to feminism at work here and If you will permit me I’d like to take a moment to dispel each of these confusions in turn.
The first false belief is that our society has already reached gender equality, therefore feminism’s work is done and is no longer necessary. The extreme end of this belief is the idea that any further attention paid to women must be a push for supremacy.
Sometimes this sentiment is expressed to me by exasperated men in statements like, “women already have the right to vote, what more do you want?” (As if the right to vote is the only measure of equality for women). They see only the progress women have made within society, and remain blind to the significant and damaging ways that women’s opportunities and rights still lag far behind those of men. It’s a pervasive attitude not only within the Men’s Right’s Activist movement—which goes so far as to insist that women actually have more rights than men—but also among countless regular people who simply aren’t exposed to the experiences of women or the structural inequalities that warp their lives. Either way, this denial of the reality of women’s lives has serious consequences.
In almost every way it can be measured, women as a social class, are oppressed and marginalized. Women’s inequity is deeply entrenched throughout the social, political and economic structures in the United States today.
Economically speaking, women make $0.78 cents for every dollar made by a man. When the intersections of gender and race are considered the numbers become even more dire. Black women earn 64% of what white men earn for the same work. Indigenous women earn 59%, and Latina women earn only 54%.
Of the top Fortune 500 companies in 2014, only 24 have women as their CEOs (I did the math for you, that works out to only 4.8%, and *that* is considered a historic high).
In the political sphere the situation is no better, men in Congress outnumber women 4 to 1. And of the 50 Governor seats in the United States, only 5 are currently occupied by women. (And 3 of them got elected, at least in part, on an anti-feminist platform of opposing women’s reproductive rights)
According to the Center for Disease Control’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, a staggering 1 in 5 women have been raped in their lifetimes, and typically government statistics are conservative because of the high number of survivors who never report their assaults. The National Crime Victimization Survey found that only 36% of rapes or sexual assaults are reported to the police. Again the stats are even more alarming when factoring in race, suggesting that women of color are targeted in higher numbers. And according to the US Department of Justice, individuals with disabilities are three times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted.
And here is some data which is especially relevant to my work in media and technology:
Only 26% of professional computing jobs are held by women, which is pretty bleak but its worse when we look at the intersection of gender and race. Just 3% of the U.S. computing workforce is African-American women, 4% is Asian women, and 1% is Latinas.
Online sexual harassment and abuse disproportionately affects women and girls. In online multiplayer games, sexist harassment is so prevalent that 70% of women admit to playing with male avatars to avoid gendered abuse. According to the Justice Department, 70% of online stalking victims are women.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, I could spend several days going over similar numbers with you but the point is the statistics on gender consistently illustrate that we are no where close to gender equity, and in fact the data points to a widespread systemic oppression of women and girls in our society, both institutionally and interpersonally.
So the incorrect presumption of equality today, works to prevent actual equality in the future. It’s an illusion that asks nothing of people, and exploits our common desire to do good by lulling us into the false belief that there’s no real work left to be done.
Which brings us to the second false belief I’d like to address, this one is common among those who insist that feminism is counter productive to the fight for equality because it focuses specifically on women. These self-labeled “equalists” posit that if we want all people to be equal in the future, then we should simply treat all people equally today. Meaning, of course, no more special attention given to those pesky women and their problems.
What those who dismiss the need for feminism in favor of “equalism” are essentially saying is that “gender doesn’t matter” and so we should all just be “gender blind”.
The concept of being gender blind is similar to that of being color blind. But as civil rights leader Julian Bond pointed out, “To be blind to race is to be blind to the consequences of race, and the consequences of being the wrong race in America.” By the same token, to be blind to gender is to be blind to the consequences of gender, and the very real consequences of being a woman. To live as a woman today is not the same experience as men; politically, economically, or socially — as the data I shared a moment ago illustrates in no uncertain terms.
So the “let’s just treat everyone the same” mantra may sound good on the surface, and make people feel all warm and fuzzy inside but it is based on flawed reasoning.
If you don’t acknowledge existing inequality, you are denying yourself empirical data that enables you to understand how to actually treat everyone fairly. Oftentimes people who think they’re treating everyone “equally” are instead perpetuating imbalances because they’re not recognising the altered landscape in which women live. In other words the playing field is already uneven, in the extreme.
And this is where feminism comes in, to address these specific gendered inequities so that we can reach a place of justice for all people of all genders.
There are many types of feminism, but the definition I like best is quite simple, “Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression.” bell hooks wrote this in her 1984 book “Feminist Theory from Margin to Center”. She goes on to say, “Feminism as a movement to end sexist oppression directs our attention to systems of domination and the inter-relatedness of sex, race, and class oppression. Therefore, it compels us to centralize the experiences and the social predicaments of women who bear the brunt of sexist oppression as a way to understand the collective social status of women.”
Feminism is a movement about liberating women and achieving gender equity with the understanding that the only way to do that is by working to end the intersecting systems of inequality and disadvantage that target women and girls.
if Humanism is, in no small measure, faith in the human race’s ability to change and transform our collective circumstances for the better… that means we need that often excluded 50% of the population (women) in order to do so.
Going back to my initial reaction to this award. It was made explicitly clear to me that this organization’s definition of humanism embodied feminism and feminist principles, which is what ultimately convinced me to accept the award.
So while some self-described humanists may be eager to invoke the humanist tradition as a way to try and distance themselves from the women’s movement, and thereby dodge responsibility for helping to end sexism, humanism holds an enormous amount in common with feminism, in fact they are born out of the *same* intellectual heritage.
Humanism and Feminism are not conflicting philosophies, many people identify with both. BUT it’s critical to understand that Humanism and Feminism are also NOT interchangeable.
As I see it, to believe in humanism fundamentally requires that you also believe in feminism, and any definition of humanism that doesn’t include feminism, is not on the side of justice.