Social Injustice Social Issues

Male chauvinist and feminist are not equivalent words

Many still think so: and the similarity of the two words is deceiving, but they are very distant concepts

Some recent articles in the Post concerning feminism received comments and reactions from various readers which showed a misunderstanding of the terms “feminist” and “male chauvinist”, placing them on the same level and giving them specular and analogous, alternative meanings: as we would do with “European” and “American”, or “conservative” and “progressive”, and as if machismo demands for men what feminism demands for women. It is perhaps appropriate therefore to explain better that – linguistically and historically – this is not the case.

What is chauvinism?
The Treccani dictionary defines “male chauvinism” as follows: «Term, coined on the model of feminism, used to polemically indicate adherence to those behaviors and attitudes (personal, social, cultural) with which males in general , or some of them, would express the belief in their own superiority towards women on an intellectual, psychological, biological level, etc. and they would thus intend to justify the privileged position they occupy in society and history”. The Garzanti dictionary : «Psychological and cultural attitude based on the presumed superiority of man over woman; social behavior determined by this attitude”.

Male chauvinism is therefore an attitude that manifests itself in social and private contexts and which translates into daily practices that can be violent, repressive, offensive or even simply paternalistic, based on the belief that men are superior to women : starting from an innate difference biologically, the lower female physical strength, and from its historical consequences, machismo establishes a hierarchy between men and women, in which women are considered “naturally” inferior also on an intellectual, social and political level. Male chauvinism is therefore a form of sexism , that is, discrimination against people based on sexual gender. Like all discrimination, it transforms differences into claims of superiority, confusing the two.

What feminism is not
As regards feminism and its distinction from chauvinism, it is more immediate to say what it is not: it is not, first of all, a psychological attitude based on certain beliefs. That is, it is not a behavior based on the thought of a presumed superiority of women over men, nor on an idea of ​​roles based on sex, but instead on a historical analysis. Feminism is a movement that has a birth (the date of which is the subject of discussion), more than two centuries of history and the subjects who inaugurated and carried it forward. Being a historical movement, it has no synonyms, just as the Enlightenment or National Socialism have no synonyms: “egalitarianism”, “humanism” or “human rights” are political-social conceptions which in some cases have or have had convergences with the feminist movement of contents or purposes, but which are neither replaceable nor overlapping with that specific historical process. The contents of feminism are very varied and complex, but the objective of feminism in its various theoretical and practical declinations is not to affirm a “supremacy of women”.

The word
There is no certain information on the birth of the word and indeed, when feminism was already practiced the word did not exist: it has been said that the inventor of the term “feminism” was the socialist philosopher Charles Fourier at the beginning of the nineteenth century , in favor of equality between men and women, but it seems that this is not true. According to some, the term was already used  in medicine and indicated a developmental disorder in men that had to do with their “virility” and made them seem feminine (“feminism” was therefore understood as “effeminacy”).

The word is then found in that same period in the book L’Homme-femme of 1872 by the French writer Alexandre Dumas (son) in which he says: «Feminists, I apologize for the neologism, say: all evil comes from the fact that we want to recognize that women are equal to men, that they must have the same education and the same rights as men.” While describing their reasons, Dumas still used the word to belittle women who fought for their rights and to be equal to men. Finally, it seems that it was the French suffragette Hubertine Auclert, in 1882, who appropriated the word “feminism” in its modern, reclaimed meaning.

What is feminism
It must be said, simplifying, that unlike other historical movements, feminism is absolutely original, in form, content and methods, and that (at least in part) the difficulties in framing it or many misunderstandings surrounding it.

Feminism is not monolithic, it does not have a sensational gesture that inaugurated it (comparable for example to the storming of the Bastille), it does not have a precise start date nor an end date. It is often written that it is a karst movement, which appears, disappears and then suddenly appears again. In reality, according to some thinkers, it is more correct to say that feminism is a process that decomposes in some historical moments: the protagonists of its history are not a permanent political subject inserted in an always the same context and the peculiarity of that same subject comes before the others, that is, it is an original sexual difference. In feminism there have been moments of organized struggle, identifiable and very recognisable, but others have not, and without this ever meaning the dispersion of the previous political and theoretical legacy.

The third specificity of feminism compared to other historical movements is that over time and in the geographical places in which it developed it has had ways, practices, words and itineraries that have always been different from each other, even conflicting, very articulated and complex, so much so that it is preferred talk about feminisms in the plural, to account for them more correctly. Finally, in feminist movements theory and practice have always gone together, feeding each other: coming together, drawing strength and opportunities also from different knowledge and other historical movements, but without ever becoming confused with these. One could say that feminism is a movement that has overlapped with the political history of the West itself and with all disciplines.

What can be said with certainty is that feminism was born from a simple and concrete observation: that belonging to the female sex, being born a woman instead of a man, means finding oneself in a disadvantaged position in the world, of difficulty (in the best of cases) and inferiority. Feminisms have in fact been produced throughout history starting from the processes of exclusion to which women have been subjected. As if to say that one is the starting point, the women, who at a certain point speak up and question, in order to modify it, a certain power relationship.
Simplifying, it is because machismo has always existed that feminism has grown.

The difference with chauvinism is therefore that it arises from a historical condition of non-freedom and non-equality, not from the self-attribution of a presumed superiority based on gender. A few days ago in the New York Times , the Czech model and actress Paulina Porizkova wrote a letter in which she says she is a feminist and explains when and why she became one. She says that initially she thought the word “feminist” was superfluous: «I thought so because at that moment I was a Swedish woman». Having arrived in Sweden from Czechoslovakia when she was nine years old, she immediately realized that in Sweden her “power was equal to that of a male”, that domestic tasks were divided equally, that sexual relations between men and women were balanced, that a woman’s sexual freedom was not considered unbecoming or a reason for judgment by others, who at school during sex education had explained masturbation to her and had taught her that motherhood was a choice that women could make or not Do. In this context the word “feminist” seemed antiquated to her, that is, it didn’t seem to make any sense to her. Porizkova then says that in France she found things very different as in America where, she says, «a woman’s body seemed to belong to everyone except herself»: ​​«Sexuality belonged to the husband, his opinion of himself she belonged to her social circles and her womb belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother, lover and career woman (but with a lower salary) while remaining eternally youthful and thin. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be.” About her Her conclusion: «I joined those women around me who were striving to have it all, failing miserably. Now I have no choice but to take the word ‘feminist’ out of the dusty drawer and give it a polish.”

“Nobody likes a feminist”
The contents of feminism are very varied and complex, but the objective of feminism in its various theoretical and practical declinations has never been to affirm a “supremacy of women”. The so-called “conflict between the sexes” has been very harsh at certain times – there have been rebellions and ruptures – but fought at least on one side with no desire to prevail over the other. Yet this is how feminism is considered by many, in a similar way to machismo, and contemptuously defined as “old feminism”. Part of the problem concerns the originality and very articulation of feminist movements which escape clearly definable identity and monolithic logics. Then there is the question of whether feminism itself does not have some responsibility for being so badly interpreted and the internal debate is very lively on this point. How to deal with a culture – machismo – which, thinking itself superior, feels diminished by feminism, is a theme.

Part of the problem, according to some, however, lies elsewhere. Today it is certainly increasingly rare to hear or read that “women are inferior to men”, but instead there is widespread anti-feminism which according to some thinkers is nothing more than a disguised form of chauvinism: we therefore ask either overcome the word “feminist” or give it meanings that that word never had. The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained it well in her book “We should all be feminists” according to which denying the word is denying the substance:

«It’s not easy to talk about gender. It is a topic that creates discomfort, sometimes even irritation. Both men and women are reluctant to discuss it, or are quick to dismiss the problem, because thinking about changing the status quo is always a nuisance. There are those who ask: “Why the word “feminist”? Why don’t you just say you believe in human rights, or something like that?” Because it wouldn’t be honest. Feminism is obviously linked to the issue of human rights, but choosing to use a vague expression like “human rights” means denying the specificity of the gender problem. It would mean keeping quiet that women have been excluded for centuries. It would mean denying that the problem of gender concerns women, the condition of the female human being, and not of the human being in general. For hundreds of years the world has divided human beings into two categories, then excluded or oppressed one of the two groups. It is right that the solution to the problem recognizes this fact.”

Laurie Penny, a British journalist who collaborates among other things with the Guardian and who is very attentive to gender issues, went further by trying to explain the issue of resistance to feminism and the numerous anti-feminist criticisms as a deviation from the real problem , a new form of denial:

«Nobody likes a feminist. At least not according to researchers at the University of Toronto; a study found that people still cling to typical stereotypes about feminist activists, stereotypes such as “man-hating” and “unhygienic.” These stereotypes appear to be seriously limiting the possibility for women to embrace the commitment to women’s liberation as a lifestyle choice. Feminism is a mess and we need to get out of it. To become “important to today’s young women” she needs to shave her legs and get a new haircut.

(…) First of all there is the question of the word feminism, which some people seem to have a problem with. These people feel the need to take men’s feelings into account first and foremost, when it comes to work, pay or sexual violence, to appear less threatening, more elegant; better to talk about “gender equality” if we have to talk to everyone. Those interested in maintaining the status quo would prefer to see young women acting, shall we say, as gracefully and pleasantly as possible; even when they protest.

(…) Unfortunately there is no way to create a “new image” of feminism without depriving it of its essential energy, because feminism is hard, demanding and full of (righteous) anger. You can soften it, sexualize it, but the real reason many people find the word feminism scary is that feminism is a scary thing for anyone who enjoys the privilege of being male. Feminism asks men to accept a world in which they don’t get special treats simply because they were born male. Making feminism “nicer” won’t make it easier to digest.

The stereotype of the ugly feminist that no one would ever “do” exists for a reason: It exists because it is still the last, best line of defense against any woman who is a little too strong, a little too interested in politics. Then you point out to her that if she goes on like this, no one will ever love her.”

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