A few months ago a friend of mine introduced me to a local group in the Twitterverse which I never knew existed on Ghanaian social media. There you will find self-proclaimed Ghanaian feminists constantly decrying the evils of patriarchal Ghanaian society. There is a particular female user and blogger who is notorious for chewing out anyone who dares attack her views even if she is the only one who perceives the threat. Twitter however is not the platform for deep, educated conversation and debate. It often just results in a lot of mudslinging. It is not only on Twitter. I see certain female Ghanaian celebrities also proudly waving the feminist flag and woe betide you if you challenge them. In the eyes of many Ghanaian men they see angry, and to put it crassly, sexually frustrated women, who just want attention and want it easy. A few men do see they have a point but are not willing to go the lengths they are to impose their view. In the midst of all this conversation no one really stops to ask what feminism really is in the first place?
Feminism is something that is very broad and quite hard to define. There are various definitions and approaches to it, some of which are even contradictory or counterproductive. What we must recognise is that it is a global, cross-cultural movement, which encompasses various ideologies, worldviews and political philosophies, whose basic goal is to support womankind. With this broad definition one could argue that feminism long preceded our modern conceptions of it. There are examples of ancient societies and cultures in the world like Ephesus during the Greco-Roman period where some women enjoyed unprecedented power and privilege. However, the more common definition in modern times is the cause which fights for women having equal rights with men. To appreciate the origins of this we have to go back to the first of three waves of modern feminism.
The first wave of feminism traces itself to the drive for female suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, first seen in the UK and the US. Being allowed to vote was not the only thing women wanted but it was particularly important. Having an equal vote with a man meant that as far as the state was concerned, she had equal access to the resources and privileges the society had to offer. This where the idea of equal rights for women originates from. The blessings of the Industrial Age and the vast prosperity it brought the West was seen as a massive confirmation of the Enlightenment project. Democracy was seen in Europe and America as the only reasonable form of government any sensible person would want to subscribe to. The logical extension of democratic government would be that women should also be involved. Extraordinary women of science like Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace challenged the notion that women were not clever enough to actively participate in politics.
Political philosophy at that time was heavily influenced by humanism. It was the religion of “enlightened”, “rational” Western man which gave him a lot of optimism. At the turn of the 20th century people in Europe and America thought things could only get better. The advances in science, technology, industry and the political power they enjoyed with colonies all over the world, seemed to only confirm things were great and could only get better. Progress was inevitable because we belonged to the modern age. I remember reading news articles in the library (yes when people still went to those places) and it was marked with a terrific sense of optimism. Reason had finally conquered odd, funny religious superstitions of the Old World. Contemporary historians who look back on those times say all the signs were there and the West should have known better. (It reminds me of global Islamic terrorism which they were unequally prepared for even though there were glaring signs. I guess Western society still has not learnt its lesson.) Two World Wars later and other sprees of mass murder here and there and the 20th century was inked in blood as the most violent century in human history. The modernist dream had obviously failed and it was time to figure out why. This is the backdrop against which the second wave of feminism emerged.
The second wave really began as the part of the post-modern critique of Western society. It was also marked by the sexual revolution in America and Europe in the 60s and 70s. After the failures of the 20th century, postmodernism criticised the grand narrative of modernity as flawed and called it out for basically being a power play. The philosophy did not stop there in criticising Western science and reasoning but applied itself to all grand narratives otherwise known as metanarratives. These metanarratives were seen as a way for a group of people to exert their will over the masses. So postmodernism emphasised each person telling their own story or their own truth. When feminists did a postmodern analysis of Western society, they directly challenged the metanarrative of a patriarchal society where men are supposedly better than women. Women saw they were fighting for rights in a system which inherently said they were inferior. The game was rigged. Also in that period existential philosophy began to rise in Europe and then in America. Existentialism is basically a philosophy of the now. Since we are going to die anyway and there is nothing beyond the grave we best enjoy what we have now. Women wanted to be liberated from the false patriarchal metanarrative and also wanted the freedom to enjoy the now, however they saw fit, just as the men did. These things were important cultural factors that led to the sexual revolution. The Second Sex, the seminal work of brilliant existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in 1949 is often regarded as the start of the second wave. In her work she dealt with issues of sexuality among other things and her ideas are influential to this day. In retrospect we can see why sexual expression is very important to many strands of contemporary feminism and LGBTQ causes as well today. Also reproductive rights for women i.e. the access to contraception and abortion, among other issues also came to the forefront.
The third wave of feminism, which began in the 90s, exists side by side with the second wave today. It is basically a critique of the shortcomings of the previous wave. Also it seeks to acknowledge and practice feminist approaches and theories in different cultures other than what is found in the Western models of feminism.
These three periods or waves of feminism all characterize how the movement is understood today. It is certainly not monolithic and there is a lot of debate within the movement as to how it should be understood and practised. When you hear certain catch phrases or slogans that are in currency among feminists or are associated with the movement you need to recognise the historical, societal and philosophical issues behind them and not take it just on the surface. For example in High School debates in Ghana they often pose the topic “what men can do, women can also do (and do it even better.)” Debating the raw statement without context is pointless. It is really not about women being the same as men in every single respect including biology. That would be ridiculous. The little slogan is a super-condensed summary and manifesto of women’s rights. First it is saying that women are every bit as human as men and society needs to fully recognize this, both male and female. That is the humanist aspect of feminism. Now the postmodern aspect of the statement, which you might notice with the “we can do it better” addition, is a subversion of the narrative that men are superior to women.
If things were left there, as many feminists do, it is really hard to argue with it. It is kind of hard to deny women are full human beings and there is no way to prove the male sex is better. It is also true that historically men have used “patriarchal” ideologies to oppress and subjugate women. For instance in the ancient Greco-Roman world, the cradle of Western civilization, the moment women were married they became the property of their husband and Roman law did not treat them as adults but as children under the authority of their spouses. To this day many women all over the world face challenges that men, for the sake of simply being men, do not have to endure. Especially for women who face extreme difficulties and are denied things like the right to spend the money they earn, “girl power” is certainly a good thing.
Sometimes we men treat the plight of women in a very cavalier manner. When I speak to important women in my life who wish to achieve something, they tell me they are constantly being dismissed even when they have comparable or superior skills. Imagine you are not allowed to pursue something you really love and are good at because of something about you that you can never change. You become the constant underdog and you can never catch a break. It is something I have witnessed for myself even in churches. Undoubtedly we men see it and even knowingly perpetrate some of these evils. If a society is going to progress we simply cannot discount the contribution of our mothers, sisters and wives.
Feminist movements have made great strides and have achieved important victories. However, it is not without its detractors. Some of those criticisms are legitimate and have come from within the movement itself. I earlier mentioned the average Ghanaian male often sees the Ghanaian feminist as overly aggressive and arrogant. Especially on social media, when you see the way some of the more outspoken ones behave, you know their description is absolutely spot on. Why are they so angry? I believe a lot of it has to do with frustration. Progress has been made but there are still certain things society just does not want to give them. They are allowed to go this far and not any further. It’s as if society only gave them certain successes to stop being pestered and had no real intention of treating them with absolute dignity in all regards. This growing frustration undergirded by certain philosophies has caused an overreaction.
Western humanism on the one hand, even though it promotes human reason, ability and self-determination, has no definition of humanity that justifies all people being equally valuable. It speaks of a common or shared humanity but cannot really tell us who should do the sharing and if they must do it equally at all. Postmodernism then comes in and says the individual must determine their own truth. These things coupled with exasperating setbacks have produced very virile strains of feminism. Instead of simply being equal the women ask, “What stops us from imposing our will and agenda on the world, just as men have been doing for millennia?” A lot of men were already threatened by feminism and now there is a new strident form which takes no prisoners. Even men who do not oppose them but are not seen explicitly supporting their cause either, are also seen as the enemy. This causes an escalation on both sides in rhetoric, anger, fear and mistrust. Some of these women tend to be more chauvinistic than men traditionally are. There are several voices within the feminist movement who do not appreciate this new direction and notice women are becoming like the very oppressors from whom they sought liberation in a strange Orwellian paradox.
The various issues are way more complex than I have mentioned and could have possibly discussed here. Feminism in many regards has become a worldview in its own right. It is how some people understand and live in the world. Hopefully, for the average Ghanaian male like myself, this essay will help us shed overly simplistic notions and tackle the real world issues at stake. Though it is true men are not superior to women the reverse is equally valid. Feminism is not perfect because it is done by imperfect human beings. It is also not some distant idea. At its core it’s about the women you care about being treated by every other person with the same love and dignity you so jealously give them and think they completely deserve.