What is feminism? Ask feminists of different generations and you will get a different answer. Equally, the way feminists are viewed has also evolved. A conversation about the importance of gender, inclusiveness and the future of feminism.
Professor Marysa Demoor has been central to the gender policy at Ghent University and regularly speaks out on feminist issues. Warda El-Kaddouri is thirty years younger and a journalist for the Groene Amsterdammer. She studied and received her PhD at Ghent University. Although they both proudly call themselves ‘feminists’, both generations of feminists have slightly different interpretations.
Traditional division of roles
“I come from a time when boys and girls usually did not get the same opportunities. At home, most had a traditional family situation where the father went out to work and the mother had to stay home for the children and the household,” Professor Demoor explains. “When you see such things from home, it plays a role in your ambitions and professional future as a woman.”
For years, the typically woman was rated very low in the professional world. “Look at literature, for example. The works of female authors were long considered inferior, even though their work is as good as those of their male counterparts.”
That traditional division of roles still exists. “Women still do the bulk of household chores and in important meetings you still see more men than women. Fortunately, I get more and more support when I oppose this. Also from men,” says the professor.
More than gender
But this focus on gender alone is insufficient for journalist Warda El-Kaddouri. “We need to look not only at gender, but also at skin color and socioeconomic origin. There are many more factors that determine what your living environment looks like as a woman. That was overlooked in the first waves of feminism.”
“It’s good that there is talk about the wage gap and the glass ceiling in the corporate and academic world, but there are many women who don’t even get in there. Discrimination based on status, education and religion also play a role,” El-Kaddouri believes. “It shouldn't just be about highly educated, white middle-class women. We need to show solidarity with everyone. It’s about more than just rights for women. It’s about human rights.”
Solidarity should include trans people, for example. “We need to be more inclusive as feminists than we used to be. Fifty to sixty years ago, it played less of a role to include trans people. With the new generation of feminists, fortunately, it’s more part of the story. But we’re not there yet.”
That this focus is different is not so surprising, according to El-Kaddouri. “The world we are growing up in is indeed different from the world previous generations of feminists grew up in. We are confronted with intersexuality from an early age. We are almost forced to think about it. That wasn’t the case before,” says El-Kaddouri.
“I have a lot of understanding for that. The period that Warda outlines is also a generation before mine. Gender cannot be presented in a binary way, even with m/f/x. That also fits into my vision,” explains Professor Demoor. “But it should not blind us to existing, institutionalized problems. You cannot ignore gender. You have to take into account a range of gender variations. That can only be an enrichment.”
And then there is the way feminism was and is perceived. According to Professor Demoor, there is a strong evolution in this. “When I used to call myself a feminist as a young woman at university, others thought I was anti-men … and that I was part of the United States movement, ‘radical feminism,’ which deliberately sided against men. Of course I was never like that. In my view, you then commit the same mistakes. Feminism for me means the same opportunities, rights and duties for everyone.”
“I have the impression that there are still people who see feminists as a dangerous group,” El-Kaddouri believes. “In my opinion, there are two tracks now: men who call themselves feminists and a group that connects feminists with the extreme left and the woke generation.”
A better or worse future?
Their hope for the future? El-Kaddouri doesn’t rate it very positively. “I feel that we are growing more apart as a society, even when it comes to the struggles of feminists. Because of social media, ‘on demand’ TV and populist ideas, we hardly ever encounter other visions and voices. I hope we can find each other again and tackle gender discrimination together.”
Professor Demoor sees things in a rosier light. “A lot has already changed in a relatively short time. Twenty years ago, I never thought I would get so much support from male colleagues for more women in senior management positions and as role models. If that becomes more prevalent in the future, we are at least on the right track.”
On 28 May, Ghent University is hosting a feminist generation debate. Different generations of feminists will look at the role of women in art, ecology, science, politics and media. What were the challenges in the past and what will the future bring for feminism? You can follow the online debate (in Dutch!) for free.