Explaining Feminism

I often find myself needing to oversimplify things. As much as a hate the idea of oversimplification (for example, many of the problems with homophobia in society are related to an oversimplification of human sexuality) I do need to do it regularly. In the context of education, this makes sense. There is a combination of severely restricted time, limited scope, and the stage of cognitive development of the students. Full, complex explanations often get sidelined while oversimplified (and often inaccurate) ones take precedence.

I find myself in need of a simple and easily understandable way to explain feminism in a short time, and I am struggling. With even a cursory amount of research, things get very complicated very quickly. There’s a lot of context, subtlety, and nuance in feminism. In the reality of my job, I can’t even begin to address a fraction of this.

When a student asks about the meaning of a word (a frequent occurrence as an ESL teacher) my first resource is the dictionary:

the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities

The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.

That is enough to settle most students, but there are some who ask more questions. Dictionaries can’t answer the deeper questions, such as “why is this needed?” or “aren’t they already equal enough?” In an ideal world I could take the time to delve deep, but I do not live in an ideal world. I’m an English teacher and we have many other things to learn. This can only get as much time as any other word in my classroom.

In my mind, I’ve been trying to frame feminism (as a layperson) in such a way that those difficult questions could be answered simply. This might be impossible, but here is what I have come up with thus far:

Feminism is based on two major premises. First, fairness (treating people in a way that does not favor some over others) is a good thing. Second, women are not treated fairly by society. Therefore (as a conclusion), women should be treated more fairly than they are now and feminism is the word we use to describe this idea.

This is, as I said, an oversimplification. Bearing in mind the context, does it suffice?


(Note: Fairness is a different concept to equality. A simple dictionary check could demonstrate this. I think the best definition I’ve heard was along these lines: fairness is not giving everyone the same, it is giving everyone what they need.)

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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