The term ‘feminist’ gets bandied about a lot these days. It seems more and more people are thrilled to identify themselves as such. President Barack Obama recently declared himself a feminist, as did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton is banking on the success of feminism in America as she doesn’t really have any other progressive chops to stand on outside of her gender. There is a quaint meme circulating the social medias featuring the cultural icon Patrick Stewart with a quote I’m assuming is his saying, “People won’t listen to you or take you seriously unless you’re an old white man, and since I’m an old white man I’m going to use that to help the people who need it.” The image shows the second best Star Trek captain holding a sign defending the rights of women and girls. It’s a touching sentiment that highlights an uncomfortable truth about the nature of the dominant discourse, as well as a thoughtless meme that clutters up my newsfeed. Because what does it mean to defend women and girls? If you claim to be a feminist, and then turn around and punch out a woman, then the identity should in theory become invalid. Broad statements are pointless because they cannot be practically applied in real-life scenarios. Identity politics is inherently meaningless because it detaches itself from deeds.

So what does it mean to be a feminist? The dictionary definition is that it is the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, but again, that’s really broad and doesn’t exactly answer any specific questions about how feminism would apply in real-world situations. Let’s assume you, the reader, said yes when my title asked if you are a feminist. Maybe you can help me out.

Do you support a menstrual leave? It’s women being given extra time off to accommodate period cramps. It’s being practiced in multiple Asian countries and is being considered elsewhere as an employment solution to the unavoidable feelings, from discomfort to unimaginable pain, that menstruation can inflict on women. Should it be paid or unpaid? Is it reasonable to ask a business to support an employee who will produce less output in a deadline-based industry? Is it right to draw attention to a woman’s private affairs? Should greater flex time be available to everyone, allowing women to take menstrual leave without concern if they so choose, without bringing gender-specific problems into the discussion at all? How should the monthly female cycle be incorporated into the functionality of modern businesses?

What about the minimum wage? In the US, 62% of minimum wage earners are women. Similar numbers exist in Canada. Should the government enforce regulation on businesses to increase the wages of women as a means of decreasing the wage gap? How do we prevent economic flight in the face of an increased burden on businesses? Should it even be an economic discussion, or are different social forces at play that condition women into the lower paid service professions? Women make up a greater percentage of social assistance recipients, quite likely due to the aforementioned disparity in precarious employment. Do we ask the government to increase social spending? How does that get paid for when our country is already in debt? Does feminism necessarily require serious economic reform? What alternatives are there for improving the female condition if economic reform is out of the question?

What about motherhood? Should we wade back into the economic debate and suggest a government funded child care system, with all the costs and other problems that brings in? Should stay-at-home mothers be paid an income for their traditionally unpaid labour, or does that merely turn child-rearing into just another corporate enterprise? How long should businesses extend a maternity leave? How long should it be paid? How long should it be unpaid? At what point does it become unreasonable to hold a job for someone? A year? Ten years?

How do you feel about prostitution? Do women possess autonomy over their sexuality allowing them to enter fairly into the market to do business as equals among other professions, or is it inherently oppressive for a woman to be considered a product to be purchased as a sexual object?

Can a feminist be pro-life, or are they strictly pro-choice? If a fetus is considered alive, then it would be considered a separate human being from the woman inside whom it is developing. Would not a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body be akin to a woman shooting herself through the hand in order to kill another human being standing behind it? Do we need to degrade the value of a human life in order to be a feminist? If a fetus is not considered alive, at what point does it become a human life? When there’s a heart beat? Brain activity? After birth? What about babies born preterm? Are they not identical to fetuses still in utero at similar developmental stages? Do we need philosophical insight into the nature of life in order to appropriately label ourselves as a feminist?

What about the difference between being an ally and solidarity? Should male feminists take an auxiliary role in the progressive movement, or stand beside their female peers? Do distinct male voices distract from the conversation, or add to it? If male voices are socially louder, and men do not live the female experience, would that not mean a male voice cannot express the truth when it comes to women? But if a man shares his own experiences as to why he believes in the social, political, and economic equality of women, is that not just an addition of another truth? Should masculine issues be discussed in a feminist context, or as a separate issue? Women have fought for years to eliminate the suffix “-man” from their professions because it does not appropriately define them; do men need to adopt the prefix “fem-” in order to discuss their own social problems? Yet feminism is the precursor to gender studies and already addresses many of the masculine issues facing today’s men. Further though, do women discussing men’s issues face the same problem as men discussing women’s issues?

I hope I’ve avoided implementing my own biases into these questions to give the proper nuance of what exactly it means to discuss women’s issues, though I’m sure they seeped through. Some might say that it doesn’t matter the answer anyone gives to these questions, that only the broad acceptance of the term is necessary in order for feminism to be a success. It all comes down to the identity. Emma Watson said that if you stand for equality, you’re a feminist. Regardless of how the equality is implemented, it seems. Christianity has long claimed that morality is intrinsically linked to God, giving them a monopoly on the subject. Today though, one can be opposed to murder and not identify as a Christian, but you can’t support equality and not identify as a feminist? It seems the monopoly on morality has shifted from one ideology to another, and to be an acceptable human being the identity associated with that ideology must be adopted.

Except identity politics does nothing. The answers to these questions matter. Gleefully exclaiming, “I’m a feminist!” does not alter the well-being of prostitutes. The American Democratic party can claim to be feminists all they want, but if they do nothing to address the economic issues of women, the mantle becomes void. The domestic abuser can claim to be for equal rights all he wants, but no one in their right mind would say he’s fighting for the improvement of a woman’s status in the world. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates that there are wrong answers. Just as Christianity does not lay exclusive claim on the antipathy to murder, neither does feminism hold the rights to “equality,” whatever that means. Broad strokes do nothing save create a self-righteous identity, when the importance of equality lies in the specifics. Claiming an identity does not change the world for the better. It is the deeds that are important.

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