Can I Be a Feminist?

Recent events in school and beyond have led me to wonder whether I’ve been living in a bubble; whether my bubble is in fact much smaller than I’d ever imagined; whether the beliefs I’ve long taken for granted as desirable and universal may, for others, be pernicious and dangerous. One such event came in the form of a heated sociology tutorial.

A classmate of mine was discussing gender inequality in the household, citing Arlie Hochschild’s double burden,[1] when another classmate interjected with a series of questions. He asked, “Why do women complain about doing chores when men have to work in mining and construction? Would women want to do these tougher, dirtier jobs? Is housework really so difficult?” Why, in short, is nobody concerned about men? I didn’t respond then – the atmosphere was tense as it was – but I’ll respond now. The fact that one exists does not invalidate the reality of the other. I don’t see why there should be a competition to determine who is suffering more. Moreover, these two phenomena share a common cause: the social construction of masculinity and femininity, of masculine and feminine occupations. Men are expected to be miners, construction workers and rubbish collectors. Similarly, women are expected to cook, clean and look after the children. And just to anticipate a familiar tactic of Singaporean male whataboutism, this applies to National Service as well. The common denominator here is the polarisation of gender roles and identities in the division of labour. It is a matter of structure. Blaming one symptom for another symptom takes our attention away from the cause.

This situation has broader implications and must be understood within a broader context: the historical categorisation of the public and private spheres. In the early days of capitalism, men were associated with the former and women with the latter, setting in motion a gendered division of labour that would influence how “work” is defined, organised, apportioned and rewarded.[2] Increasingly, women are employed in labour-intensive and low-paying industries such as textiles and apparel, notably in the export processing zones of the Global South.[3] Women are preferred in these industries because they are considered more docile than men and therefore less likely to unionise.[4] As political scientist Cynthia Enloe observes, the feminisation of factory labour that served as the engine of British prosperity during the Industrial Revolution has become a business model par excellence, a fixture in the international political economy.[5] And the international political economy functions as it does because of the measures taken to make women’s labour cheap. Such measures are based on four patriarchal assumptions: sewing is not a skill because it occurs “naturally” to women; only men can work in “skilled” jobs; women are merely supplemental wage earners; and women, simply waiting to marry, are not serious about their jobs.[6] Depressing women’s wages requires patriarchal power, the exercise of which depends on the manipulation of ideas about masculinity and femininity – and on a tacit alliance among factory managers, businesses and governments holding such ideas.[7] In short, the international political economy is not neutral but patriarchal. A feminist perspective exposes the proverbial child of Omelas – young rural women in factories and sweatshops from whose labour multinational corporations such as Nike and Adidas profit and on whose backs the wheels of the global economy turn.

To adopt a feminist lens is to ask about power – its wielders and victims – and the role of masculinity and femininity in shaping cognition and action. To adopt a feminist lens is to ask how “common sense” naturalises inequalities. To adopt a feminist lens is to ask who benefits from the gendered status quo. Lenses that assume gender neutrality ignore how gender works structurally, how patriarchy works institutionally and how power works globally.[8] Such lenses are conceptually inadequate for understanding our social world, the context within which we must live our lives.

But who am I to pontificate about such issues? Am I not a man? Do I not stand to gain from the patriarchal order? Well, I write not because I know what it means to be a woman but because I know what it means to be called “feminine” – as if its definition were static and self-evident, as if its label were an insult. And here I should correct a common misconception: feminism has nothing to do with maleness and femaleness, and nothing to do with bashing men and coddling women. It has everything to do with masculinity and femininity, and everything to do with the institutionalisation of masculine and feminine dichotomies. These structure not only what jobs are seen as appropriate and how resources are distributed but also how we walk and talk, how we sit and dress, how we internalise societal expectations and externalise those expectations. Gender polarisation, then, is a collective problem, and the fight for gender equality a collective responsibility. So I am a feminist. Why shouldn’t I be?

My instinctive reaction towards that classmate was aversion. But I wonder whether I should have suspended judgement and initiated dialogue. After all, who is to say that my beliefs are always right and always true? And who wins if we all retreat into our own ideological silos instead of debating in the marketplace of ideas? How can we learn if we don’t challenge others and, more importantly, ourselves? Listening to those with whom we disagree may be difficult, but listen we must – now more than ever.


[1] Double burden is a term used to describe the workload of people who work in the paid economy but who are also responsible – and expected to be responsible – for unpaid domestic labour.

[2] J. Ann Tickner, “You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements Between Feminists and IR Theorists,” International Studies Quarterly 41 (1997): 627.

[3] George Ritzer and Paul Dean, Globalization: A Basic Text (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 407.

[4] Ibid., 407.

[5] Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 264.

[6] Ibid., 279.

[7] Ibid., 282.

[8] Anne Sisson Runyan and V. Spike Peterson, Global Gender Issues in the New Millennium (Boulder: Westview Press, 2014), 8.


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About the author

Jonathan is a second-year student from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Sociology. He is interested in literature, politics, language, time and memory. Some of his favourite authors include Dickens, Orwell, Ishiguro and Kundera. You probably haven’t seen him before: he’s usually firmly ensconced in his room.