Feminism is for everyone. Photo by user knightbefore_99, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Feminism is for everyone. Photo by user knightbefore_99, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Listen to Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Stop trying to replace feminism with Humanism

This piece was coauthored by RNS columnist Chris Stedman and Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The views expressed below do not necessarily reflect those of Jones's employer.

It's been a rough month for feminism. From leaked celebrity nude photos to GamerGate, the treatment of women and the broader subject of feminism has divided the Internet—with some decrying feminism as a useless distraction from more important issues.

Earlier this week, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt waded into this debate in response to people suggesting he identify as a Humanist instead of a feminist:

He isn’t the first to be told that we should replace the word feminism with Humanism; in fact, it’s a relatively common refrain. But as Gordon-Levitt learned, Humanism already means something else:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

It’s entirely understandable that some people may be unfamiliar with modern Humanism, an ethical nontheistic worldview with roots in Renaissance Humanism. Both of the authors of this piece have fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, and neither of us learned about Humanism until adulthood, after we had already left Christianity and realized we were atheists. It’s also understandable that people might not be familiar with feminism, or at least familiar with the movement’s actual aims. But as people who identify as both feminists and Humanists—and who see them as meaning different things—we think the distinction is important.

Feminism is for everyone. Photo by user knightbefore_99, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Feminism is for everyone. Photo by user knightbefore_99, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Feminism is a movement focused on the elimination of gender-based inequities—or, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk (notably sampled in Beyonce’s “***Flawless”), a feminist is a “person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” But as Adichie explains, feminism is not as simple as saying that things need to be equal: It’s also recognizing that right now things aren’t equal, and that the scales are tipped in favor of men.

Feminism exists because gender inequities exist. Conflating it with Humanism—either out of ignorance, or in a deliberate attempt to undermine feminism—both misunderstands Humanism as meaning “everyone-ism” rather than being a distinct nontheistic worldview, and neatly removes the gender-specific nature of these inequities from the conversation when in fact they should be the focal point.

Here’s why we need feminism, not just everyone-ism: One of the authors of this piece is much more likely to be paid significantly less for doing the same work as the other. One of us is much more likely to receive specific, gendered online harassment for writing the same words. One of us is much more likely to be the victim of violence—85 percent of domestic violence victims in the U.S. are women, and that violence is usually inflicted by men. Globally, women remain hugely underrepresented in positions of power and influence—just 7 out of 150 elected Heads of State in the world are women, and on average only 17 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women. And these statistics are an incomplete introduction to the problem: a woman’s race, gender expression, and sexual orientation can put her at even greater risk of discrimination and violence.

That’s our current reality. That’s why feminism, despite the movement’s imperfections, is still so important. It’s not just appropriate to acknowledge that these gendered inequities are less frequently experienced by men and more frequently perpetuated by them—it’s essential to recognize that the playing field isn’t level. Of course, that recognition doesn’t preclude men from becoming valuable allies in the fight against sexism. But it does require men to recognize that they are privileged by virtue of their perceived gender identity.

People are free to criticize feminism as a movement, and individuals who publicly represent it. But there is a difference between criticism and total erasure. Erasing feminism by trying to replace it with Humanism—a distinct philosophical worldview—presumes that no one benefits from it, and that presumption contradicts every bit of data we have on the status of women around the world.

Humanism calls us to focus on human concerns rather than divine ones, and gender inequity is among these concerns. As long as men continue to receive unfair advantages simply for being men, and women continue to be disadvantaged simply for being women, it’s imperative that we call feminism what it is—and acknowledge its distinct goals.

This piece was coauthored by Chris Stedman and Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, she volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights. 


  1. Before he so chivalrously speaks on behalf of feminism, should Joseph Gordon-Levitt find out whether feminism wants his voice?

    “[W]e are unable to keep ourselves from being confused and overrun by male spies, saboteurs and fifth-columnists. At the moment, ‘male feminists’ are demanding to be permitted to ally with us. Transsexual and androgynous men are demanding that we ally with them. Women reformists are demanding that we ally with male institutions to seek gradual change. Men and male institutions only have the objective, whether explicit or implicit, of becoming ‘allied’ or ‘involved’ to keep tabs and subtly control, and to bleed off our considerable resources. ….My own personal vision is that women will cure the sickness that ails men and that men will stay around, hunkered in their man-caves playing the ukelele, leaving us in peace at last. As to what that cure may be, my best bet is that what’s wrong with men is that their androgens need genetic modification.”
    –Vilet Tiptree

    What does Joseph Gordon-Levitt think about this? Or, since we are unlikely to hear from him here, what does Chris Stedman think of it? By blithely declaring himself a “feminist,” is Chris Stedman erasing the voices of feminists who do not want male allies and, indeed, do not believe in the possibility of male allies? Is he willing to serve as a test subject for genetic modification as a sign of good faith?

  2. I’ve seen the “I’m a humanist rather than a feminist” comment for ages now. Much of the reaction was (and still is) linked to the word “feminist” being dragged through the mud by the mainstream media for decades. This substitution of the term humanism for feminism started long before humanism and atheism were as widely recognized as they are today, and thus, the term didn’t have a particularly strong linkage to a non-belief in deities… not among much of the general public, anyway.

    I think a further danger today, given people’s increasing familiarity with humanism as a subset of atheism/agnosticism, is that replacing the word “feminist” with the word “humanist” would automatically exclude women of faith. Feminism should include all women, of course, not just those who embrace the virtues of atheism and/or agnosticism. Building a movement entwined with an unwitting pattern of exclusion just doesn’t work. We’re currently seeing how well that’s working with the atheist movement. It has been quite disastrous.

  3. Why is it horrific to ask questions about men who utilize male privilege to insert themselves into the feminist movement?

  4. From the byline:

    This piece was coauthored by RNS columnist Chris Stedman and Sarah Jones…

    By blithely declaring the impossibility of male allies, do you erase the voices of women who welcome male allies, and indeed, believe that they can be a vital component of feminism?

    This article is coauthored by both a woman and a man. Maybe you should ask Sarah Jones about how she feels regarding your take on the matter.

  5. [W]e are unable to keep ourselves from being confused and overrun by male spies, saboteurs and fifth-columnists. At the moment, ‘male feminists’ are demanding to be permitted to ally with us. Transsexual and androgynous men are demanding that we ally with them.

    This reads suspiciously like the kind of text I’ve seen among transphobic feminists who’d rather trans people have nothing to do with feminism and consider trans women to actually be men and trans men to be actually women.

    If you embrace that mode of prejudice, there’s not much I can say to you but it certainly speaks for itself.

  6. Is it possible that the portion of my comment that is enclosed by quotation marks and includes an attribution to another author is, in fact, a quote?

    Am I simply pointing out that feminism is “not a monolith” and questioning whether what we might call “mainstream” feminists are exerting a sort of “mainstream privilege” over more radical voices? Can you work to upset “binary privilege” when you are also upholding “binary privileges” of your own? Do you get to decide what feminism is and isn’t?

    Can the rhetoric of the “social justice” movement be redeployed in unintended ways?

    Are questions inherently evil?

  7. Did I blithely declare the impossibility of male allies? Or did I quote a feminist who does? Are you a better feminist than the feminist I quoted? Who gets to decide that?

  8. OK, I did a bit of digging. Your quote is from the Radfem Hub. It is from an article located at: bit.ly/1puy14K

    Here are two more quotes from the article:

    Some academic feminists, still under the sulfurous spell of Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, and other continental psychologists, find themselves in alliance with the Transgender Movement, which converts their theories into supporting what is actually primarily a male issue having little to do with women.

    Male camps outside women’s music festivals protesting their exclusion; the insistence of some trans-female people on using women’s restrooms…

    This is from the “about” page of the blog in question:

    Many of us have specialized interests as well, such as motherhood, post-modernism and what it did to feminism, the harms of penis-in-vagina sex (PIV), the “transexual/transgender” movement, femininity, and the “sex industry.”

    If you are referencing this kind of material, you are clearly a person who harbors prejudice against trans people.

  9. Is it interesting that a site that welcomes virulently homophobic comments from religious readers like Lles Nats and Doc Anthony is now declaring comments “low quality” and hiding them simply because they contain quotations from “radical” feminists?

  10. Am I transphobic because I pointed out that radical feminists exist? Is it my fault that they tend to be transphobic?

    Is it interesting that you are offended by the transphobia in that article but have no apparent problem with the parts about men being inherently diseased and in need of “extirpation” by genetic alteration?

    Will the “social justice” movement eat itself?

  11. I’m tired of those kinds of comments, too. I flagged your comment specifically because I’m growing tired of the general lack of moderation here. I’ve stepped back from commenting at RNS because the moderation is so lax. Seeing trans exclusionary feminism brought to fore in the comments in addition to the usual homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, and generally prejudicial comments was the last straw for me.

    However, I have flagged other prejudice laden comments in the past. Yours is certainly not the first.

  12. Given that I, a trans woman, also carry Y chromosomes, I assumed that material was aimed at me, too… even though I am a woman.

    I find it ironic that you are upset that I failed to point out all of the prejudicial material in your comment. You posted it. Maybe you should apply the same standards to your own editorial choices?

    Anyway, not surprisingly, you are not arguing in good faith.

    Have a good day.

  13. I’ll always say I’m egalitarian before I’ll ever say I’m a feminist. Feminism meant something in my mother’s/aunt’s/grandmother’s time. Now it seems to be all about male bashing, rape apologetics, and much more heinous things. I would be mortified to call myself a feminist in this day and age. Thanks for this article!

  14. In contrast, I would always call myself feminist before egalitarian. ‘Egalitarian’ seems so soppy and undecided, the equivalent of saying ‘the truth must lie somewhere in the middle’, which is nonsense. Women and men are harmed by gender inequalities in society, but women get by far, far the worst part of the deal.

    I’ve read a few comments by radical feminists which make my eyes roll and get by back up a bit – but that’s a tiny proportion and it rolls off me like water off a ducks back. Conversely, women get absolutely eviscerated both online and in the media for speaking up and having an opinion, get rape threats and cat calls, insults in the street. *That’s* bashing.

    Female politicians and world leaders get primarily described as mothers or grandmothers; cosmonauts are primarily asked questions about their hair. From highly gendered toys promoting beauty as an ultimate and only ideal to corporate pay structures which are weighted heavily in favour of men. We still live is a structurally and socially sexist society, and that’s why I’m proud to call myself a feminist.

  15. I totally agree that feminism and humanism are different. However, I don’t use the term feminism since like the terms evangelical, and moderate, they are not very useful, as telling me you are any of those doesn’t really tell me what you believe. Are you 1st wave, 2nd wave, 3rd wave or something else? I have found in my personal experience there are as many different types of feminism as there are Christian denominations. I have been told I am feminist because I support things like equal pay for equal work, but I have also been told I can’t be a feminist because I am pro-life. So I just avoid using the term and just try to support women in general.

  16. No Joe, you misinterpreted the argument. humanitarian for #feminist and #humanitarianism is a much better word for #feminism

  17. Rape apologists? I don’t believe you’ve ever seen a feminist rape apologist. Sorry. Try again. Same goes for “male bashing”. Pointing out sexism, misogyny, and privilege isn’t “male-bashing”. I’ve actually seen bashing from antifeminists toward feminists (and women with opinions that sound feminist), which includes rape and death threats, actual stalking, and doxxing. Sorry, saying that a dude is being a sexist douche isn’t bashing when women and feminists actually have to worry about the things mentioned, just for speaking their mind.

  18. I don’t know why I continue to struggle with the term feminism. I’m starting to think for myself it’s becoming not much more than a semantic game.

    The question I find myself asking is if women should be treated equally for being women, or should they be treated equally for being human?

    More than anything I am thinking that this is all no more than academic nonsense that has lost sight of certain aspects of reality.

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