Why Humanism and feminism go hand in hand

For International Women’s Day (8 March 2015), Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan explores the profound unity of Humanism and feminism.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

Supporters of feminist, anticlerical activist band Pussy Riot outside the Russian embassy in London. Photo: Sean Comiskey.

‘Why feminism and not just humanism?’ is a question often invoked by closet misogynists attempting to highlight some imagined incoherence or hypocrisy embedded in the feminist ethical perspective. It is a question which lacks the intended effect, given that it incorrectly defines both Humanism and feminism, but does actually provoke some deeper questions about the historical and philosophical relationship between the two. So, even though the questioner is at best ignorant and at worst bigoted, there is a silver lining.

So what is the difference? Feminism is defined most commonly (and I believe most accurately) as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes’, whereas a humanist believes in the authority of the scientific method in understanding the world, rejecting the supernatural (including a belief in god), and in seeking to live an ethically fulfilling life on the basis of common reason and humanity, challenging religious privilege in the public sphere. Not only does the inquirer demonstrably rely on ill-defined terms for their criticism of modern feminism, they clearly have not done their research – the overlap between feminist and humanist beliefs and goals is deep and significant.

To start, the suffragette movement in both the UK and the US was against a background of voracious defence of male privilege by the church, an idea found in bountiful supply in the Bible (among other religious texts). The claim was that god created women as inferior to men, and it is part of god’s plan that it remains that way. Jesus, the earthly incarnation of god, was also a bloke – if he existed at all. We of course can’t relegate this archaic attitude to the past, as the Church of England consecrated its first female bishop in January this year. It therefore seems natural, or even obvious, that there would be a significant overlap between humanist and feminist objectives and beliefs.

In fact, two out of three leaders of the suffragette movement in the US were explicit ‘free thinkers’ (a term used to denote those who reach ‘unorthodox’ conclusions about religion), who criticised the church for their institutionalisation of discrimination against women. The British Humanist Association (BHA) holds an emphatically pro-choice position on the issue of abortion, and actively campaigns for reproductive rights for all women. Diane Munday, the feminist campaigner who lobbied successfully for the passing of the Abortion Act 1967, numbers among their patrons. The BHA and other humanist organisations actively campaign for the provision of human rights to all, and support progress in the direction of women’s substantive emancipation worldwide. Evidently, these are both issues which feminists typically support (I would be slightly confused if I came across a feminist who was ‘pro-life’, let alone who thought that women’s emancipation was no big deal!).

So what exactly is responsible for this extensive common ground amongst feminists and humanists? At first glance, it looks like it might be mere coincidence that those of both ethical stripes pursue similar political goals. Humanists criticise the abortion prohibition because it is grounded in religious exceptionalism, as such the non-religious ought not to be compelled to comply, whereas feminists are more concerned with the woman’s right to choose, and the rights she enjoys over her own body. This is superficial. To get a more coherent and profound analysis of humanism and feminism, we must look to the moral bases of each, which, as it turns out, they have in common. Humanism grounds morality in the welfare of humans and other sentient beings, seeking moral guidance on the basis of our common reason and humanity. As such, the right to autonomy is of paramount importance, as it is a central feature of living a good human life – whatever that entails for the individual (that’s the point). Therefore, a humanist considers the legalisation of abortion a moral imperative not just because it respects the beliefs of the non-religious, but because it is a matter of respecting one’s right to self-determination. Similarly, coherent feminists are not misandrists, they seek equal rights for men and women on the basis that both sexes have the ability and the right to lead self-determining lives for which control and ownership over one’s body is a necessary component.

So, in response to ‘why feminism, and not just Humanism’ I say this: the only real difference between the two is an explicit denial of the existence of a deity for humanists. What these philosophies share is a deep commitment to equal rights, non-discrimination, and the right to self-determination and autonomy, and that is what is really important.

Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan is a master’s student in political theory at the London School of Economics and a public affairs volunteer at the British Humanist Association.