Feminism vs. Humanism by Gina Messina

Gina Messina-Dysert profileRecently Susan Sarandon was asked if she is a feminist and her response left many asking if perhaps we are moving towards a post-feminist world. Of course, the very fact that Sarandon was asked if she is a feminist well demonstrates that gender politics continue (certainly, men are not asked such questions).

According to Sarandon, “I think of myself as a humanist because I think it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches.”  She went on to explain that “feminist” is an “old-fashioned word” and is actually used to minimize women and girls.

Sarandon’s comments left many questioning what the difference is between humanism and feminism, particularly when a definition of feminism calls for the honoring of the full humanity of all women and all men, as it does here on Feminism and Religion.  Why not move to a humanist identification and leave behind the baggage of feminism?  While feminism is not anti-male, it is often mistakenly interpreted as such.  Lady Gaga’s ridiculous and ill-informed comment, “I’m not a feminist, I hail men, I love men,” doesn’t help matters. Ergo, the “f-word” is still alienating.

Certainly, humanism emphasizes the value of all human beings.  The 2002 Amsterdam Declaration of the World Humanist Congress “affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others.”  This said, while feminism and humanism seem to be working toward the same objective, the foundations of humanism contradict the feminist mission of justice.

First, the European Enlightenment is responsible for the foundation of humanism.  As Emily Lindsay Jackson points out, European privileged white men sought to remake humans of the New World in their own image.  Likewise, as Judith Butler explains, contemporary humanism does not value diversity and difference, but rather presumes only one way to be human.

While feminism calls for justice in all forms and honors diversity, humanism demands we all conform to an “enlightened” understanding of what it means to be human.  Thus, as Jackson states, “humanist solutions to current social problems – based on science, secularism, and “artistic creativity” – at the same time reinforce western, privileged, patriarchal values…”  Whereas feminism is concerned with gender politics, humanism is founded on patriarchal values that ignore the gender based injustice endured by women around the globe.

I am often criticized for my feminist identity.  Some say it is disturbing, passe, ignorant.  Some claim to offer me advice by encouraging me not to put “my feminism” in anyone’s face – there is no need to talk about I’m told.  Still others say, “why not identify as a humanist?  It’s so much less controversial.”  And to all of these I respond, my feminist identity is crucial to my world view and to who I am as a person.  Feminism gives me the tools to continue in the struggle against all that encourages oppression based on gender or any differentiating factor.  To those who feel burdened by my feminism, I must ask, is not the lack of justice for women around the world more burdensome?

Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is a Feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist.  She is Dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. In addition, Gina has taught at multiple universities including Claremont Graduate UniversityLoyola Marymount University, John Carroll University and Notre Dame College.   Gina has authored multiple articles and the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence, and is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the forthcoming anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence.  Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.

Author: Gina Messina

Gina Messina, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She writes for the Huffington Post and is the author or editor of five books including "Faithfully Feminist" and "Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again." Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences, and in the national news circuit including appearances on Tavis Smiley, MSNBC, NPR, and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the globe. She is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing for those who have encountered gender-based violence. Connect with Gina on Facebook, Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram @GinaMessinaPhD, and her website http://www.ginamessina.com.

33 thoughts on “Feminism vs. Humanism by Gina Messina”

  1. Gina, you are hitting the mark with your closing question which I second: To those who feel burdened by my feminism, I must ask, is not the lack of justice for women around the world more burdensome? Susan Sarandon is doing an injustice to women and the cause of the oppressed and marginalized by insisting feminism is a old-fashioned word. It is not, it is a power word that speaks to all forms of masculinist oppression whether perpetrated by men or women against women or men. Humanism just does not carry the emotional and courageous weight of the f-word!


    1. Hi Majak,
      Thanks so much for your comment and encouragement. It’s interesting, and I think 8thday makes a good point when she points out that Sarandon was put in a serious predicament. I can appreciate her struggle and need to identify as humanist – but I think it really ignores what feminism is really about and that is something we need to continue to speak out about. Thanks!


  2. I recently watched the film Before Midnight and I was quite literally surprised to hear Celine speak openly as a feminist. I think we have Julie Delphy to thank for that as she apparently wrote most of her own dialogue.

    But here’s a quote from her: “A lot of people expect women to have a certain limit to how polite they can be. It seems it’s more the domain of men to say things that are really outrageous. So, for me it’s very freeing as a woman to not even be politically correct about feminism. Obviously I’m for women’s rights and I’m very feminist, but I’m beyond feminism.” Apparently she thinks you can’t be a feminist and “say things that are really outrageous.”

    It always surprises me when women don’t define feminism for themselves, as in “I am a feminist and I say outrageous things, therefore I am an outrageous feminist.”


    1. This is such an interesting point, Carol. Yes, women should define feminism for ourselves. This is also interesting because until you pointed this out I have never thought about whether or not feminism has been addressed in films – and there really is a serious lack of this. I haven’t seen Before Midnight, but I’m putting it on my watch list now. Thanks!


  3. I wonder if Susan Sarandon would also say that she is for equality but doesn’t like it when people use the word “racism”? Oh my.


  4. Amen, sister! This summer I had an experience at a Christian camp in the Adirondacks that I have gone to since I was two years ago that highlights exactly what you are describing. For the past 40+ yeears, the Sunday chapel has been a female-free zone (except women playing instruments and singing) and the leadership has been all male except for lone female on the board in the last couple years.. My sister and I have complained about this over the years, but to no avail. Last summer the very first woman was asked to pray in chapel and this summer a few women have been asked to pray and a woman was hired to lead the worship, i.e. more than just singing but “leading” and actually “praying spontaneously”. Anyway, my father who loves the camp dearly encouraged me to write a note giving positive feedback. I decided I should and wrote the nicest letter to the camp director describing how nice these incremental steps are to creating a more gender-balanced feel to the camp. The response back was so illuminating. Given that the presence of even just a handful of women praying in chapel was such a marked difference from what my family had seen over the past 40+ years, my letter presumed that there had in fact been some sort of internal decision to allow women to do more at camp and that my note would be received favorably. The director’s response cleared up that confusion! Basically, he replied that he is so sadded by my note and chastized me for “creating an issue” that is not there and he spent the whole email clarifying that there in fact is not a gender policy at this camp and that the afternoon speakers who were at the camp this summer (they let women lead afternoon workshops) and who prayed were not selected at all because they were female but just because they were good enough for the job. I never used the F-word, he never used the F-word, but the subtext of his whole email was the fear of being associated with anyone or anything that would make him or the camp complicit with this awful scary movement called feminism. I do think labels have a tendency to lose their full meaning and can easily become polarizing, but as Gina describes above it is the world’s gross gender injustices and imbalances that created and are creating the need for a word. On a micro-level, I experienced the marginalization and branding that happens to women when we simply describe ***what is***. Whether in humanist or in religious form, even when and if we ever fully gender balance our world and our institutions, we need a way to affirm that there are many ways to be fully human. Our world has given us many reasons as women to deliberately to hold onto a “gender-lens” (the term used today in social change philanthropy) to avoid this maddening tendencey to adopt an intrinsically male-lens as the default human-lens. I still proudly call myself a feminist and try to be sensitive to when it is received in a loaded way by asking people if they are glad that women today have the right to vote, own property, can have custody of children after divorce and when they say yes inform them that they have benefited greatly from the feminist movement. That the world is still so unjust toward girls/women is not because we are “creating issues” or enjoying using terms which make people squirm in their skin but because the “issues” themselves are still very real and very much still require some sort of label or term which function as a mirror to expose the underlying realities we would rather not see. Sorry this took way longer than I thought to share. All this is to say, amen sister!


  5. I don’t like picking on an actress as regards a quote in the media. The question, “are you a feminist,” was meant to trip Sarandon up, no matter what she answered. If she says she is, she has to take on a lot of other stupid media questions, and if she says she is not, then she gets into a divide with online feminists like us (hee, hee). She simply tried to escape the trap with her opinions, but in the process, I agree, made a bit of a mess of it.

    Still, Susan Sarandon is a fabulous actress (how about Thelma and Louise !!)


    1. Hi Sarah – thanks for your comment! I’m too a Susan Sarandon fan. She is an amazing activist and I really appreciate her focus on women. I think her comments offered a good opportunity for dialogue and that is what I wanted to do here. I agree, the question is a trap but I also think her response warrants further discussion. So thanks for adding to the conversation!


  6. Feminist. Humanist. They are only labels. They are meaningless without any action behind them.

    But here again, as usual, labels are being used to separate and rank. You come across, intentionally or not, as if you were somehow a “better” woman/feminist than Susan Sarandon because you label yourself one way, and she another. You define feminism by your own terms, yet limit the definition of humanist to some historic source. The problem with labels is that everybody has their own definition and sense of that label. Did Ms. Sarandon get to define why she considered herself a humanist?

    I, too, identity as a humanist (although I have no need of a label.) Not because of something that happened during European Enlightenment, but because I feel that every single person is entitled to basic human dignity, hope, justice and equality. That is what I believe, and much more importantly,that is what I work for. And I deeply value diversity and difference. Judith Butler and others can think whatever they wish.

    Personally, I don’t care what you call yourself. I find all labels burdensome because they obscure individuality and diversity. But let’s not start putting other women down because they choose to label themselves something different. Isn’t it more important what they actually do?


    1. Labels are a problem, but lack of labels is a problem as well. Like you I believe that every single person is entitled to basic human dignity, hope, justice, and equality. But I also know from studies I’ve read that when we use gender-neutral words like humanism, certain people (like women, African-Americans, etc.) become invisible. It leads to sentences like “All the workers emigrated from Ireland, leaving only women and children.” (Women weren’t workers?). Or “There were 5 survivors, 3 of them women.” The default understanding in our language is masculine, i.e. humans are men until proven otherwise. Being a human who is female, I will continue to point out that I exist and that have to be taken seriously. I will call myself feminist.


      1. As I said, I have no issue with you calling yourself whatever you wish. But I do bristle when self identified feminists, who claim to value diversity and difference, belittle other women who wish to claim a larger, more inclusive identity.

        I could call myself a feminist too, but I am so much more than that. I only ask that you do not judge me by a label. Know me by my work and by my heart.


      2. Thanks so much for your comments, 8thday. I have to say, I wholeheartedly agree with Nancy here. That said, I want to respond to your comment in regards to belittling. Certainly, the goal here was not to belittle Sarandon. I’m actually a huge fan and think she does amazing work and is a terrific activist. She is a model to many of us. That said, I think her comments warrant additional dialogue – and that was/is my goal here. Why can’t feminism be a positive thing? Why should I or anyone deny our feminist beliefs? And if we truly understood the term, it would not be so alienating. It’s like anything else, the more we reinforce the negativity the more society buys into it. I think we need to interrupt that.


      3. “But I also know from studies I’ve read that when we use gender-neutral words like humanism, certain people (like women, African-Americans, etc.) become invisible.” If that is the case, then aren’t all men rendered ‘invisible’ by feminism? Does a desire for equality across the board absolutely NEED to be gender specific? All types of humans are human. Not all people are female, or male, or African American, (or even American). Are you claiming that the ideals of every single person must somehow fit into the category of feminism? I’m sure you have every right to call yourself whatever you like, but to criticize those who do the same for their own reasons is hypocritical. I get the impression that you believe that dignity, hope, justice and equality cannot, by nature, be gender neutral. When you call yourself a feminist, what does that do to make African Americans ‘visible’? Your reasons and reasoning are your own, but they look pretty self-serving to me.


      4. Hi Tom —

        What people with privilege fail to understand — because they don’t have to know it in a culture that favors them above other groups — is that groups other than those so privileged are made invisible by the language we use. For example, a police officer is white until we call him/her a black police officer. A worker is male unless we specify that she is a female worker. That’s a problem with our language, because our language was formed by the dominant groups in our society. From that perspective, when we talk about ourselves as humanist, we make women invisible, because a human is male until otherwise designated. A human is also white within this culture until specified as black, Asian, Native American, etc.

        That’s why I will continue to use the term feminism and ask that others who are actually trying to bring about a society with equality between men and women do the same. It points out that we are working to eliminate rape; disparate pay structures between men and women; assumptions that women should do the housework, not men; glass ceilings for women at work; the assumption that women aren’t as capable at math and science (or example) as their male counterparts; the objectification of women as sex objects; the assumption that women are all heterosexual; the continued battering of women in their own homes, etc. Until these (and other) abuses are eliminated, I will call myself a feminist. If you want to see that as self-serving, then I would have to disagree, since I am actually working to help all of humanity. The oppression of women affects men as well, even if it’s only by deforming them into oppressors, with the lack of empathy and dignity and justice-seeking that necessarily accompanies it.

        You’re right that the women’s movement hasn’t figured out a way to make clear with its own language that it is anti-racist. But if you knew about feminism — or read what has been written on this blog-site — you would realize that today’s feminism involves an understanding of the intersectionality of all oppressions: racism, heterosexism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and other forms of bigotry. I believe that “dignity, hope, justice and equality cannot, by nature, be gender neutral” or race neutral. We have to make visible — in our language as well as in our actions — that discrimination and oppression still exist until it is gone.


  7. Especially if it is disreputable and people are distancing themselves from the F-word, I will continue to say yes I am a feminist. Though I have never particularly liked words that end with -ist or -ism. I was surprised just now by my response to the word humanist. Don’t like humans, was my first thought. Or any way don’t like putting our species front and center. Seeing humans as part of a complex inter-related whole seems, well, kinda feminist to me.


  8. Of course huMANist has its psychological blocks. I much prefer feminist. But I most respect the We’Moon group in Oregon. This is a concept that says we’moon stand on their own, and don’t need the male sex to be seen as real. The term originated about 40 years ago with a group of very independent we’moon who established their own independent community, grew their own food, and lived communally on their land. The land is still there. The we’moon are still there. Most of the original we’moon found spots in more traditional communities across the globe, but the concepts they promulgated are alive and well. Loving or hating men is not the issue; being strong and independent in our own selves is the issue. We’moon don’t look to men, or to other women, for approval; we’moon are strong unto themselves. I salute them.


  9. Maybe we should all post this our Facebook:

    Feminism is the affirmation of the full humanity of women. This means that all the ways women have been defined as inferior, secondary and dependent on men are rejected.* Is there any reason anyone should not be a feminist? Please share.
    *See Rosemary Radford Ruether, “What Is Feminism” on http://www.feminismandreligion.com

    I’m doing it right now.


  10. Thanks, Gina, for your post. It brings up an important historical point. After the first wave of feminism, women like Susan Sarandon (and that was MOST women) said exactly the same thing: feminism is an outdated concept. And guess what? We lost most of their insights and activist energy until the second wave of the women’s movement. I was shocked when I finally read some of those earlier feminists and realized that the insights I believed that we had discovered in the 1960s and 1970s were already a part of the first wave. This time we institutionalized our wisdom by creating Women and Gender Studies. But of course that doesn’t mean that women outside of academia and women’s activist organizations aren’t losing sight of what we’ve accomplished and what still needs to be done. In this culture, we’re constantly bombarded with patriarchal cues that we better conform and, of course, that we don’t really know what’s best for us. It’s amazing when we DON’T internalize these messages.


  11. Sarandon’s comment shows ignorance of the usual definition of humanism. The definition you quote from the World Humanist Congress is one such definition. There is also the definition given by the Unitarian Universalist Association:
    “Humanism is a non-theist tradition that focuses on human potential and emphasizes personal responsibility for ethical behavior. Modern day Religious Humanism is largely derived from the writings of early American Unitarian Humanists, including Joseph Priestley, Thomas Jefferson, and John Haynes Holmes. Today, Humanism among the largest spiritual identity groups within Unitarian Universalism.
    Rev. Sarah Oelberg describes Humanism as including the following values:
    ‘Showing love to all humans is a worthy goal.
    Immortality is found in the examples we set and the work we do.
    We gain insight from many sources and all cultures, and there are many religious books and teachings that can instruct us about how to live.
    We have the power within ourselves to realize the best we are capable of as human beings.
    We are responsible for what we do and become; our lives are in our own hands.'”– from http://www.uua.org/beliefs/welcome/humanism/index.shtml
    To me there is no reason to choose between feminism and humanism. Particularly in the context of religion, they are separate but complementary philosophies.


  12. These attacks on humanism are unwarranted considering the age of humanism compared to feminism. Humanism was founded by rich white men, just like feminism was founded by rich white women, and many other movements have roots in a past that lived little up to the ideals that they now hold. This is very natural. The “western, privileged, patriarchal” value mostly instilled in the name of humanism is ‘democracy’ which was also the first main cause of feminists in the US. Another value is ‘secularism’ due to the fact that most religions are hostile to scientific inquiry and have discrimination ingrained in them, the latter being the reason for many feminists to also fight for secularism to a certain degree.

    The first predominant feminists in the US, were homophobic and racist or at least ignorant of the rights of equality for LGBT-people and non-white citizens – This changed. Just the same as with humanism. Humanism is looking past religion, race, gender, bigotry and tradition to see what is good for people, if a humanist doesn’t live up to that, he is simply labelled wrongly – just like misandric so-called feminists may be labelled wrongly. I see feminism as a branch of humanism with a focus on women’s rights and welcome it; we all need to have our priorities in order for us to make progress in every part of humanism and women are still in need. .


    1. Nikas, thanks for responding to this post. You make some historically valid points. However, the women’s movement in the U.S. had figured out its mistake with respect to LGBTQ folks in less than a decade, Some humanists haven’t figured out theirs yet. Besides this whole discussion is about distancing oneself from the word feminism, a historically HUGE problem, at least here in the U.S. Until we reach a time in history when women and men are truly equal, I will be a feminist to push for that change. That’s also one of the differences between humanism and feminism. Humanism is a belief system. Feminism is a movement for change.


  13. Very interesting discourse here. I can understand and agree with most of the points made but must agree that I am a Feminist and proud of it. In the same way that we do not live in a post-racial world (despite mainstream media’s claim that we do) we do not live in a post-feminist world. The struggle for women’s rights, all human rights and even the rights of Mother Earth continues. Perhaps we could join three phrases – “Feminist Humanist Naturalist” – to dispel any doubt that feminism includes concern for all life.


  14. Hi. I would just like to say that I think you did a horrible injustice with your explanation of Humanism. You are claiming that humanism reinforces patriarchal values and “ignores” gender discrimination across the globe. This is description is nothing more than a straw man that you use to help construct your (imo misguided) point.

    Modern Humanism is the belief that all people should have the highest levels of freedom and autonomy without infringing upon the rights and freedoms of others. There is no sex discrimination in humanism, in fact, the philosophy by it’s very nature is anti-sexist. It considers all people, male or female, as equal human beings with equal natural born rights. Humanists would believe that these ideals are indeed “enlightened” as they break through barriers of discrimination and recognizes everyone’s natural human rights.

    The critical difference between humanism and feminism is that the humanism believes in fighting for equality and freedom for everybody, and elevation of humanity as a whole. It calls for fair treatment and recognition of all people’s natural rights. Gender discrimination of any kind is _not_ Humanism nor inline with Humanism philosophy in any way whatsoever.

    Feminism, however, fights specifically on behalf of women’s issues while ignoring areas of society where men are discriminated against. (I suppose this is what you refer to as “gender-politics”?) They will focus on a litany of women’s issues while ignoring the greater human issues. Do you care that women in Yamen are living in terrible conditions and suffering horrible abuses? Or do you care that _people_ in Yamen are living in terrible conditions and suffering horrible abuses? This is the difference between humanism and feminism. It is not that Humanists are ignoring discrimination in society. It is that their solutions to discrimination is a universal recognition of rights, rather than promotion or privileges of 1 specific gender.

    And if I may diverge from the main point and add my 2 cents, I would like to say that many of the “issues” that feminists are choosing to fight I believe are based on illusions and fallacies, and political attempts to remedy these situations would do more harm than good.

    The “gender wage gap” issue is one such issue. Many studies have shown that the wage-gap is a complex issue based on many factors, and that discrimination is one of the _least_ contributing factors. More significant factors involved the general preferences and lifestyle/balance choices that people make, and how they differ between men and women.

    Men would be more likely to take a dangerous/uncomfortable/stressful job with long hours and overtime, while women were more likely to choose jobs that provide a nice balance with home/family life. There were also difference with the number of hours per week preferred by men and women. Another factor is the types of professions preferred by the sexes, with men typically choosing professions that generally pay more. There is also distortion with the way the careers are represented in these studies. They will compare male and female “doctors”, but ignore the statistical facts that the men were predominantly in highly specialized positions like cardiologist, or neurologist, while the women were in less specialized positions such as pediatrics. Again, this is not derogatory against women, just a neutral explanation of why male “doctors” make more than female “doctors”, and it is one that has nothing to do with discrimination based on gender.

    These points are reinforces by a study done of independent business owners, of which the women on average earned about 40% what the men did. As business owners, it would be impossible for discrimination to be a factor here. When interviewed, the major factors were clearly that the women chose more of a balanced lifestyle that made them happy, while the men were choosing to spend more time and dedication chasing profits for the business.

    So in response to this information, I would suggest that politics or laws aimed to close the wage gap would be misguided and harmful, and actually create discrimination and injustice rather than prevent it.

    So in summation, I think gender equality is part of an enlightened perspective of what it means to be human. But I think it is only a part of a greater, more powerful ideology that recognizes all humans and their natural rights. Humanism is the perspective that transcends discrimination on all levels.

    Feminism, by contrast, is a sexist ideology that promotes only a small aspect of Humanism, which is that which refers specifically to women’s issues.


  15. As a man, who has been addressed by some self identified feminists, as not having a voice, vote, or idea in the issues of women, I have felt pushed aside and made to feel unwelcome to the label of feminist or feminist supporter. And I have seen a rise in the male equivalent or counter (with claims of gender bias that negatively impact men in society). What I get from this is soured politics, like watching two polarized political parties spar while squeezing out people not looking to be just one sided but looking to be for lack of better label, humanists – supposedly raising up all to equal footing, without all the negative baggage heaped on the old labels.


  16. Words are only as good as their actual usage. If a plurality of people believe the word ‘feminism’ implies man-hating, then that word may be irretrievable to those who think of its meaning differently.


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