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What Is Compassionate Feminism?

Explore an intersectional approach to feminist discourse.

Key points

  • Feminism has always been compassionate, but online discourse has made it seem less so.
  • Many feminists are cautiously calling for empathy, openness, and compassion in feminist discourse.
  • Compassionate feminism is intersectional, seeking equality for women of every race, class, and orientation.
  • Compassionate feminism is not passive, tackling difficult conversations with honesty, openness, and empathy.

Feminism, in its current form, has an image problem.

The feminist movement has historically focused on ending sexist oppression while fighting against other forms of oppression that affect women, such as white supremacy, classism, and imperialism. A central position of the feminist movement is that women will never achieve full liberation until oppression and injustice no longer exist (Ackerly, 2011). As such, it has centered heavily on bringing women and men together to abolish oppressive systems and build something better in their place.

Sadly, thanks to the negative portrayal of feminism on social media and mass media alike, this big and powerful movement has been diminished, in some people’s eyes, to little more than an exercise in misandry (Anderson, 2015). Women within the movement sometimes feel like in-group discussions devolve into arguments over minor disagreements. Potential allies, on the other hand, perceive feminist spaces as unwelcoming and intolerant of them (Ging, 2017).

Concerned feminists, who see this image problem as a threat to the movement, have cautiously called for more compassion in feminist discourse (Lewis, 2019). Compassion has always been a core value of the feminist movement. But if compassion is not readily ascribed to the movement by its members and outsiders, its centrality to the cause matters little. Compassion, which welcomes difficult conversations while prioritizing empathy and openness, is needed to resolve this issue and spark effective social change.

How Do We Define Compassionate Feminism?

Compassionate feminism is intersectional. Intersectional feminism understands that women experience discrimination and oppression in different ways based on the identities they claim. Compassionate feminism recognizes that white supremacy has enabled educated white women with material wealth and privilege to approach equality with men while leaving other women out of the equation. It invites white women to step off the escalator that shuttles them up and away and instead stay behind to ensure that all other women are granted the same power and privilege.

Next, compassionate feminism envisions sexism and patriarchy as the enemy—not men (hooks, 2000). Because these mechanisms harm both men and women and indeed can exist within us both, compassionate feminism argues that men fundamentally cannot be the enemy. It aims to convince people of all genders to examine and divest their sexist and patriarchal indoctrination.

Lastly, compassionate feminism is not passive. A common fear among feminists, when they contemplate compassionate feminism, is that it intends to coddle and edify its opponents. This is hardly the case. Compassionate feminism prioritizes compassion toward women above all, fostering unity and mutual positive regard.

There is room for compassion toward male allies, but it has limits. Not every man or potential ally is deserving of feminist compassion. Compassionate feminism does not pander to hostile, aggressive, or antagonistic men. Rather, it leaves the door open for respectful and empathic dialog with men who have a genuine interest in supporting the feminist movement.

Confronting Conflict With Compassion

Any movement of such magnitude is bound to have conflict. One way to resolve the image problem facing contemporary feminism is to center compassion in the way conflicts are handled.

Compassionate feminism suggests empathy and cooperation are needed within the movement and with potential allies. Empathy is produced through consciousness-raising: We will discuss how sexism and patriarchy affect us differently based on our shared and unshared identities and convey these harms in a unified voice to potential allies. Cooperation is produced when we convince outsiders and potential allies to understand our struggles and to recognize how sexism and patriarchy harm them, too.

When it comes to conflict resolution, compassionate feminism distinguishes between productive conflict and destructive conflict (Lewis & Marine, 2015). Productive conflict leads to new insights, theoretical development, and enhanced empathy. It is how unity within the movement and cautious trust with potential allies are established.

On the other hand, destructive conflict depletes morale, forms animosity among members of the movement, and alienates potential allies. Engaging in productive conflict means keeping shared goals and objectives at the fore, navigating internal disagreements with empathy and openness, and allowing allies (those making good-faith efforts to do the work.) to make mistakes without being humiliated or alienated.

Importantly, compassionate feminism doesn’t mean avoiding difficult conversations or burying anger and other negative emotions. Instead, it means engaging critically in the topics that impact women. It requires a willingness to critique honestly, to listen openly, and to attempt to establish common ground and collective action.

The Compassionate Image of Feminism

Compassion within feminism is hardly a novel idea. Indeed, compassion is woven into every inch of the feminist tapestry. However, as social media and third-party mass media outlets become the primary resource from which people of all genders learn about feminism, the inherent role of compassion in feminism risks being lost. While social media and even mass media can be useful for amplifying voices and raising consciousness, they often prioritize conflict over understanding and outrage over empathy. It highlights our differences rather than creating space for solidarity.

Compassionate feminism seeks to take an ax to the tree of patriarchy while tending to the creatures shaken from its branches as they come down. It recognizes that some creatures benefit more from the tree than others and resist bringing it down. It accepts that even the creatures who don’t benefit much from the tree might prefer the safety they have found within it over the frightening unknown that lies without.

Finally, it understands that different creatures have different experiences within the tree—some find safety and comfort within the sturdy trunk. In contrast, others hold precariously to the only thin branches they can grasp. Those experiences shape their views of both patriarchy and the feminist movement.

For compassionate feminists, the tree must go. But as it makes its descent, compassionate feminism invites with openness and empathy anyone who wishes to come along and plant the seeds for something better.


Ackerly, B. A. (2013). Intelligence and Compassion, the Tools of Feminists: An Engagement with Catia Confortini. In Feminism and International Relations (pp. 40-47). Routledge.

Anderson K. J., Kanner M., Elsayegh N. (2009). Are feminists man haters? Feminists’ and non-feminists’ attitudes toward men. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(2), 216–224.

Ging D. (2017). Alphas, betas, and incels: Theorizing the masculinities of the manosphere. Men and Masculinities, 22(4), 638–657.

Hooks, B. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Pluto Press.

Lewis, R. (2018). Gender, voice and space: Feminism online. Dígitos. Revista de Comunicación Digital, (4), 23-36.

Lewis, R., & Marine, S. (2015). Weaving a tapestry, compassionately: towards an understanding of young women’s feminisms. Feminist Formations, 27 (1). pp. 118-140.

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