I received a very helpful comment on the feminist pedagogies post from my good friend over at Not2Us. Her comment was about how feminism is a very contested term, and she pointed out that some people have given feminism a bad name. Yes, some people have used feminism to say that stay-at-home-moms are bad and that all bras should be burned. Some people have used feminism to say that women are better than men, that the world would be a better place if all leaders were women, or that men should be stripped of power and/or removed from society. I even sat in a class with a woman who once said that she wished all men would be put into prisons and that women would only have to interact with them when the women decided to have conjugal visits. Let me be as clear as possible: that is NOT my feminism. In my opinion, that is misandry (re: hatred of boys and men), and misandry is just as bad as misogyny.
So, in this post, I will consider the following topics:
First, what does the term ‘feminism’ carry with it? Second, why do I use the term to identify myself? And third, what do I mean when I use it?
So, what does the term ‘feminism’ carry with it? (aka: some way-over-simplified history)
The history of American feminism is described in waves. I don’t really know why they are called waves (movements or stages or eras would have worked too…. maybe someone was really into surfing?). Anyway…
First wave feminism (1880s-1920s) was mainly about rich white women getting the right to vote. Suffrage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, etc.
Second wave feminism (1960s-1980s) was mainly about middle class white women trying to get equal access to higher education, to jobs, and to equal pay. Second wave feminism was about encouraging women to see themselves and their concerns as worthy of political attention. This is where you get the phrase “women’s liberation” and yes, there was some bra burning.
Third wave feminism (1980s-?) was/is a critique of second wave feminism’s essentialism (re: claims that all women share certain qualities and certain concerns) and their use of middle class white women as a stand-in for all women everywhere. Third wavers wanted to show the diversity of women’s experiences and to include the voices of women and minorities who had not yet been heard– poor women, Black women, Latina women, and LGBT people (both men and women).
If you want more info on any of that stuff, feel free to take a few moments to cruise around Wikipedia. This is a good place to start.
Ok, so then why happened? Well, diversity happened.
After third wave feminism, there is a great deal of debate about what the next era of feminism is going to be. Some call it fourth wave feminism, some call it post-feminist, some call it humanism, some call it transnational feminism, some people emphasize that it is feminisms (plural), some don’t call it anything because it is still happening….
But as I understand it, whatever this new era is, I’m in it… and I get to participate in defining it…. which is sort of awesome.
Why do I self-identify as feminist?
Well, the history of feminism is not without its blemishes. Feminism has had its share of prejudice, ignorance, hypocrisy, and hatred. It has not been a blameless walk toward equality. But, I think, it has been a movement defined by people who identified the problems that they saw and did the best they could to address them. It has been a movement unified (although loosely) by a commonly held (although constantly evolving) ethical system wherein empowerment of the disenfranchised (although that category has at times been blind to its own exclusiveness) is the primary concern.
So, I identify myself as a feminism for a few reasons:
1) because I can. By this I mean to acknowledge that there are many people in the world who share my concerns for the disenfranchised but are unable (for personal, religious, familial, or political reasons) to self-identify as feminist.
2) to take responsibility for feminism’s problematic history. I do this first to take responsibility for the problems that I (re: middle class white Americans) have caused and to try to disrupt the continuation of those problems.
3) because it is empowering to me, but not only because I benefit from feminist successes. Yes, feminism seeks to empower me (as a woman) from the injustices of patriarchy, so feminism is directly empowering in that way. But, it is more than that. When I self-identify as a feminist, it gives me the power to help shape the future of this movement. By using the term, I have the weight of all those great feminist thinkers behind me. I can learn from their mistakes, build on their theories, and seek to dismantle patriarchy in ways that they couldn’t yet imagine…. but I can do those things only because they came before me and gave me the theory and the analytical tools and the experiences that serve as the backdrop (re: prehistory, shout out to Butler!) to all of my work. Building on all of the work that came before me, I can (and I say this humbly) work to make their efforts even more effective–more radical, more helpful to the disenfranchised, or helpful to the disenfranchised that they didn’t even know existed–than it was in their lifetimes.
Yep, so….I’m a feminist.
But what exactly do I mean by “I’m a feminist”?
When I say I am a feminist, I mean that:
- I oppose sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism in all its forms. Yes, this means that my feminism means that I support gay rights. And this includes drawing attention to both the obvious and subtle ways that women, ethnic minorities, the poor, and LGBT communities have been and continue to be disempowered by individuals and by social institutions.
- I acknowledge that I am complicit in perpetuating sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism…and I hold myself responsible for doing something about this.
- I suggest that stopping explicit “hate speech” is not sufficient for ending oppression and disempowerment. In addition to addressing the ways that individuals perpetuate hate through the speech and behavior, I believe that to do so we must analyze cultural practices, laws, institutional practices, media productions, population trends, and language itself.
- I emphasize that white men are not “the problem”. It is important to highlight that I am not suggesting that every individual white man has purposefully harmed women or minorities. Some have, but many have not. Instead, I want to suggest that the systems, practices, and traditions of civilization have, throughout history, continually disempowered women and minorities (mostly for misguided biological, economic, or political reasons) and that no one person is at fault for that mistreatment. Work to overcome misogyny and patriarchy must include and empower both men and women.
- I also avoid asserting that the way to end these forms of oppression is to take all the power away from white men and it give it to women and minorities.
- Instead, I assert that some of the important ways that we might end these forms of oppression are to radically re-think the concept of power, to fundamentally change the way that we understand ourselves to be related to one another, and to envision an economic future that does not depend on exploitation. If those three goals were reached, we would move a long way toward equality.
- I also believe that the most effective (and perhaps the only) way to reach those goals is through ‘real’ education (defined as listening to and learning from everyone and acknowledging equal worth among each perspective).
So, my hope is that this is what feminism will look like in the future.
What do you think?
I imagine my readers to have a diversity of perspectives on feminism. Some are self-identified feminist scholars like me; some have great anxiety or even fear of the term, and many fall somewhere between those two. So, I really and truly want to hear from you (whatever your perspective).
- Did you know the history of feminism? And does knowing it change your perspective on the term?
- Would you self-identify as feminist? Why or why not?
- What do you mean when you say the term ‘feminist’? Does my definition radically diverge from yours?