my feminism

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?
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12 Responses to my feminism

  1. Bethany Bear says:

    Thank you for providing such a succinct and balanced summary of the many uses of the word “feminism.” To answer one of your questions, I rarely self-identify as a “feminist,” although I owe much (including my career in higher education) to gains made by men and women who would take that title for themselves. I have a few reasons for avoiding the term “feminist” for myself: First, I have always felt that feminism of every “wave” describes only a part, not the whole, of my identity. Here’s what I mean (or what I think I mean): there are some aspects of my life, action, and politics that line up with certain feminist values–e.g. valuing education for all people, including women and girls. However, feminism per se is neither the source nor explanation for those values. I believe that girls should be taught to read, for example, because of my Christian faith that each person–male and female–carries the image of God. If asked to self-identify, therefore, I am more likely to focus on my faith, which is the source of my convictions, rather than my feminism, which is a by-product of my faith.

    My second reason might seem strange, but I have recently realized that I dislike identifying as a feminist because “feminism” is such a new word, first appearing in its current sense as recently as 1895 (so says The Oxford English Dictionary). Words have to be around for a long time before I trust them. Indeed, some of the liberated and liberating women I most admire lived long before the word “feminism” came into current use: the prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22), Hildegarde von Bingen, Queen Elizabeth, et al. I would much rather look to history and see how these women described themselves, and to borrow or adapt that vocabulary for my own place in the twenty-first century.

    I would not be offended if someone described me as a feminist, but I would be interested in their reasons for using the term. I have also noticed that I am more likely to describe other people as feminists than I am to apply the word to myself.

    Thanks for the provocative questions and ideas, Tracy!

    • Bethany, thank you so much for your comments. I think I understand what you mean about Christianity being more primary (or orienting?) for you than feminism. That is not the case for me. For me, feminism (or, more precisely, the ethics of feminism) underscore basically all my other commitments and concerns. I will soon blog about the “outgrowths” of my feminism…. which include vegetarianism, pacifism, etc.
      Also, your desire to use old words is beautiful, and I would love to hear more about this. Can you blog about it? A letter to aged words perhaps? 🙂 I approach words differently. I am skeptical of the history of words– the ways that words have been used to cause harm, the ways that words have been misunderstood, etc. I am able to accept and deal with the term feminism because I have studied its problematic history, but I have trouble using common words that I haven’t studied and that may have caused problems in the past. So, while I haven’t thought about it extensively (but I clearly should), I tend to think that I like new words better. I also appreciate that new words can make the familiar seem unfamiliar because that process allows me to examine previously familiar concepts more carefully. Your thoughts? Also, I should write more about feminist approaches to language. 🙂

  2. Elizabeth says:

    This may not be the most appropriate place to leave these thoughts, but not having a blog of my own, this will have to do 🙂

    I should start by making a disclaimer: the views expressed in this comment to a post on Tracy’s feminism are solely my views. They are not a representation of the views of my employer. I think I’m supposed to write that if I comment on energy policies via social media. And I expect I’ll eventually get to commenting on energy policy.

    My second disclaimer is that I am typing this all as it comes to me. I’m not sure there will be any rhyme or reason to the following post, so hopefully you will work with me.


    I am a little confused by your definition of feminism (or at least what you mean when you say you’re a feminist). Your first bullet point was:

    I oppose sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism in all its forms.

    I looked up feminism online and this was its definition:

    the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.

    That’s more in line with what I thought feminism meant. I didn’t imagine it having anything to do with racism, classism, or heterosexism. Of course, I’m just a simple engineer. I don’t particularly know what it means to trust or distrust a word. And now that I’m giving it some thought, I find that I don’t particularly like to think about what it means to trust or distrust a word. I’ll leave that to people whose brains work differently than mine. Ah the joys of celebrating diversity.

    Ok, I’m pretty much done with feminism. This post was never really going to be about feminism, but I felt like I needed to throw in a little something to make this more legitimate. What I really want to talk about it the journey I’ve been on the last few months. I think I’m ready to say the things I’ve been slowly starting to think out loud (or at least type them out loud). And I don’t mean I’m afraid for people to hear me say them. I’m afraid to think them at all because I don’t understand this transformation.

    6 months ago I called myself a libertarian. I was a social liberal and an economic conservative. A year ago I watched and listened to Fox News religiously. I needed plenty of ammo to debate current issues with people “like you.” (Eventually I grew tired of listening to all the arguing and negativity and I gave up on news in general.) I knew I could never write as elegantly or intelligently as you do, but I had something important on my side. I was RIGHT. Oh my poor friend, Tracy. She moved to California and became a hippy. But of course, she’s never lived in the real world. Her entire adult life has been spent in academia, taught by people who have spent their entire lives in academia. She spends her life philosophizing about distrusting words, but even then I could admit that’s probably not a bad thing. The world probably needs things like “art” and “music” and “literature” and those other things liberals like to say enrich our lives. But let’s get serious. Thank God for people like ME. I mean they say it takes all kinds, but what it REALLY takes is people who make the world GO. Is feminism going to feed your children? Is acknowledging that you are complicit in perpetuating sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism going to heat your home or give you shelter or pay for your healthcare? No, of course not. You know what is? ME. Me and the taxes I have to pay to subsidize your lifestyle so you can have a pretend job sitting around thinking about hypothetical solutions that will never solve real world problems.

    I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the idea. I never realized how much my political views defined me as a person until I felt them slowly start to change. It sounds ridiculous to me, but it’s hard for me to accept that I’m not the same person I was. I knew how to be that person. I don’t know how to be this person. I can’t put this person in a box, and I like my box. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

    I think I’ll move now to describing several experiences I’ve had recently. A friend of mine in Texas told me not too long ago that a coworker of his just found out his 16 yo daughter is pregnant. I knew the family pretty well, and while internally rolling my eyes I think to myself – of course she is. Her mom was pregnant at 16 and now lives solely off the child support she gets for her children. Her nails are always done, she spends more time than I care to think about in the tanning bed, and she never had a strand of perfectly-dyed hair (supplemented by professionally installed extensions) out of place. But her kids get free lunches at school. They’re on medicaid so she doesn’t have to spend any of the child support she gets on doctors’ bills. And now her daughter is pregnant so I get to bankroll the next generation of deadbeats. Great. But as I was thinking about this, something hit me. I hit the nail on the head with my first though. Of course this 16 year old girl is pregnant. She was ALWAYS going to be pregnant at 16. She was immersed in that culture from the day she came home from the hospital. She was taught every time her mom brought home a new “boyfriend” that having sex was the most effective (or maybe even the only) way to ensure economic security. That poor girl never stood a chance.

    I’ve recently been reading a series of novels whose main character is an Israeli assassin. In all of these books I’ve read so far, they talk about the holocaust and how people today are trying to deny it. It disgusts me to think that. I wondered how something like that could be allowed to happen. How did we not know what was happening? It is beyond my comprehension that it could get that far. But then something occurred to me. It doesn’t matter if 6 million Jews were exterminated. It matters that ONE did. I don’t know if I’m getting my point across, but I’m trying to say that it’s not any more tragic that 6 million died than it is that 1 single person died. Every individual life lost is the ENTIRE scale. Infinity multiplied by 6 million is still infinity. And it still happens today. How can I condemn the people of the 40’s for allowing the holocaust to happen when we allow the same things to happen every day? Have I don’t one single thing to stop it? No.

    My brother, Andrew, and his wife, Missy just had a baby girl, Emma. Missy had a difficult pregnancy and was prescribed medicine to help reduce her nausea. The medicine was really expensive, though, so Missy was forced to make the decision to stop refilling her prescription. My brother works 12 hours a day at least 5 days a week. He works hard and he’s good at what he does. Missy also works crazy hours when she isn’t laid off. They are not lazy. They live a modest lifestyle. They do not spend more money than they have. They are the embodiment of the blue-collar, middle class family in America, and they can’t afford the medicine Missy was prescribed to help make her pregnancy more tolerable.

    The last experience that really brought everything home was holding Emma in my arms for the first time. I knew my own children would have the chance to do whatever they want with their lives. Emma probably won’t. And in that moment, I knew I was going to do everything in my power to ensure she is always provided for. I will make sure Emma has every opportunity I can possibly give her. And luckily I’m in the position that I can help. I am determined that Emma will have every opportunity my own children have.

    I then started thinking about my own lot in life. I am successful because I made myself successful. I worked hard and I deserve every bit of the success I’ve attained….

    I am cut off mid-thought by the arrival of my in-laws. I’ll continue later. I haven’t gotten to the meat of this post yet. So until tomorrow perhaps….

    • Elizabeth, thank you so much for taking the time to think and write about all this. It means a lot to me, and I think it is very important too. I will really look forward to reading the rest of your post tomorrow.

  3. Steve says:

    I’m afraid I’ll be rather more succinct than your other respondents, but we’ll see how things go.

    Did you know the history of feminism? And does knowing it change your perspective on the term?

    I was, prior to your post, aware of the history of feminism insofar as it occurred in waves. If asked to explain the thrust of each wave, I could have probably gotten as far as womens’ suffrage, but that would have been about it.

    Does it change my perspective…? To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t suppose I ever had a perspective on the issue of feminism aside from some vague sense of mistrust that’s due more to my upbringing than it is to any honest reflection on the topic. Despite my lack of certainty on my perspective, knowing something more of the history of the feminist movement (?), particularly in this fourth wave, does raise at least one question: has feminism so broadened its sphere of concern to effective rob itself of it’s own unique identity? To clarify: if the fourth wave of feminism is concerned with the oppression of all minorities and not specifically, if not at least primarily, with the oppression of women, the does it not just become another altruistic progressive movement…more humanist than feminist? I know you hinted at it in this post, but I’d love to hear more reflection on this.

    Would you self-identify as feminist? Why or why not?

    At this point I would not self-identify as feminist. This is for two primary reasons. First, it would be problematic for me to do so in my current ministry context. I’m working at a rather conservative congregation, the former pastor of which (in 2011) referred to feminists as “women’s libbers.” While there is a growing groundswell of more…progressive minded (?) people, the lay leadership of the church is still very much in the “old guard” and would take issue with such a self-identification, at least if made in public.

    Additionally, while the aims of the feminist movement as you’ve outlined them here are aims that I support, I don’t understand well enough the complete ramifications of those aims or the meanings of the words that you’ve used insofar as the “feminist” use of the words may vary from more familiar usages. Also, the interaction between my understanding of the Christian faith and feminism is something that I would have to spend much time reflecting on before I could self-identify as a feminist.

    What do you mean when you say the term ‘feminist’? Does my definition radically diverge from yours?

    I’ll get back to you on this…

    An additional comment: I’d love to hear a discussion about the feminist reading of the Bible.

    • Steve says:

      Guess I had more to say than I thought… 🙂

      • I am planning another post to reexamine the term feminism and whether it is worth keeping or not… so hold that thought. 🙂 You are not the only one who has raised that question.

        Regarding feminist readings of the Bible, I can post on that in the future as well. I think the work of those thinkers is extremely important, but that isn’t exactly what I do…. so I’m not the best person to talk to about this. There are lots of feminist theologians and Biblical scholars that you could consult though. If you would like some suggestions, I could try to compile a list. Are you mainly interested in Biblical interpretations or feminist theology more broadly?

  4. Steve says:

    I’ll get back to you on the hermeneutic question when I’ve clarified it better for myself. But, what do you do exactly within the larger sphere of feminist study and work?

  5. Well, my trajectory took me through Christian feminist theology and Islamic feminism, but now I do more with feminism and popular culture/the internet. I place myself within post-modernist, post-structuralist, and constructivist feminist philosophy. Does that answer your question?

  6. Elizabeth says:

    … But how much of my success can I really take credit for? Certainly a part of it. I could have chosen not to go to college. I could have chosen not to work hard. I didn’t make those choices, but what part of that is because I grew up in a place and a time and an environment that led me to the choices I made? I’ve never been accused of having a self-confidence issue, and so I can say I know that I have an above-average IQ. But that’s not to my own credit at all. I had nothing to do with the genes I inherited that determined my IQ. I used to think that everyone in America has the opportunity to make whatever they want of themselves. I understand now that that’s not true. Some people just do not have what it takes to be, for example, a chemical engineer. There are some people who, no matter how hard they worked or how much they wanted it, could not do it. But that’s probably a relatively small portion of society. I’m guessing that far more people are never put in a situation that would allow them to be a chemical engineer. Like the girl who’s pregnant at 16. She was NEVER going to be a chemical engineer. She was born out of wedlock to a mother who seldom worked, who didn’t encourage education. She wasn’t given the tools she needed. Though she would have been capable under different circumstances, she had no chance of ever really being anything other than a girl pregnant at 16. And whose “fault” is that? Seems like it can’t be hers. Her mother’s? We may be getting closer, but I still don’t think we’ve nailed it. Society? Eh… that sounds like something a democrat would say. Let’s just blame the girl. She made a bad choice, and now she has to live with the consequences, right? That sounds fair. I guess my point here is that while in theory everyone has some opportunity, everyone certainly does not have the same opportunity. And I’m not even sure if I believe that everyone does have an opportunity.

    We had a housekeeper who worked for my family for over 20 years – first for my parents, then for my grandparents, then for my aunt and uncle, and then for my cousins. She’s now in bad health, and I sadly haven’t kept in touch with her, but she’s no longer able to work. Alice worked hard and worked loyally for our family. She was raising a son with down syndrome and her alcoholic husband had died by the time she came into our lives. She raised my brothers and me and loved us like we were her own. I was 9 years old when my grandmother died, and I will never, ever, ever forget the sight of her ironing the dress my grandmother would be buried in. She was completely silent, but tears were running down her precious face. I guarantee you no one has ever worn a dress as perfectly ironed as my grandmother did that day. I used to say I was in favor of a flat tax. Everyone should pay the same percentage. It’s ridiculous that I should have to pay a higher percentage of my income because I decided to make something of myself. You want more money, stop being lazy, get a job, don’t depend on people like me to bankroll your laziness. I’m ashamed of myself for ever having thought that. Seriously. I should pay more taxes than Alice. I should pay WAY more taxes. If a person goes to work every day, works to the best of her abilities every day to provide for herself and her son, she should make enough money to cover anything she needs. And when she’s old and physically can’t work, it should be up to us to take care of her. She paid her debt, she did her part. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to pay taxes any more than the next person, but people bringing home over a million dollars every year don’t need tax cuts. Alice needs a tax cut. Alice needs health insurance. Alice needs programs to help her care for her son. Alice needs income in retirement. In a life that has given me so much (and now I have a better idea of what I’m saying when I say that I’ve been given so much), I OWE that. I owe back to society what my place in society has given me.

    Just a thought – why do people think Obamacare is socialism and don’t think that the public school system is socialism? And when people complain about how long it will take to get in to see a doctor, don’t they know what that means? Isn’t the decrease in accessibility because people who weren’t able to get medical care before are able to now? How is that bad? It’s been nearly half a century since we put a man on the moon, but we’re unable to give basic healthcare to people in our country?

    That leads me into my next thought. I’m not even going to be able to adequately express the intensity of how ridiculous it is that one single person on this planet doesn’t have enough to eat. I have no doubt that there is enough food on this planet to feed every last mouth. How are people going hungry? How are children allowed to starve to death? It’s shameful. It’s disgusting. It’s unacceptable. Not a single one of us should rest until we make sure that every belly is full. I had a friend in middle school, and both of her parents worked in fields that are very highly thought of (think school teacher, fire fighter police officer, etc.). I clearly remember her coming to school with no lunch packed because it was Thursday and her parents don’t get paid until Friday. Seriously, a friend of yours and mine went hungry at school because her parents did not have money to keep groceries in their house to pack for lunch. We can’t our public servants enough to feed their children? Right. My taxes are definitely too high.

    Go back two paragraphs. I made a comment about providing healthcare for everyone in the country. Why do I think that our obligation should only be to provide for those in our country? What the hell is that about? I remember I used to say that if you were in our country illegally, you have no rights. None. If I steal from you, assault you, rape you, kill you, too bad. You have no rights. And God forbid we pay for their healthcare, pay for their children to go to school. I think it’s important to punish people for the country they were born in. I’m sure you’ve heard people say we have no business sending money to other countries when we’re in such a fiscal mess here. Where did that come from? Because your ancestors beat my ancestors in a war hundreds of years ago and we were unable to annex their land, you don’t have value as a person. You are less worthy of help and compassion.

    I’ve still got another section to write, but I’m going to have to wind down now. More later.

  7. Pingback: why do feminists care about racism, class-ism, and heterosexism? « Transgressing Boundaries

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