Feminism: A Definition?
What is feminism? Many people feel strongly about feminism, and I have often heard individuals proudly declare that they are or are not feminists. Yet, I have never had a satisfactory definition of this term. One month into a course entitled “Critical Feminist Studies”, I still have not been given a definition of feminism which I feel is sufficient. Google returns 19,100,000 hits in .12 seconds in a search for the term “feminism”, the first of which is a lengthy and heavily annotated Wikipedia entry. Though Wikipedia is not normally a reliable source for any paper, the fact that even this source claims that “[f]eminists have divided feminism's history into three 'waves.'”, suggests that there is good reason for the improbability of having one central definition of feminism.
Wikipedia’s statement brings more questions than answers. Who are feminists? How can something undefined have its own history? Does this mean that feminism means three completely different things? If so, why are they all called “feminism”? Were all the really cool names for political movements already taken? Actually, my last question presupposes that feminism is a political movement, so I would add the question of whether feminism is a political movement to my long list of questions.
In a search for the answers to at least some of my questions, I turn to those readings which are included on the syllabus for a course entitled “Critical Feminist Studies”, having decided that perhaps those who have already claimed for themselves the name of “feminist” may give some insight into what a “feminist” is. A quick glance shows that the syllabus is divided into two sections: Part I: Contemporary Feminist Theory and Part II: Classic Feminist Literary Texts.
Thinking over these texts, I notice that the thread connecting all of them seems to be a belief in a difference between men and women. Patrocinio Schweickart declares that “we should strive to redeem the claim that it is possible for a woman, reading as a woman, to read literature written by women.” (56) Paula Gunn Allen claims that “[m]uch of women’s culture bears marked resemblance to tribal culture. The perceptual modes that women…habitually engage in more closely resemble inclusive-field perception than excluding foreground-background perceptions.” (243) Cixous would like her readers to believe that “[in] women’s speech, as in their writing, that element which never stops resonating, which, once we’ve been permeated by it, profoundly and imperceptibly touched by it, retains the power of moving us…Why this privileged relationship with the voice? Because no woman stockpiles as many defenses for countering the drives as does a man.” (881) Whatever else each of these authors and “feminists” claim, they statements clearly suggest that they believe there is a fundamental difference between women and men.
I would have thought that the mid-20th Century Civil Rights movements demonstrated that “separate but equal” is not, in fact, equal. Yet these self-affirming “feminists” continue to suppose that men and women are fundamentally different. I would like to believe, however, that we are finally at a time when we are moving past these outdated modes of thinking. Perhaps feminism is so hard to define simply because it really does mean different things at different times. For these women, feminism may have been “equal rights for men and women.” For today, it may be possible that we can move into a time where we can say more simply “equal rights for all.”
This brings me to what I believe is temporarily my final set of questions. Why is the first section of the syllabus labeled “Contemporary Feminist Theory” when none of these essays are less than 15 years old? Has there been no important work in the field of feminist theory for the past 15 years? Do “feminists” still define themselves within the same boundaries as these authors? Perhaps most importantly, is feminism something which can be defined?