Feminism: A Deliberation
Feminism: A Deliberation
I find it significant that we began this Critical Feminist Studies class with the struggle to define the very topic of our course, “feminism.” I would like to think that I progressed over the course of this semester, that I’ve come full circle and can now answer the questions that had initially perplexed me, but I’m not sure this is the case here. After all, it’s now mid-December, I’m writing my final paper, seemingly to show how much I’ve learned, yet I still struggle to produce a definition of feminism or even say for certain if I am a feminist.
During the first week of class, our struggle to define demonstrated with the utmost clarity that a consensus would not easily be reached; we each had our own definition, based on personal values and beliefs. I recall sitting in class and feeling both intrigued and troubled. I was fascinated by the variety of definitions for this single term, shocked as my peers used words and phrases which I would never include in my definition of feminism. This idea of a personal definition, a meaning that is mine, provokes me. Is it really a definition if it only belongs to me? What does it mean to possess a word and claim it as my own, freeing myself of any consideration for what it means to others? A few weeks ago, my class debated the value to combining the personal with the intellectual. The implication was that this process represents a feminist approach to academia. Thus, it occurs to me now that feminism might necessitate a personal definition, that a standard, fixed, academic definition would be anti-feminist in its refusal of individual needs, beliefs, and values. As a person who depends on concrete data and truth, I am hesitant to accept this idea of a personal definition. Personally, I struggle to value a definition that is only significant to me. I want my understanding of feminism to help me enter a dialogue with others and grant me membership to the feminist community. One could argue that the process, the quest for my own definition which is brought about through a reflection on my values, beliefs, and experiences, is what allows me to enter the feminist community. Maybe feminism isn’t a word, but a process, a process based on self-definition. Perhaps it is easier to employ a feminist methodology, to act like a feminist or think like a feminist, than to be a feminist. After all, to be a feminist is simply to accept a label, and what good does that do?
More good than most feminists like to acknowledge.
What if I say that humans want labels, even need labels?
What if I argue that feminism’s attempt to refuse a label represents a failed effort for it denies a human need?
What if I tell you that my self-esteem depends on others affirming my labels, my categories, as both accurate and appropriate?
This tendency to understand myself through my relationship to various social groups is hardly uncommon. A social psychologist would say that my personal essence (the unidentifiable, intangible something deep down inside me that makes me who I am) depends upon my connection to a larger social system. This social system is organized into groups (men, women, blacks, whites, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.) and we participate in society by identifying ourselves as members of such categories. Thus, my personal essence is directly related to group essences, for essence gives meaning to the category. For example, I might define myself as Jewish, feeling that this social identity is a key aspect of my self. My use of the “Jewish” category depends upon two things: first, the existence of a Jewish essence (an unidentifiable, intangible something inside all Jews that connects them and separates them from other groups), otherwise my use of the term is meaningless to me and others; second, other people’s perception that I do in fact possess a Jewish essence.
If being a feminist depends on a personal definition, then I’m the only one who can decide if I am a feminist. Others cannot judge me because to do so would require them to apply their definition of feminism to me. Yet, in order for me to feel confident in my membership to group x, I need other members to affirm that I am, in fact, an x. However, if, as with “feminist,” being an x means something different to each person, how can they affirm my group identity? While being the sole-dictator of my x-status is an empowering notion, it is also problematic because it ignores the human desire for affirmation from others. Humans are naturally dependent and don’t want complete ownership over their lives. I want someone to tell me that yes, I am in fact an x, yet doing so is contrary to what it means to be an x. Therefore, how can we have a feminism that is simultaneously “feminist” and attends to human needs? If we ignore human need, refusing labels and essence, we will fail to produce a potent feminism capable of producing change.
As you may have noticed, I still have not offered my definition of feminism. This absence is not part of some effort to write a paper with a surprise, punch-line ending. No, it’s simply because I don’t know what feminism is. Sure, I have some ideas about why I consider myself a feminist: I support women’s rights (and believe that women continue to be oppressed both nationally and globally), believe in gender equality (well, maybe, but that’s a story for later), oppose gender roles, etc., yet I am hesitant offer a “definition” if I’m the only one who subscribes to it. Consequently, I’ve embarked on a quest to uncover the meaning of feminism. Perhaps this journey is unproductive. Perhaps my intended destination, a definition, contradicts the very principles of feminism. Regardless, I think feminism would approve of my quest; after all, it’s the process, not the content, the journey, not the destination, that matters.
The reference that immediately came to mind was the Oxford English Dictionary. But I soon discovered a problem with this hyper-academic source: it ignores the personal, cultural, and connotative, all of which are essential to understanding a category’s essence. In an attempt to compensate for the OED’s limitations, I’ve also incorporated culturally and personally salient reflections on feminism.
OED Definition #1: The qualities of females.
This first definition, seemingly the most widely used, serves as a form of male exclusion for it implies that “feminism” is about being female and to be a feminist means to be female. Nonetheless, I know men who eagerly identify as feminists. In addition, the reverse of this statement, that to be female means to be feminist, is also false, for many women vehemently reject the terms feminist in their self-description. Such women often envision feminists as militant bra-burners who act in an undiplomatic, aggressive manner, disgracing their gender.
While I agree with the rejection of the “fighter femme,” I do think that aggression has its place in feminism, for it allows women the space to be forceful, passionate, and goal-driven in their mission. There is also a key difference between ideological aggression which challenges a ruling system or hierarchy and physical or personal aggression which attacks a individuals. It is difficult to be ideologically aggressive without appearing physically aggressive. The media (including cartoons, TV shows, etc.), in an attempt to create drama, often exacerbates this problem by depicting ideological aggression as physical aggression. This transfer from ideological and physical may also be due to the fact that humans have a tendency to take things personally, viewing everything as a personal attack. It may be impossible to control the degree to which people experience an ideological attack as a personal attack. However, there are also women who oppose any definition of feminism that presents women as assertive and forceful, even if it’s ideological, believing that such qualities are unfeminine. This belief that to be feminine one must be vulnerable and passive demonstrates the degree to which women have internalized sexism.
Despite the fact that the majority of feminists are not “fighter femmes,” the word “feminist” still carries the negative baggage. I have met numerous men and women who define themselves as socially liberal but refuse to claim the term feminist which they equate with “man-hater,” a complement to the misogynist. This conceptualization is rooted in the memory of feminists who attacked men (aggression against people) rather than the patriarchal social structure (philosophical aggression). A critical question is whether such baggage has permanently damaged the words “feminist” and “feminism.
Urban Dictionary (urbandictionary.com) is an online dictionary that offers cultural definitions, typically more based upon connotation than denotation. For my investigation, connotation might be more valuable for it provides information about how people actually understand, use, and respond to a term. Urban Dictionary is structured so that anyone can post a “definition,” and then viewers can rate this posting with a thumps up or down.
Feminism: “a federally funded, politically correct, special interest hate group.”
(266 up/58 down)
This definition and the corresponding ratings demonstrate the salience of the negative image of feminism. Such an understanding of feminism discourages people from considering themselves feminists.
Bryn Mawr College has an online Anonymous Confession Board on which individuals can anonymously start topic threads, respond to other threads, respond to specific posts, etc. There is currently one thread that asks people to say whether they are a feminist and why or why not.
“I also consider myself a feminist….I think that most people are feminists, and just don’t know it…Unfortunately, the word “feminist” in all its various forms has all sorts of horrible connotations, when really it is a very simple concept that does not require excessive body hair or bra burning” (Posted by anonymous on 12/06/2008).
“Yes, but only if you find a way to strip the connotations given by years of backlash. I’m not a man-hater, I shave appropriate body parts, and I do not cut off dicks and throw them out car windows. But if you ask most people what feminism is, you’ll get that basic concept. So, I don’t identify as a feminist, but I’d like to think that I am one” (Posted by anonymous 12/04/2008).
The ACB postings reveal the degree to which “feminists” are refusing to acknowledge their identity due to the label’s negative associations; being recognized as a feminist is an experience to avoid. How will feminism gain any momentum in society if people adamantly deny their support? Women’s refusal to publicly call themselves feminists creates a vicious cycle, for it means that there is nothing to contradict the “man-hatin’, ball-breakin’, hairy legged” image of feminists. Women need to accept the feminist label and replace this depiction; otherwise all types of forceful, activist women will continue to be viewed in a negative light.
This definition is also problematic in that it limits feminism to an investment in women’s rights. In contrast, the majority of my classmates believe that feminism has a much broader mission and includes, for example, the fight for equality across all races, ages, sexual-orientations, etc.
Nonetheless, I’m not ready to dismiss the value of having a word or mission (feminism) that is purely about women’s rights. Why does the word need to be general enough to encompass struggles against all types of oppression? Is it simply because it wouldn’t be feminist to draw boundaries or say that one struggle take priority over another? Being a feminist does not exclude me from also being a support of or lobbyist for racial, class, or ethnic equality, for example. Might feminism be biting off more than it can chew in attempting such a broad definition? In an attempt to answer that question, let’s turn to a popular anti-feminist joke:
Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: None. A feminist can’t change anything.
Given that humor is an exaggeration of the truth, it’s worthwhile to analyze this joke. The punch line alludes to the fact that feminists aren’t nearly as potent as they believe to be, that this image of feminists as ball-busting, wall-razing, vigorous women is a façade.
Political change typically depends upon a group of individuals uniting over a common cause, but feminism’s dependence on individual definitions challenges such unification. Take myself as an example: I am reluctant to join a “feminist” mission, given my uncertainty that their mission matches my own. To publicly identify myself as feminist and claim membership to the community, I need to feel confident that I understand and support the values and belief system. For if feminism is about establishing a new ideology, I want to make sure I approve of this ideology. Furthermore, how can we, as feminists, propagate our ideology without knowing what it is?
At the same time, one could argue that “propagation” is an anti-feminist, patriarchal action that involves inserting our morals onto others. So is feminism limited by the need to always act in a feminist manner? Can feminism be simultaneously productive (producing change) and feminist?
The lack of a clear feminist essence is problematic on several levels. First, it limits the cohesiveness of the group, for essence in typically a vehicle for centralization and unification. As a result, members feel detached from the feminist community; their efforts and beliefs are based on an individual investment in a personal mission, not a commitment to a group. (Could this focus on the person be interpreted as selfish? It seems like feminists need to decide whether it’s more important for each of us to have our own perfectly suited and precise feminism or to make a small sacrifice and subscribe to a less perfect definition in order to gain membership to a community and participate in a mission that extends beyond the personal.) Outsiders interpret this lack of cohesion as powerlessness, and the more powerless we feminists feel, the more we will interpret society as exclusionary and subjugating.
OED Definition #2: Advocacy of the rights of women (based on theory of equality of the sexes)
This second definition does not support contemporary, third-wave feminism which strives for universal equality across all social categories. Third-wave feminism is a fight against all marginalization and oppression; it is a push to stop treating people according to their social categories and to start treating them as individuals. This revised, third-wave definition has several derivatives. First, fights against marginalization tend to be the most potent when they represent a unification of all the oppressed minority groups. Second, there’s something selfish about only fighting for the group to which one belongs; a true advocate of equal rights does not judge who is deserving of such rights—all deserve. Third, if feminism is only about women’s rights, then the need for feminism will dissipate once gender equality has been achieved. In order to preserve the need for feminism, the mission must extend to more contemporary issues of marginalization. This extension is used to contradict the belief that “feminism is a dead theory. Women have achieved equality already.” Feminists are determined to protect the need for feminism, for the loss of feminism becomes a personal identity loss.
OED Definition #3: The development of female secondary sexual characteristics in a male.
Metaphorically, this definition suggests that feminism is about changing males to make them more female, and so if a man decides to be a feminist or simply support feminism, he will be removed of his male characteristics, perhaps stripped of his masculinity. The question arises of whether it is possible to simultaneously be masculine and feminist or if the two are at odds with each other. Is masculinity the problem that feminism is fighting? Perhaps feminism opposes and challenges a masculinity that’s based on male supremacy. It is not the concept of masculinity that’s problematic (in the same way that femininity is not problematic), it’s the construction or way society chooses to define it. The problem arises when “male” is defined as “not-female,” for such an equation supports the sense that there are solid gender definitions to which individuals must subscribe. Such definitions typically equate “male” with dominance and “female” with inferiority.
The “man-hater” image of feminists may have more validity than I originally thought. The problem with this term is in the imprecise language; “man-hater” is not wrong, it is simply inaccurate, for it implies aggression against a set of people. A better term would be “hater of The Man” which emphasizes feminism’s ideological aggression. This revised phrase references the need to deconstruct the social construction of man. Therefore, rather than solely focusing on the way in which women are limited by definitions, feminism needs to consider how men are also restricted, how the definition of “man” or “masculine” impedes the experiences of both men and women.
Society ascribes undue value to a man’s level of masculinity. As a result, men are hyper vigilant about their self-image, terrified that they will fail to fit the definition of manhood or masculinity and be viewed by society as a pathetic failure. This insecurity recalls my earlier discussion of the human need to be recognized by others as an x. In order to affirm his x status, a man will become more focused on precisely conforming to social gender definitions. Given that “male” and “female” are defined in opposition to one another, a man will solidify his male status by separating himself from woman, his antithesis. This process propagates the use of both male and female stereotypes. Ideally, men should see “male” as a flexible category that is not in opposition to “female.”
Both men and women deserve equal access to power, the opportunity to be leaders or followers, forceful or vulnerable. Some women may refuse the term “feminist” out of a desire to remain inferior and submissive, a personal choice that feminism needs to accept. The key is that these women are choosing their status, not being forced into it. As one feminist said, “you can be a soccer mom and a feminist.” Similarly, society must allow men to be vulnerable, powerless, and inferior, if they so choose.
I am troubled by the current conception of gender equality. As long as women strive for equality, the female role will be determined by the male role. The suggestion is that men are currently dominant, even all-powerful, and that women need to reach this level as well. From a social psychology perspective, I’m not sure that the world can handle a society in which all people are power-holders. It needs followers just as much as it needs leaders. Therefore, historic gender definitions and roles may have some psychological basis in that they recognize the need for individuals to complement one another. Unfortunately, society decided long ago that the easy way to satisfy this need was to make all men powerful and all women weak. Thus, the problem arises when individuals are made to be followers or leaders and there is unequal access to power. My version of gender equality is one that allows men and women to choose their role. Interestingly, this permission for men to step down from a position of dominance could be misconstrued as women achieving their rights at the expense of men. In fact, Urban Dictionary’s leading definition for feminism is “a movement to promote women’s interests at the expense of men. Despite claims by moderate (and misled) feminists to the contrary, feminism is not a movement for the betterment of men and women. If it was, it would be called humanism.” (322 up/56 down). I think it might be more accurate to say that feminism is at the expense of The Man rather than men. Again, feminism is about destroying an ideology not people. However, if men feel strong about their connection to “The Man,” then an ideological attack becomes a personal attack.
Nonetheless, maybe Urban Dictionary has a point. Maybe the word humanism would be a better term to describe the current feminist mission. “Humanism,” a word without gender ties or negative baggage, might invite greater participation from the masses. Still, humanism would not have to be a replacement for feminism. There might be a need for both. Perhaps feminism can refer to process and humanism can refer to content. Feminism can supply us with a mind-set, a way to think and understand ourselves and our relationship with the world, and humanism can supply us with a definition, essence, and mission over which to unite.