Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Elusive Meaning of Feminism

A lot of people level the charge that feminism is really hard to define and/or that everyone uses it differently. To an extent, that's fair. It really is hard to give clear content to any word that refers to a global movement (environmentalism can mean lots of things to lots of people in lots of places) or an amorphous concept (racism can refer to overt Jim Crow laws, subconscious suspicions (in the minds of perfectly progressive people) of those with different skin tones, or affirmative action, depending on context and who's speaking) that has been around for millennia. Feminism has this problem because it's a broad global issue and its causes have evolved and expanded a lot over time.

Those changes are particularly pertinent, I think. Often we think of feminist struggles historically as progressing from things like ending the legal status of married women being property to getting them the right to vote to allowing them to work in certain professions to removing cultural stereotypes that de facto prevent women, at least at the margins, from having all the choices men have. But not only do those direct changes on their own mean that feminism is a big thing, feminism has come to realize* that the "we" I spoke of above is referring largely to Western, white, middle and upper-class women. Largely separate issues exist for women outside this parochial bubble: women in (and emigrants from) the Middle East deal with issues like hijabs (which some insist are empowering and others see as oppressive) and honor killings and not being allowed to drive; women of color uniquely experience the intersection of race with gender, including discrimination within the feminist movement; some poor American women might as well live in a pre-Roe v. Wade world if they can't afford an abortion, etc.--not to even get into transphobia within feminist movements ("Men who chop off their penises are not women!!1 Ahhh, gross!"). All this is to say that feminism, whatever it is, is dealing with a lot of issues all at once. In some ways, it might not make a lot of sense to assign just one word to all of these disparate issues and causes and voices. And yet we do, and I think they all do have the common thread of women's treatment and opportunity running through them.

OK, so that is a bit about why I agree that it can be hard to pin down "feminism" for time and all eternity here or anywhere. But I think we can get a pretty decent definition that has some flexibility and covers the basics.

When I was thinking about this (Jeff kindly suggested I tackle the issue in the comments on my last post) I kind of came up with more of a description than a definition, but let's start there. I'd say that feminism is seeing problems with the way women are and have been treated in the world, coupled with a desire to change that injustice; it's believing that women are equal to men in intelligence, skill, thoughtfulness, kindness, and capacity for growth and change; it's wanting all people to have equal treatment from society and the law.

Now, I'm a big-tent person, whether we're talking about the Democratic Party, Mormonism, feminism, or what counts as art: I tend to err on the side of "sure, let 'em in!" So my definition of feminism allows for people who believe that men and women are significantly and inherently different, or for people who think that women and men complement each other such that sex with a member of the same sex is necessarily destructive. Of course, it also allows for people who think that essentialism is antithetical to feminism, or who think that anti-LGBT beliefs are incompatible with feminism, or who think that all bathrooms should be unisex! In other words, I'm ok with defining two people as feminist even if they think the other is harming the cause. Kinda like how I still think the Mormons who believe I'm hurting the church by being a liberal are still Mormons. Relatedly, I privilege self-identification over rigid rules. If someone wants to use the label feminist, I say the more, the merrier; on the contrary, I don't call people feminists even if they meet my definition if they don't want to use the label (even if in my head I would probably still classify them that way as a shorthand). Complicated, I know.

I also like Wikipedia's definition: "Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women. In addition, feminism seeks to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist is 'an advocate or supporter of the rights and equality of women.'" (NB: these are just summaries of dictionary definitions.) Equal rights, equal opportunities: yes! People who are on the side of women getting more power in the world (until they have equal power with men--let's not keep going so far we start harming men! [not that we're in much danger of that anytime soon...]) are feminists. In fact, even people who are glad that women have progressed as far as they have and just don't want to strip them of the right to vote are feminists in my book!

Feminism isn't that controversial or complicated to me at its basic level. We can get into all its waves and flavors and different people will be more or less attracted to the various aspects of those, but really I think most people agree that women have been mistreated for too long and are glad to see that changing, and thus are feminists--even you! (Yeah, I just called you a feminist--whatcha gonna do about it, tough gal?) That big-tent-ness can get dangerously close to covering everyone and thus no one, but think of it more as a spectrum. The more problems you see with the treatment of women historically and currently, and the more you're concerned about them, the more of a feminist you are.

What do you think? Is this a fair definition? Does it actually say anything or is it so much liberal sound and fury? Any major parts of feminism I should have included? Did I answer your question, Jeff? :)

* Here I gynomorphized (which is the counterpart to masculine anthropomorphizing) feminism by attributing consciousness to it.


  1. I didn't want to include it in the main text, because it's more of a footnote, but I'd also like to say that feminism also includes fighting for equality for men, too. It's just that in a lot of spheres they're not the ones discriminated against, so it's much less visible. But yes, I think it's part of my feminism that I think men should be free to be stay at home dads without social stigma, and that we should discuss issues of body image, rape, and abuse from a male perspective, too, etc. But again, it's largely women that have gotten the short end of the stick throughout time, so that's where most of the focus (rightly) is.

  2. Also, it probably makes more sense to speak of an issue-by-issue spectrum rather than one big "feminism" spectrum. Someone might not see any problem with the treatment of women if all abortions are banned (because she sees fetuses as full human beings, say) but see big problems with women's access to high-powered executive positions in companies; thus she would be "not feminist" on the abortion issue but "strongly feminist" on the equal access to job markets issue.

  3. Yes! My comments have the power to change the course of your blogposts (maybe, at least the order possibly!) So I really like your post about the definition. Let me explain why this post is very interesting to me. I am both personally and professionally very interested in public policy. That said, I don’t have strong political opinions—or at least traditional ones. I don’t identify with a party (or even come close) but I was raised in a conservative household with a mother who would probably identify as a feminist if the label didn’t carry such a negative stigma in those types of circles (she may still identify as one despite this, I’m not sure). So I fundamentally believe that “feminists” can have heterogeneous views on even basic feminist questions with my mom being an example. Edit—Just saw your comment on issue by issue spectrums and I emphatically agree.

    I believe very strongly (which is unusual for me, most of my beliefs are much weaker) that men and women should have equal opportunity legally and societally—the same goes for other minority groups (eg religious, LGBT, racial, etc). And by your definition I’m a feminist several times over. That said, I would never self identify as a feminist because of some of the accoutrement that goes along with it. For instance, “feminism” is often associated with thinly veiled (or not so thinly veiled) derision of men, bad logic (like using outcomes instead of opportunities), a overt and stated desire to pull down the patriarchy and replace it with matriarchy (rare but present), a lack of acknowledgement of cultural differences that are advantageous to women (I have found this to be particularly true in Mormon circles), ascribing malevolence to situations that could easily be explained equally convincingly some other way. I’m not saying that your average feminist is like this or even very many at all. What I am saying is that many times people who are most vocal about their feminism also often are associated with these undesirable (to me) elements of feminism. Essentially, as is often the case people stop thinking critically when they identify with a group. Many of my feminist friends have not thought about their stance on an issue carefully, but rather know it is “feminist” and as such they know why they stand.

    Often I have felt that feminism is exclusionary (at least in the popular press/everyday use). For instance, much of the rhetoric on the “War on Women” is offensive. You oppose abortions? YOU HATE WOMEN! (For the record, I am pro choice but I recognize that people who are pro life don’t always hate women and are not traitors to their gender etc etc). So a person who is pro life then has to decide if they’re a feminist while people who identify as feminists are telling them that they hate women. The popular dialogue on feminism often creates controversy when I think it would be beneficial to build consensus by allowing for differing views with common goals

    So, this was probably overly personal but it was cheap therapy for me  I like your definition of feminism because it is inclusive and allows for heterogeneity. That’s the kind of feminism I can get behind. I think if this was the way feminism was perceived on average there would be a lot more self-identified feminists out there like me (and probably more progress toward equality).

    Sorry for the wordy response, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately.

    1. Jeff, I'm so desperate for affirmation that virtually any request is granted on this blog! :)

      I agree with you that feminism has an image problem (hmm, that's unfortunate wording--maybe PR problem?), but I feel like what I'm describing is what a ton of people actually are on the ground. In other words, we need more people to openly identify as feminist so that it's not just the extremists who use the label. (I'm sure this blog post will have a tremendous effect in that regard; literally millions of Americans will be self-identifying as feminists by tomorrow at the latest :) )

      No worries on the long comment, it was a good read. And cheap therapy is the best!

  4. I like the frequent blog posting! I just wanted to note that I giggled a little when you said you didn't want to label others as feminist unless they wanted to be labeled that way (i.e. they self-identified with the label), and then you were like "I just called you a feminist and a tough gal without regard to how you would identify yourself. Sucka!"

    Also in regards to the comment stream, I think that a lot of ideologies get identified generally based on some of the more extreme tenets of said ideology, not just feminism. But it seems difficult to get more moderate people to self-identify because the act of self-identification itself is often rather extreme, passionate, and political even when the ideology you're identifying with is not necessarily. Self-identifying often means you give up a little power to define yourself, because making that kind of claim always invokes implications for others that you don't have control over. I know that I'm very hesitant to label myself for others because I don't want them to make assumptions about what I believe or don't believe.

    I think I'm probably rambling at this point, so I'll end.

  5. Amanda, the frequent blog posting is, for better or worse, what happens during NaBloPoMo--glad you're enjoying it, though! :) To clarify my labeling thinking, I call lots of people feminist without their explicit approval, it's just that if they specifically say "I am not comfortable with the 'feminist' identity and don't want to be referred to as part of feminism" that I will not refer to them as feminist. Though I would probably still add a caveat like "But he does subscribe to some feminist ideas" or something. In other words, you're feminist until proven guilty :)

    It is tricky to navigate labels. It reminds me of speaking to LGBT people and the fact comes up that I'm Mormon. I'm proud of being Mormon, so I'll tell them that, but I also don't want to be automatically categorized as anti-gay in their eyes (especially since I'm decidedly not). But I also don't want to immediately blurt out "I'm Mormon--but I'm in favor of LGBT rights!" since it sounds weird and defensive and forced. Likewise with you and the feminist label, it sounds like. I obviously can't force anyone to adopt a label, but it's going to take a lot of moderate people owning the identity to fix the image problem, so I definitely encourage everyone to do so (to some degree--it need not be the first thing you say to people when introducing yourself, but if the topic comes up a casual mention that yes, you identify as feminist, can be helpful to the cause).

    Now I'm rambling. Thanks for your comment!

  6. I'm a RAGING feminist according to your definition... and I love it... :) Now I'm onto my next identity challenge, proving to Google I'm not a robot...

    1. Alex, we need more raging feminists! I'm in that camp too! :) [And my website doesn't make you enter a CAPTCHA, does it? I believe you're not a robot!]