Defining Feminism

13Oct10

The other night, two of my friends were telling me a story about a group of women who participated in the (literal) torture of several men.  One friend referred to these women as simply “feminists,” the other “extreme feminists.”

This isn’t a personal failing on the part of my friends.  The women in the story took the term for themselves, although their actions went against the very definition of feminism.  The stereotype of the man-hating feminist, as erroneous as it is, is often what people connect with feminism.  Those women were extremists, certainly, but extreme feminists? Absolutely not.

There isn’t just one way to do feminism.  I know feminists who are married.  I know feminists who believe marriage goes against the ideals of feminism.  I know feminists who long for old-fashioned, courtly romance.  I know feminists who prefer polyamory.  I know one particular feminist who embraces both in her marriage.  I know feminists who work full-time.  I know feminists who stay home to take care of their children.  I know Christian feminists, pagan feminists, atheist feminists.  I know male feminists, female feminists, feminists who don’t accept or fall into the gender binary.

Feminists take many forms, but anyone who works for the domination of one gender over the others is not feminist.  There is a pretty standard dictionary definition for feminism:

fem·i·nism
noun
\ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm\
1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes

But, I prefer the definition from Alas!

A feminist:

  1. Advocates for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
  2. Believes that there is current, significant, society-wide inequality and sexism.
  3. Doesn’t believe that men are the primary victims of inequality and sexism.

Navigate over to read Amp’s reasons for the second two aspects of the definition.  I’ll wait.

Now, I’ll give the same disclaimer he did — I know that I do not (and should not) have the power to raise a staff Gandalf-like in the air and say “I declare this the only acceptable definition of feminism for anyone, ever!  Let it be so!”  (I will say that I believe any definition of feminism that doesn’t aim for equality is not feminism, and should really go by another name.)  However, I think this is a great working definition of feminism.

The idea that feminism is a movement that requires change is an especially important one.  If one does not believe there is a need for a change in the disparity of power, is there really a need to label yourself feminist?  If feminism had accomplished all it needed to, if the ideals of feminism were in fact so much ingrained in our lives that working toward change was no longer necessary, there would be no need to declare your support for feminist ideals.  It would be met with a resounding “So?”  Therefore, the belief that there is a problem that must be changed is necessary, in my mind, to being feminist.

I really like the way point three is phrased as well.  I think a great deal of the time people look at feminism and ask why feminists don’t worry more about equal rights for men, and think that it’s exclusionary not to do so.  While it’s not the responsibility of the feminist movement to be a catch-all for egalitarianism, feminism does work toward gender equality.  Every feminist I have ever met does believe that feminism helps men (which is not to say that every feminist thinks this, just the ones with which I’m acquainted), but men are not the focus of feminism because men are not the primary victims of inequality and sexism.  They are still victims of it, though I’d say to a different degree.  This ties into the change involved in point two — the problem is discrimination based on gender.  Because this, on the whole, tends to manifest itself in a way that harms women, the main focus of the efforts to level the playing field is directed toward gaining rights for women.

But neither definition — even when you increase the criteria that must be met in order to be feminist — involves the domination of one gender over another.  Neither involves saying that one gender is inherently bad or good (or more or less capable).  Neither definition involves hatred or violence.

And yet what do most people think of, automatically, without any effort, when the term “feminist” is mentioned?

There are no easy solutions to this.  I try to raise awareness of the true meaning of the term without going into a lecture on feminist theory every time this comes up.  But, almost without fail, when the fact that I am feminist is dropped into the conversation I must go into detail — not in a way that says, “I’m not one of those feminists,” but in a way that says, “Those beliefs aren’t actually feminist.”

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