Definition of Feminism

24 03 2009

There’s an interesting discussion going on at Slate’s the XX Factor about women who have broken gender barriers in their careers, but who don’t identify themselves as feminist, namely Sandra Day O’Connor, who shied away from the term “feminist” in a recent interview for the New York Times.

One line of argument says that it doesn’t matter whether women call themselves feminist, if they advance women’s opportunity, equality, and power through their actions. That is definitely true, but I think their actions have the potential to be more powerful if they identify themselves as feminist, and attribute this label as a strong motivation for what they do. If more women (and men) identify themselves as feminist, it can present a strong united front towards putting “women’s issues” on the forefront of public servants’ political agendas, as top headlines in the media, as a regular topic of conversation. Okay, I’m somewhat exaggerating on what the feminist identity can do, but like it has in early 20th century and in the 60s and 70s, it can crystallize a movement. It’s great that there are women who are advancing rights that feminists themselves would support, but I’m not sure if people look at Sandra Day O’Connor or even Sarah Palin and say, “Wow, we need more women to be like that. Or, “We need to continue the work they’re doing.” People might not think about whether a majority of women are as empowered as they are, and why or why not.

The XX Factor speculates that O’Connor did not want to identify herself as feminist because she didn’t want to be associated with (for lack of a better term) “bra-burning.” Another blogger speculates that most women today might not adopt that label because they are not clear on what feminism means. In my experience, this idea could be true. Until I came to college, I pretty much had no idea what feminism was, besides gaining voting rights and other civil equality, which was pretty much over and done with by the 1920s.

So I came to identify myself as feminist after defining it for myself. And I think that’s what people today who commonly think or say, “I’m not a feminist, but…”, should try. How does feminism relate to your personal experiences and beliefs? Feminism is enjoying confidence, independence, and security in whatever choice you make, whether that choice has to do with your profession, your sexuality, when and how many children you want to have. Feminism is freedom from poverty, rape, and domestic violence. Feminism is being able to say “no” to friends, sexual partners, authority figures and the like, and it is being able to advance a career without also having to do the lion’s share of the child-rearing. This definition might be all over the place, but these examples and issues are what resonates with me, when I think about feminism.

One last thing. There is a perception that feminists have to be pro-choice, or look down on women in certain “unempowering” professions etc. To me, that’s not necessarily true. I’d respect a pro-life feminist if she was committed to other aspects of women’s empowerment, or could justify her view from such a perspective (though, to be honest, I’m not holding my breath).

So, what does feminism mean to you?



3 responses

24 03 2009

Re: the pro-life/pro-choice debate, I think that you can personally be opposed to abortion but you should support every woman’s right to have an abortion. Feminism is about respecting female autonomy and rights to one’s own body.

25 03 2009

That’s actually how I would define being pro-choice (though I am not personally opposed to abortion). These labels, so complicated.

25 03 2009

I agree, the labels get very complicated. Also, I went to the “Feminist Case Against Abortion” here a few weeks ago and the presenter, speaking on behalf of Feminists for Life, based her main arguments on two (false) assumptions: that ALL women want to have children and that the heterosexual nuclear family is the only familial arrangement that exists. I feel like many “pro-life” arguments obscure the fact that the whole abortion debate just comes down to one simple thing: it’s about protecting women’s right to their own bodies.

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