I’m continuing to think a lot about definitions of feminism since reading “Jane Sexes it Up,” the seemingly wide-spread support for Pussy Riot, and hearing a recent interview on Fresh Air with Caitlin Moran on her book “How to Be a Woman.” Moran might be a bit essentialist for my tastes, but at least she’s trying to speak to the masses when she essentially says, What the hell is wrong with you people when you say you’re not a feminist?
The following is from the transcript of the interview with Moran.
MORAN: So here is the quick way of working out if you are a feminist: A: Do you have a vagina? And B: do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations, you’re a feminist. Because we need to reclaim the word feminism. We need to reclaim the word feminism real bad.
While I don’t agree that one need have a vagina to be a feminist, like Moran I do struggle sadly with why so many people don’t want to identify as feminists. It seems as silly as any slightly progressive rational thinker not wanting to identify as, say, an anti-racist. That’s because I view the feminist movement as a civil rights or human rights movement like any other—not a movement about favoritism, which so many people seem to think it is. (To make a blunt comparison, “white supremacist” IS about favoritism).
Someone recently recommended that I check out a particular female singer/songwriter, saying that this woman was powerful because she was clearly “sort of feminist but not bad in the classic feminist way.” I looked blankly at her thinking, firstly, what is classic feminism and secondly, what about classic feminism is so bad and thirdly, what exactly makes this artist NOT one? I hear this kind of thing in common speech all the time. So much that I can’t even remember all the examples nor can I seem to respond with intelligent swiftness. Anti-feminism or feminist-negativism is so accepted in common parlance that I feel I can hardly touch it with a basic quip. And yet no matter how often I hear it, it still shocks me as though I’d never heard that level of ignorance before. I’m simply—bewildered.
Feminism, aka, “the women’s rights movement,” as badly named as it might be (due to the fact that no woman is like another), can be likened to any other civil rights movement: the fight for LGBTQ rights, the fight for desegregation and equal education for all races and ethnicities, the fight for immigrant rights, the fight for worker rights, the fight for multilingual education, the fight for accessibility for disabled people; I could go on. It’s hard for me to imagine any progressive, socially liberal person not wishing to be in support of any civil rights movement; yet so many rational minded people still hedge on the word feminist and would rather choose “humanist” or say meekly, “I support human rights.” But people rarely make this choice when speaking of immigrant rights, or worker rights, or refugee rights. Socially liberal people rarely say, I’m not into refugee rights, I’m into human rights. They don’t say, I’m not into worker’s rights, I’m into human rights. But they do, essentially say, “I’m not into women’s rights, I’m into human rights” when they say “I’m not a feminist.
That’s not to say that THE Feminist Movement or THE Women’s Right Movement is not problematic. It is, because there is no THE—one need not read too far to understand there are many types of feminisms. Like any other movement, we can’t speak of women—or people of various genders—in a monolithic way, just as we can’t speak of the immigrant community or any other community, as being united, members of the same socioeconomic class or like-minded. We can’t take any movement without acknowledging cross-sections of class, ethnicity, ability, gender, sexuality, and educational background that change the context of a particular person within their movement. This is important to recognize insofar as we acknowledge that feminism cannot be any more perfect or unifying than any other social movement.
Still—we needn’t be afraid of it. If we had been afraid of being involved in any number of civil rights/human rights movements because they couldn’t speak monolithically, we wouldn’t have ever gotten anywhere. And we most certainly have.
Every social movement has faced the problem that the edges of the movement are becoming increasingly blurry, especially as we are confronting our medieval binary thinking. Who “is and is not” disabled or differently abled; who can unite with whom else? Who is and is not an immigrant? Does it depend on where you are born or to whom you are born? For how long must you live in a certain place? Who is and who is not gay or lesbian or queer? Who IS a woman—defined by genitals, DNA, or self-defined? Can the “women’s rights” movement speak for all genders? What other word can we use? The questions are innumerable. Yet still, we have to engage with these questions as member of the movement.
Every civil rights/human rights movement is affected by its context. Ethnicities and languages and socio-economic classes are all read very differently depending on which nation or community context we are speaking of. A woman in one country may find ultimate freedom in being able to get an education. In another, her freedom struggle is found in marrying another woman. Therefore the focus of our struggle cannot be universal, nor are particular struggles relevant at particular moments in history. We have to trust and respect the form that the movement takes depending on its context. We can’t run away afraid of it or give up.
Every civil rights/human rights movement has faced changes as it grows and gains strength and visibility. Once equal rights are achieved under the law of a nation, how do we address accessibility and “subtle” forms of discrimination which can’t be legislated very easily? How does a poor Latino man gain “equal” access to university education? How does a woman address the guy on the street who calls her a slut? After the civil rights have been gained, how do we put them into real action? Here there is even greater need for people to remain interested and engaged in the struggle for justice and respect.
Every civil rights/human rights movement has seen divides over the very issues mentioned above, including, importantly, divisions about tactical methodology. It’s not hard to see how self-policing has operated in every social movement. Shall we “assimilate” in order to be taken more seriously? Shall we learn the language of the majority? Shall we uphold the values of capitalism in order to be treated with respect and enter the class of the elite? Shall we practice the majority religion or follow its moral codes in order to receive our basic rights? Shall we uphold the law itself in order to receive basic rights under the law? Actually, no –these are not necessarily dependent upon the other, and sometimes the law itself upholds the oppression.
The feminist movement has always faced and continues to face fundamentally the same questions of tactics and self-policing that every civil rights movement has. Shall a woman—or person of any gender—receive respect on the street, equal opportunity and rights under the law, and basic access to any opportunity she wishes to pursue—even if she wears a short skirt (in some places, illegal)? Yes. If she has multiple sexual partners (in some places, illegal)? Yes. If she dances naked or shoots porn (in some places, illegal)? Yes. If she commits adultery (in some places, illegal)? Yes. If she prostitutes (in some places, illegal)? Yes. If she is gay or transgendered (in some places, illegal)? Yes. Without exception.
Is the women’s rights/feminist movement deeply divided, diverse and problematic? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on it or not identify with it. There’s simply too much work to be done.