Sunday, September 7, 2008

Exploring the "F" Word

With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton coming in a close second for the Democratic nomination for presidential candidate, and now Gov. Sarah Palin receiving the VP nomination from the Republicans, the great "F" word--Feminism--has made a comeback into the American vocabulary. The word can be found all over the internet and on TV and in newspapers and magazines. It has been used in so many different ways to describe vastly different people and views. It seems that there is no general consensus as to what that word actually means, other than that it has something to do with women. I read articles that make me believe feminism is alive and well. Then I read pages of comments on those articles that make me believe that the average woman (and certainly, man) have such a completely ignorant and distorted misunderstanding of feminism that I am almost frightened for us. The words "feminist" and "feminism" have been so co-opted and misused that they are on the verge of becoming meaningless. For these reasons, before I launch into any commentaries on anything that is happening politically or socially, or even spiritually in this country, the very first thing I feel has to happen is a discussion of this powerful yet elusive word.

A Feminist is a person who 1. acknowledges the oppression, suppression and repression of women under patriarchy and 2. actively works to bring it to an end. This is my working definition of a feminist. Yes, this is a different definition than you'll find in most dictionaries, which tend to be true, but oversimplified. Most of us know that dictionary definitions are not the place to look for true meaning and deeper understanding. A Feminist may be any race, any gender, any sexual orientation, and from any socio-economic status or religion. Feminism is about 1. awareness and 2. action. Feminism is not simply about achieving the power and status typically held by men. It's about protecting and supporting the rights of women of all classes, races, cultures, and beliefs. (Blog edited 9/12 to add these last two sentences. A great definition of feminism--less philosophical, more tangible.)

Are all women feminists?
A vagina does not a feminist make. Many women are completely oblivious to their own oppression and to the oppression of other women. Many women take actions that are not in the best interests of women. Perhaps they have worked hard to better themselves, but feminism is not about elevating the status of one with disregard for the many. It is about elevating the class of women as a group. Many are not feminists, or may actually be anti-feminists.

Can a man be a feminist?
Yes he can! If he acknowleges the oppression, suppression and repression of women in patriarchal societies (like ours) and takes actions in his life that do not perpetuate, or even help correct said oppression, repression and suppression, then a man is a feminist.

Do feminists hate men?
Not as a rule. Many feminists are women married to men, or are even men themselves. Of course, many feminists are lesbians--women who love women--but loving women does not mean hating men.

Isn't it true that feminists are just a bunch of privileged white women?
Not even remotely. As mentioned above, many men are feminists. All white women are not privileged and many poor white women are feminists. Many women of all races and levels of economic privilege are feminists. Sojourner Truth, a former slave, was one of the first feminists on the scene, delivering her "Ain't I a Woman" speech at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. During the Women's Liberation Movement (2nd Wave Feminism) in the 1960's and 70's, black feminism developed along with white (read Angry Notes From a Black Feminist by Doris Wright, 1970). Historic and modern feminists include bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Michelle Tea, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, me, Margaret Cho, my husband, ... black, white, Asian, poor, wealthy, Latina, lesbian, mothers, married, single, man, woman, Christian, artist, philosopher, atheist, young, old... we are people from all walks of life. We are aware of the oppression, repression and suppression of women and seek to change it.

Where feminists often differ is in theory and approach. There are a wide range of theories and explanations for women's oppression, suppression and repression under patriarchy, and a variety of prescribed actions to remedy these conditions. Different people bring different perspectives to the table. A chicana lesbian from Brooklyn with a degree in Women's Studies will have a somewhat different perspective from a white married woman from the rural Midwest and a technical degree from a community college. Both have valid perspectives and meaningful life experiences, but very different ones. Feminists differ on which linked oppressions, other than sexism-if any-they focus on in their views and activism. This includes racism, classism, homophobia, environmental oppression, and more. Feminists tend to be humanitarian and broad in their desire to end oppression on all levels. Many feminists are involved in efforts for world peace, environmental sustainability, children's rights, and animal welfare.

Not all feminists make feminist choices at all times. Sometimes we fall prey to internalized oppression or peer pressure or are confused by sexist traditions masquerading as tradition. Sometimes we are selfish. But our overall intent and sum of our actions is that of acknowledging sexism/patriarchy and seeking to end it. As we examine our country's leaders--what they stand for, the actions they have taken, etc.--let's remember that a vagina does not a feminist make. Do they 1. acknowledge sexism and patriarchy at work in our society and 2. take actions to correct the problem? Are they in it for themselves, or are they in it for all of us? Are they protecting and supporting the rights of women of all classes, races, cultures, and beliefs, or are they (if they are women) just seeking to achieve the power and status typically held by men? (Last sentence added 9/12.)


Lisa said...

Congratulations! I'm so proud to be one of the first to read your new blog and leave a comment :-)

Very rich stuff you've written here, my friend. Keep it up!

I'm glad to know you. And look forward to returning to this page often.

Really cool description at the top, by the way. (Based on that alone, I think we need to spend more time chatting with each other!)



liv said...

I can already think of several people I would like to forward this to. I feel like you have given voice and credibility to many of my concerns. I look forward to hearing what else you have to say.