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My introduction to feminism.

Flora's picture

Dear Kyle,

This May, your sister will graduate from Bryn Mawr College with a major she designed in Gender and Sexuality Studies. As a final project, I am writing you a letter explaining what I understand feminism to be. I hope to convey to you a sense of my personal understanding of the world right now. It took me fifteen classes to get to this point. I hope that I can explain what I've learned in an easily digestible way. There is so much more to know than what I've written here. Therefore, I've included suggestions for further reading under each section which I hope you explore if you're interested.

Prologue: The elusive definition of feminism

If you are looking for a comprehensive definition for all of feminism, you won’t find it with me. I would be skeptical of anyone's claim that s/he could fully distill it into an encyclopedia entry. Sure there's tshirt and bumper sticker slogans that seem to encapsulate it, many of which you will no doubt recognize: Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler's, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”; Rebecca West's, “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that distinguish me from a doormat”; and, my personal favorite from our buddy Pat Robertson, “Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

But, despite the appeal of these sound bites, the truth is there are almost as many versions of feminism as there are feminists. bell hooks, a queer woman of color scholar and activist who is one of my favorite feminist theorists, puts it nicely and vaguely: "Feminist politics aims to end domination, to free us to be who we are - to live lives where we love justice, where we can live in peace. Feminism is for everybody” (FYI hooks wrote an awesome introduction to feminism book called Feminism is for Everybody. Maybe check it out sometime?)

It might help if you think of feminism as a political party. After all, Ron Paul and GW both call themselves Republicans and they sure disagree on a thing or two. For this reason, I and many other scholars use the term “feminisms” to reflect the diversity of perspectives in the feminist community.

I want to write to you about important issues, questions and themes that most feminisms routinely address and are concerned with. Confused by this complexity? Just trust me for a bit. And if you're looking for other introductions to feminism, take a look at California National Organization of Women (NOW) president Megan Seely's Fight like a girl: How to be a Fearless Feminist and blogger Jessica Valenti's Full Frontal Feminism.

Where did feminism come from?

Before I can really get into the nitty gritty of the contemporary feminist issues, I need to outline the basic history of feminisms. Most scholars and activists agree that feminism has experienced three waves. These waves are not just historical terms, they are often used to describe someone's political views.

1. First Wave Feminism

You've read about the late nineteenth and early twentieth century American and European women's suffrage movements, yes? Well, those women and others were some of the first self-identified feminists. Their arguments stretched back for two centuries and could be roughly distilled into the motto: Women should be able to live more like men. They should have equal access to education through the college level, be permitted to vote, and be permitted to work and lead public lives without the burden of family and household duties. First wave feminists aimed to achieve these goals through a variety of campaigns including girls' education, vocational training, equal rights campaigns, and operating family planning clinics and public health campaigns focused on women and children. Two famous first wave texts include Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women and Sor Juana de la Cruz's La Repuesta.

There are three major critiques of the first wave:

1. Explicitly racist and classist views. Many of the reformers were wealthy white women. Bryn Mawr, my own college, was founded on some of these ideals. The college was established specifically to give specifically wealthy young women the education hitherto only afforded their wealthy male counterparts. Obviously, the college has changed its policies over the years enough to admit and subsidize the education of a member of our not-so-wealthy family.

2. Devaluing femininity in favor of masculinity. The first wave's belief that women are equal to men and need only to be permitted to act more like them to gain social power undercuts the power that women gain from their femininity.

3. Devaluing traditional women's work. Raising children, cooking and cleaning are all professions that many women have engaged in with or without pay for centuries. The first wave is criticized for being elitist by ignoring the importance of these women's contributions to public and private life.

Second Wave Feminism

Simply put, if first wave feminists were largely dedicated to bettering elite women by giving them the public lives of elite men, second wave feminists emerged in the 1960s dedicated to the bettering of all women by both ensuring they could lead public lives and value themselves as women. Therefore, any individual or social system which impeded or even harmed women's prospects in these arenas needed to be challenged and overcome. Second wave feminists pursued a variety of campaigns to accomplish these goals including: workshops and literature to promote women's understanding of and expression of their sexuality; advocation of queer and lesbian rights; participation in civil rights campaigns; rejection and protests of dominant beauty standards deleterious to women; and the push for women to enter the workforce in higher numbers, with higher ranked positions and for higher salaries.

Two of the most famous second wave texts are Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique which details the unhappiness of the average white middle class American housewife and Simone du Beauvoir's The Second Sex which exposes the history mostly French society's oppression of women.

Some of the central critiques of Second Wave feminism include:

1. Assuming a strong gender dichotomy: in other words, an individual is a man or a woman; nothing else. This binary does not leave much room for people who do not fit either category because of their behavior, social appearance or self-identification.

2. Like the first wave, much of mainstream second wave feminism was accused of racist practices. Some feminists countered this assertion with the hollow reply that oppressed people, such as white women, could not oppress other oppressed people. However, many American women of color felt so excluded by feminist leadership and ideologies they often formed their own organizations, adopting Alice Walker's term womanist to describe themselves.

3. Many second wave feminist organizations organized womyn-only meetings and spaces (they coined the term womyn to eliminate the word “men” from the word). Some criticized the practice of having women-only gatherings as hostile towards men. Obviously, since your sister chose to attend an all womens college, I do not subscribe to this belief.

4. Second wave feminism's emphasis on the importance of employment outside of the home was often seen as denigrating the importance of family life and the lives of women who chose to become homemakers.

Third Wave Feminism

Third wave feminism emerged in the 1980s during what is generally considered to be a conservative backlash against second wave feminism. The third wave has been concerned with many things, but especially the importance of valuing and developing the multiplicity of identities present in the human community. In the spirit of this diversity, third wave feminism differs from its fore-mothers by explicitly embracing the contributions of people of color, men, queer and trans identities, women who choose to work at home without pay and especially women in developing countries. Incorporating the tenets of Third World Feminism is an especially important project for the third wave. Many third world feminists have felt disenfranchised by earlier feminist movements, viewing some Western campaigns as trivial compared to the projects they are engaged in to improve basic living conditions for women and girls in their community.

Although third wave feminism is still emerging as a movement, one of its most prominent members is Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker (mentioned earlier for coining the term womanism). The younger Ms Walker's book To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism is an excellent resource for more on this wave.

The most common complaint against the third wave is that its tenets are too vague. Asserting that a group cannot be effective without a singular cause, some activists yearn for a less complex landscape and clear definitions. In addition to this general dissatisfaction, there are several complaints against and controversies among certain factions or feminisms belonging to the third wave. In the rest of this letter, I have tried to place these discussions in categories that touch on several of the areas most discussed.

Sex and Gender

The concepts of sex and gender have always been central to feminist theories. Let me explain what I mean when I use the terms sex and gender.

Sex is complicated term. As you know, it can be used to described both sexual intercourse and one's “biological sex.” Right now, I'm talking about biological sex and not intercourse (which I'll cover more under the heading “Sexuality”).Gender, most third wave feminists like your sister argue, is defined by an individual: if you choose to consider yourself a man, woman, trans or any variation you are defining your gender. I believe this because of what I know about sex.

Many legal documents require a person to check a box indicating one's sex: M or F. However, these two options do not reflect the diversity of biological sexes displayed in humanity. This M or F designation is based on an adult's certified evaluation of your genitalia at birth and is extremely difficult to change legally in most locations. The thing is, not all infants are born with unambiguous genitalia and none are born with blueprints for their future development. Some people are considered to be intersex. An intersex person's biological make-up and development does not match traditional notions of masculine and feminine bodies. But, instead of performing surgeries or drug therapy on young children and infants to force their bodies to fit into an artificially constructed biological sex category, most intersex activists advocate that intersex children should be allowed to choose their own gender as they develop or even embrace a third gender.

Additionally, trans individuals born with bodies that seem to fit one biological sex category find as they mature that they do not identify with this gender. However, it is exceedingly difficult for many trans people to live their lives as a different gender than the one assigned to them at birth. In our home state of Louisiana, for example, people can only change her legal sex after a state-sanctioned medical inspection of their post-op surgically altered bodies. Trans people who do not wish to or cannot afford to receive such surgeries are denied the legal privilege of living as a certain gender.

You remember being made fun of for having long blond hair and wanting to play princess when you were a little boy? We're lucky that our parents and community never hugely discouraged us from practices not expected of children of our respective genders. Look at Toys R Us Barbie and Hot Wheels aisles: gender roles are indoctrinated into children from a young age. But anyone who engages in behavior outside of his/her proscribed gender identity is likely to be subject to ridicule at best and discrimination or violence at worst. Unequal expectations of individuals based on their gender identities is, I think, extremely damaging. Yes, this means that I think it's unfair that Dad required you to mow the lawn and not me (but you know I'd do it sometimes anyway.)

Because of the realities of the lives of people who do not fit clear sexual categories, I believe the following things. The binary model of the sexes is inaccurate. Therefore, a biological sex defined by genital appearance and chemical makeup should not be used to define a person's gender identity. And a person's gender should not determine her roles, abilities or opportunities. Most third wave feminists will agree with me. For more on sex and gender, read Judith Butler's dense but brilliant Gender Trouble.

Race and Nationality

Race and nationality have been important in constructing most all feminisms. Second wave feminism's famous adage, “The personal is political” validated the importance of all aspects of an individual's experience. There are a huge number of feminisms organized with interests in issues especially pertinent to people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. Some also align their ideologies with traditional cultural precedents. It would be impossible for me to list and describe every one of these feminisms. I would recommend you choose a few countries or issues you are especially interested in and see what feminisms address them in ways you most appreciate.

Some feminisms that have most influenced me include the womanists like Alice Walker (In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose) because of their assertion that since women's employment is not always a source of empowerment nor revolutionary because women without means, including many American women of color, have always worked outside the home. Chicana feminists like Glora Anzaldua (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza) because of their emphasis on the importance of recognizing the power of a mixed heritage (like us!). Recently (surprise, surprise) I have been reading more on the work of Islamic feminists such as Persian recent Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi (Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope) who base much of their theoretical foundation on the teaching of the Quran and focus much of their efforts on improving the lives of women and children in the Muslim World.

The existence of feminisms specific to certain populations of women could be seen to imply the fact that mainstream feminism is only concerned with the issues of white, middle class Western women. This is one of the reasons that many may not choose to identify as a feminist. However, many third wave feminists are actively engaged in disproving that assumption.


Whether seen as unnaturally frigid or possessing an unnaturally large sexual appetite, sexuality has often been crucial to negative stereotypes of feminists. There is a huge spectrum of opinions on sexuality in the feminist community. Since the second wave, most feminists have agreed that women should view their sexuality as healthy, natural and pleasurable. To that end, many feminists advocate for comprehensive education for girls and women about their bodies, sexuality and safer sex practices.

However, what aspects of women's sexual practices are healthy and which are not? This debate has been an active one between feminists for years, especially in the “Sex Wars” debate among feminists in the 1980s. In that period, the terms sex-positive and sex-negative were coined. Loosely put, sex-positive feminists like Gayle Rubin (“Thinking Sex”) view sexual intercourse and sex work as an act that women not only enjoy, but can also be empowered by. Sex-negative or anti-pornography feminists (like, most famously, Catherine Mackinnon and Andrea Dworkin) criticize such practices for a variety of reasons including assertions that: the commodification of a woman's body encourages objectification; the power relations in the sex industry are often the cause of violence against women; and that the penis's penetration of the vagina or mouth is damaging to women because it re-affirms man's historical domination over women.

Your sister considers herself a sex positive feminist. That mean I think that a woman's choice of sexual partner should not be hindered by social prejudice. Women should not be stigmatized for having sex with other women, someone with a different ethnic, religious, economic or social background, a person not of her family's choosing, a person she is not married to or a person differing largely in age (as long as s/he is not a child). Women should also feel free to engage alternative sexualities that give them pleasure such as group sex, BDSM, swinging and fetishism. Sexual harassment is also never an excusable expression of sexuality. Additionally, women who work in areas of the sex industry such as stripping, pornography or sex work/prostitution should not be stigmatized for their vocation. However, if women have chosen this work because of coercion, exploitation or limited economic options, they should be given the opportunity to pursue a profession of their choice and the perpetrator of the social situation granted them should be punished. For more information, I would recommend starting with a perusal of Spread Magazine ( a great magazine written for sex workers that contains some great discussions of sexuality and then reading Wendy Chapkis' Live Sex Acts.

Queer Issues

Queer activists have composed a large part of the feminist community for much of its history. Queer feminism is especially concerned with campaigning for equal rights for queer people, against sexual orientation and gender expression based discrimination and violence, and for the protection of queer families through the legalization of marriage or civil unions and queer-friendly child custody laws.

The word queer is often used to describe a range of people outside of the heterosexual paradigm in place of stigmatizing, medicalized or overly specific words such as gay or homosexual. The queer community includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, questioning, intersex, polyamorous, and two-spirited individuals, among others. Much of third wave feminism is concerned with accepting and validating all of these diverse identities.

However, there are a variety of debates and factions within the queer feminist communities. For example, there is a community of lesbian feminists who do not consider trans male to female (M to F) individuals to be “real women.” Therefore, M to F individuals have been refused at women-only gatherings and are forced to endure being referred to by the gender assigned to them at birth. This debate has been active for twenty years and resulted in protests and action on both sides. Some of my favorite queer theorists include Susan Stryker ("My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.”), Twisty Faster ( and Audre Lourde (Zami).

Violence against women

Preventing domestic emotional and physical abuse, violence and sexual assault against women and girls is a priority for every feminist organization. These practices are incredibly prevalent around the globe. Violence against women, many argue, is a direct product of a misogynist culture that devalues and objectifies women. Therefore, it is necessary to campaign against religions, cultural traditions and laws which proscribe or validate domestic abuse and marital rape. Equally important to fighting doctrine that permits violence against women is sheltering and counseling survivors of such treatment and ensuring the perpetrators face appropriate consequences for their actions. Comprehensive sexual education must include a discussion of the importance of consent. Eliminating the belief that men have a right to a sexual encounter or violent act to a woman because of her appearance, social standing or family relation is a misconception that activists have worked on and will continue to work on for centuries. For more information, I recommend learning more about the work of Men Can Stop Rape (, INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence ( and NOW's campaing (

Reproductive Rights

Reproductive rights are central to many individuals' understanding of the feminist platform. In America, the right to family planning services and abortion procedures are hotly contested aspects of feminist debate. However, there are a wide variety of issues in reproductive rights outside of the choice to have an abortion important to feminists around the globe.

Most feminists believe that access to family planning services is crucial to a woman's ability to control her own life. Most family planning clinics offer sexual education, gynecological care, birth control options, pregnancy tests, counseling, pre-natal care, post-natal care and abortions or abortion referrals. All of these services give women the power to be informed about their bodies, have safer sex, maintain healthy bodies, decide when to have to children and promote the health of their infants.

Abortion is the most controversial of these services. As you know, your sister ardently defends a woman's right to an abortion. There are a multitude of feminist arguments supporting and some even opposing a woman's right to choose an abortion. The argument that makes the most sense to me is the following. If abortion were illegal, as it is in many countries including certain periods of the United States' existence, what would the government do to women who attempted to self-induce abortion? Before Roe V Wade (the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the US), many hospitals had a small ward devoted to women suffering serious medical consequences for botched illegal abortions. In some countries now, women admitted to hospitals with symptoms suggesting back-alley abortions will receive jail time in addition to their physical wounds. I think this is just wrong. No law can take away a woman's right to choose an abortion. It will only limit her options to extremely risky and unsafe procedures. I think a woman should not be punished by death or extreme injury for such a choice. Her life should not be endangered because a government wishes to limit her access to safe medical services.

Other serious issues in reproductive rights include promoting and enabling condom use, combating government sanctioned abortions and sterilizations, ensuring access to the morning after pill to prevent pregnancy, preventing sex-selective abortion, ensuring young women are not forced into female circumcision (also called FGM, female genital mutilation), promoting access to genetic counseling and education on fetuses with disabilities and fighting against discrimination towards women and men with infertility, among others. Some of my favorite works on issues of reproductive rights include Faye Ginsburg's Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community and William Saletan's Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.

Disabilities Rights

The work of Disabilities rights activists often intersects with the work of feminist activists. Disabilities activists are especially concerned with countering the ways in which society discriminates against individuals who do not have bodies which conform to the average population. Likewise, much of the rhetoric of feminism outlines the ways in which society and individuals devalue women for their inferiority to the masculine ideal. While many feminists and disabilities rights activists work alongside each other in some capacities, there are some areas of tension between the two communities.

One of the largest areas of the debate is in the decision to abort a fetus thought to be disabled. Here, the feminist argument that a woman should have the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy becomes more complex. Many disabilities rights activists argue that a disabled child's life should not be valued less than that of an infant with average abilities. While most feminists agree that the practice of aborting fetuses because they are expected to be girls or of an undesirable ethnic make-up should be stopped, the discussion around aborting expected disabled fetuses is less clear. For more on this and similar issues, I would look at Susan Wendell's The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability and the work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson.

Work and Family Balance

The balancing of public and private lives has always been a central issue of debate in feminist rhetoric. While most contemporary feminists agree that women should have the option of pursuing careers to achieve financial independence and care for their families, many disagree on whether or not a woman must work for pay for personal fulfillment and economic security and whether or not children need a full time mother to raise them. In America, this debate has been sensationally dubbed “the Mommy Wars” between women who pursue full time careers for pay and stay at home mothers. Some working mothers argue that their careers ensure they are strong role models for their daughters, allow them to directly engage in public life on a daily basis and grants them equal standing with their partners while stay at home mothers claim that their pursuits are both personally rewarding and vital to ensuring the well being of their families. Again, working mothers sometimes counter the logic of stay at home mothers by pointing out the fact stay at home mothers harbor an elitist view since not all mothers can afford to not work for pay. They argue that children benefit from a less one-sided parenting model. The debate continues through the present day.

Feminists are attempting to counter a trend among women who work called by Arlie Hothschild “the second shift.” The second shift refers to the fact that most women in dual-career families return from a full day of work to engage in a second shift of cooking, cleaning, childcare and other domestic work. Likewise, women are more likely to pursue career paths with less demanding schedules as they are still expected to perform the majority of childcare duties. Because of these facts, feminists in especially developing countries argue that the equal division of work is essential in the domestic sphere. Books that explore these themes include Ellen Galinsky and Judy David's Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents and Linda R. Hirshman's Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.


I hope that this letter gives you an idea of the sorts of issues I've been studying for the past few years. I also hope that you have a better idea of what I mean when I use the term feminism. I hope that with this letter as your introduction, you begin to explore more of the world of feminism. After all, the decision to call yourself a feminist can't be made until you know what you're subscribing to.




Jack's picture

Thank you

Flora, thank you for your post here. I'm a 30 y o male, new to the country, and have been struggling with some female friends lately who strongly self-identify as feminists. Been walking on egg-shells ever since. For example, when asked what I was reading, I mentioned Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Later, I was ticked off for having spoken highly of Greek mythology when most of it is about male heroes. Well, I'd never thought of it that way but I understand and haven't brought up the topic since. Only recently did it strike me that Greek myths are also about white people, and I'm not white. What does that mean?

Anyway, these things are confusing for me and I'm trying to learn. I didn't quite have the luxury of a liberal arts education where I grew up, and now I've been trying to teach myself. Your post above is the first one I've read that doesn't lay the blame on me for not knowing enough - or that I'm at fault just by fact of being born male - it's a dispassionate and impartial view, and was therefore much easier to read and empathize with. And therefore easier to accept and understand as well. Thank you for that.