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Feminism: A Definition?

smigliori's picture

            What is feminism?  Many people feel strongly about feminism, and I have often heard individuals proudly declare that they are or are not feminists. Yet, I have never had a satisfactory definition of this term.  One month into a course entitled “Critical Feminist Studies”, I still have not been given a definition of feminism which I feel is sufficient.  Google returns 19,100,000 hits in .12 seconds in a search for the term “feminism”, the first of which is a lengthy and heavily annotated Wikipedia entry. Though Wikipedia is not normally a reliable source for any paper, the fact that even this source claims that “[f]eminists have divided feminism's history into three 'waves.'”, suggests that there is good reason for the improbability of having one central definition of feminism.

            Wikipedia’s statement brings more questions than answers.  Who are feminists?  How can something undefined have its own history?  Does this mean that feminism means three completely different things?  If so, why are they all called “feminism”?  Were all the really cool names for political movements already taken?  Actually, my last question presupposes that feminism is a political movement, so I would add the question of whether feminism is a political movement to my long list of questions.

            In a search for the answers to at least some of my questions, I turn to those readings which are included on the syllabus for a course entitled “Critical Feminist Studies”, having decided that perhaps those who have already claimed for themselves the name of “feminist” may give some insight into what a “feminist” is.  A quick glance shows that the syllabus is divided into two sections: Part I: Contemporary Feminist Theory and Part II: Classic Feminist Literary Texts.

            Thinking over these texts, I notice that the thread connecting all of them seems to be a belief in a difference between men and women.  Patrocinio Schweickart declares that “we should strive to redeem the claim that it is possible for a woman, reading as a woman, to read literature written by women.” (56)  Paula Gunn Allen claims that “[m]uch of women’s culture bears marked resemblance to tribal culture.  The perceptual modes that women…habitually engage in more closely resemble inclusive-field perception than excluding foreground-background perceptions.” (243) Cixous would like her readers to believe that “[in] women’s speech, as in their writing, that element which never stops resonating, which, once we’ve been permeated by it, profoundly and imperceptibly touched by it, retains the power of moving us…Why this privileged relationship with the voice? Because no woman stockpiles as many defenses for countering the drives as does a man.” (881)  Whatever else each of these authors and “feminists” claim, they statements clearly suggest that they believe there is a fundamental difference between women and men.

            I would have thought that the mid-20th Century Civil Rights movements demonstrated that “separate but equal” is not, in fact, equal.  Yet these self-affirming “feminists” continue to suppose that men and women are fundamentally different.  I would like to believe, however, that we are finally at a time when we are moving past these outdated modes of thinking.  Perhaps feminism is so hard to define simply because it really does mean different things at different times.  For these women, feminism may have been “equal rights for men and women.”  For today, it may be possible that we can move into a time where we can say more simply “equal rights for all.”

            This brings me to what I believe is temporarily my final set of questions.  Why is the first section of the syllabus labeled “Contemporary Feminist Theory” when none of these essays are less than 15 years old?  Has there been no important work in the field of feminist theory for the past 15 years?  Do “feminists” still define themselves within the same boundaries as these authors?  Perhaps most importantly, is feminism something which can be defined?


Anne Dalke's picture

cutting the connecting thread--to weave what?

The single question motivating your piece throughout, smigliori, is how to define feminism. I hear you saying that you don't have a working answer yet; that you think the one answer, dependent on a fundamental difference between men and women--a thread shared among the theorists we've read so far--is not of interest; in fact, it is of great irritation to you. You want to read more contemporary material than what we've been looking @ so far (I'm realizing, from your comments, how generation-specific the word "contemporary" is; it has a very different meaning to a 57-year-old than it does to a 20-year-old, for whom something written 15 years ago doesn't count!).

You make a gesture, at the end, towards something "more simple" than "separate but equal," that is, "equal rights for all." I'm wondering why you imagine that the answers are more simple, in a time where identity claims have proliferated, and wondering also where you want to go from here. What do you want to read? Some third wave theory? The work of Judy Butler, who has been the clearest and strongest in denouncing "bedrock" differences between men and women? Contemporary (oops!) womanist prose, which is less interested in male/female differences, more concerned with race survival? Are you interested in the couple of good questions Jill added here to the clear ones you've already raised?

  • what makes gender more difficult ot deal with than other bases of oppression?
  • and what does feminsit literary criticism have to do with feminism more largely conceived?
Jill '66's picture

What is feminism

What good questions you raise, and so clearly!

As a committed feminist for decades (my 1976 MA thesis was about the feminist press, based on interviews with five of them, all different, all exciting), I came into the course with a firm notion of what my feminism was--simply, supporting women, illuminating our history, and asserting that our strength and worth come from our own particular humanness and not from what we are “granted” by men. My feminism demands reproductive autonomy and equal rights. It involves continuous effort to recognize how the dominant culture distorts. It has to recognize others who are marginalized, but claims that gender is different from other bases of oppression, more difficult to deal with.

Clearly “my feminism” will change, has already changed, as the world changes-- but it will never become unnecessary. Another way to say it is that one’s view of the world changes but it never becomes unnecessary to strive to see clearly. (How much we think we know and don’t has been brought home to me by my sons-in-law and four beautiful grandsons of color.) What I believe now is that differences exist along a continuum--some women are very different from most men, some men are very different from most men, etc., etc.--but it should not matter to what rights and opportunities they have.

I hope that you in class can help answer the question what “feminist literary criticism” might mean within the larger meanings of “feminism”? Or do they intersect rather than overlap?