Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

What Is Feminism Anyway?

YJ's picture

It is only halfway through the semester and already it seems clear to me that much of what I thought I knew and/or understood about feminism can essentially be thrown out the window. It has been both refreshing and a bit unsettling at the same time to tread this new ground and think these new thoughts. In fact, all of the readings have really pushed me (as well as our sometimes intense class discussions) to examine my preconceptions and assumptions of the meaning of feminism on the one hand, and the meaning of being a feminist on the other. Whether or not these two things are necessarily incompatible is not something I am ready to deny or confirm-just that there certainly seems to be a fundamental disagreement between feminist scholars (as represented by the ones we have read for class) as to what feminism is, and what women-as feminists-should be doing in order to further the goals of feminism (which all seem different, depending on who you ask).

Though I have not enjoyed all of the theorists we have read, Helene Cixous and James Sonoski in particular, I have enjoyed the diversity of opinions on the subject of “feminism” they represent. The fact that this is all operating under the umbrella of “literary theory” studies only adds a rich layer to the theories and ideas expounded, although I feel it also complicates the question as well. I never thought about the way I read until I took this class but now, after having read all these scholars I’m convinced that I read in a certain manner because I am functioning within the male-oriented hegemony, which taught me to read this way. However, as problematic as this certainly is, I’m not so sure I see a smooth way out of this hegemony. The closest I suppose would be the writing of Cixous, who attempts to write outside this hegemony in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” However, I didn’t enjoy this essay at all for the reasons outlined above and I simply refuse to believe that this is the best way out of the patriarchy. As a reader I would not want to read those kinds of essays and as much as this can be attributed to the manner in which I was taught to enjoy and read texts in a certain “masculine” way, it could also simply be that as a reader, regardless of my gender, I desire order and structure in the texts I read. This is another vexing question about feminism that has been raised for me-how much and to what extent can we attribute x, y and z to the “male hegemony” and the “patriarchy?” In focusing so much on this, are we perhaps losing sight of other more important things? I can’t tell you what those might be because I myself am still functioning within that very patriarchy and I’m not sure there will ever be a moment when I won’t be.

Furthermore, many of the theories put forth by the feminist thinkers we have read strike me as ideas that are interesting and bold in the abstract but that would inevitably pale and wither in reality. Perhaps this sounds overly cynical, but as pleasant as it would be to live in a world of true equality, a world with no “foreground” or “background” as Paula Gunn Allen wishes for in her essay “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale,” or the type of world Cixous yearns for-women writing passionately and publicly, I can’t help but think these are idealistic and ultimately unattainable theories. I can’t even begin to think of what a world would look like without a “background” or a “foreground” and even less so for a world where women can write freely about the things once written privately-and I’m not sure I’d want such a world myself. I’m also not so sure these even are the best alternatives to be had. Isn’t there a way to rid us of the male hegemony without replacing it with another hegemony? I understand the idea that we must operate outside this hegemony if we are to destroy it- much like Virginia Woolf’s call for an “outsider’s” society in her “Three Guineas,” but what if we don’t even like the “outsider’s” society that much either? Is there a way to remain an individualist feminist but still be a supportive member of “feminism?”

I suppose that is the biggest problem I have encountered thus far; how to maintain that sense of individuality that Linda Kauffman suggests we do away with in her essay “The Long Good-bye: Against Personal Testimony, or an Infant Grifter Grows Up,” which I cannot accept, and still remain part of this larger movement we call “feminism?” All these theorists are proposing radically different approaches to how to be a feminist and it leaves me wondering: is there a point at which all their ideas intersect, a space in which we can find if not unity, then at least coherence? A movement cannot work and make real change if it lacks even this simple ingredient.


Anne Dalke's picture

seeking order and structure

Barbara '57's moving response to all of you-- her observation that there's nothing better than essays filed with questions and uncertainties--seems a fitting comment to your particular piece, YJ, which is such a strong testament to your search for order and structure, for a sort of coherence that can propel a movement for change and a way of being in the world that doesn't leave us caught in hegemony.

I would say with you, yes, we are all of us, whatever our sex and whatever our gender, pattern-seeking and pattern-making creatures. When I last co-taught the core course in the gender studies program, I called it Playing with Categories: Re-doing the Politics of Sex and Gender. Our keynotes were

* the inevitability of our making of categories,
* play as a way of unsettling them, and
* politics as a way of making them useful,
as we put them into action in re-making the world.

Maybe you'd like to look @ the first part of that syllabus (I'm thinking esp. the Lakoff and Johnson essay from Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, and our discussion). The second direction you seem to gesture toward is indicated by your questions regarding the relationship between individualism and participation in a larger movement; towards the end of that syllabus you may find additional material helpful in that regard. (Whether you will anywhere find coherence is another matter entirely!)

The third possible direction for your study would be to focus on feminist literary analysis; there's quite a bit of interesting material if that's the way you want to go--let me know?
gammyflink's picture

Response to all your essays

 I am posting my comments at the end of the list but I wish I had the time and energy to respond to each of your essays.  My message is meant for all of you and I hope there is a way that you can know that.

I am in awe of what you have written and feel privileged to have access to your thoughts.  Your essays are filled with questions and uncertainties.  What could be better than that? This is the time for you to feel free to challenge everything you have learned before as well as what you are learning now.  It's a time to be confused and to live comfortably with that confusion. 

 I love being a woman.  The only thing I envy men for is that the world is their bathroom, and this is based on traveling in countries where toileting has no privacy!  I have always considered myself a feminist but in later life have become more of a humanist.  I ache for the ways in which we all suffer, men and women, in a culture that increasingly devalues people.

Many of you described coming into this course not knowing much about feminism.  My hope and expectation is that you will leave this course knowing more about yourselves.  There is no better learning than that.


Barbara  '57