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Knowing the Body
2004 First Web Report
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Legacy and Respect: The Usefulness of Feminism

Deborah Sosower

In a letter to students who participate in Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges' bi-college Feminist and Gender Studies department, Head of the Department Anne Dalke outlined an argument in favor of changing the program's name. She wrote,
"Our argument for re-naming the F&GS program "Gender and Sexuality" is based on 3 claims:

1. that it will be enticing for prospective and current students and faculty, because it names their personal and intellectual interests and investments (while avoiding the word "feminism," which is off-putting to a large range of individuals)
2. that it accurately represents the current state of scholarship in the field
3. that it accurately names--and invites exploration of--where the interesting questions lie."

At the date in which this statement was composed last April, I probably would have agreed with its relevancy and reasoning. I no longer accept this line of thinking, however, due to my education and involvement in Anne's co-taught class I am taking this semester, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender. It is ironic that I began my study of gender four years ago as a freshman vehemently against feminism, and only now as a senior taking the only class required for every major or concentrator in that field have I come to appreciate the legacy and usefulness of feminism as a theory of practice and of education.

My original concepts of feminism were that it was a theory that denounced men and elevated women beyond a fair or equitable place in society. I recognize now the stereotyping that I inadvertently allowed myself to feel. "Equating feminist struggle with living in a counter-cultural, woman-centered world erected barriers that closed the movement off from most women." (hooks, p. 53). I was one of those women who was closed off, or rather closed myself off, from feminism. I viewed feminism as a means to an end wherein women would lobby their superiority over men and treat men in the same callous, unrecognizable way in which women have been treated by men for centuries. For me, in order to demand respect, it should first be given. I wanted to embrace a theory that was inclusive of all genders and not alienating any gender, even men. In order to change the tide of oppression and miscommunication, I did not want to contribute to an "eye for an eye" philosophy that derogated any gender from its opposite's perspective, and victimized all woman and vilified all men. This stereotype that I held that feminism only focuses on women is described by Allan Johnson,

"In one sense, critics are correct that focusing on women as victims is counterproductive, but not because we should ignore victimization altogether. The real reason to avoid an exclusive focus on women as victims is to free us to concentrate on the compelling fact that men are the ones who victimize, and such behavior and the patriarchal system that encourages it are the problem." (Johnson, p. 110).

What turns me off about this quote is that it actually doesn't empower women to be in a position of abuser, but rather gives that power only to men. Not that anyone should actually actively abuse anyone else, no matter their gender or sex, but rather the notion that the power that allows abuse is solely attributed and controlled by men and not women. Women can't hold themselves equal to men without also taking responsibility for the same privileges and faults that men have who exercise power against others. I felt compelled, reading quotes and thinking about arguments like this, to disagree with feminism because I believed it was advocating equal rights for women but not equal responsibilities and action ownership. It was quotes and thoughts such as these that made me question feminism's actual agenda. I did not want to exclude men from a discussion about feminism because they weren't female; to separate the sexes and create an oppositional binary, in which "any outside [men] is formulated as a consequence of a lack internal to the system [feminism' it supplements." (Fuss, p. 235). It was through my debates with peers and in my class that I realized my inaccurate and incomplete conception of what feminism as a theory actually constitutes.

"Deflecting attention away from stereotypes is necessary if we are to revise our strategy and direction. I have found that saying 'I am a feminist' usually means I am plugged into preconceived notions of identity, role, or behavior. When I say 'I advocate feminism' the response is usually 'what is feminism?'" (hooks, p. 55). I realized during the first quarter of this course that I did not fully understand what feminism was and was relying on stereotypes to typecast feminists into identities and opinion-holders that were unfair and ignorant categories. Through what I assumed feminism was, I felt that I could understood and judge what it's abilities were to do. I was signifying the word feminism with multiple, unequalizing politics and policies. I viewed feminists as individuals who only saw negativity in men and inter-gender relationships; that "Those inhabiting the inside [of feminism] can only comprehend the outside[males] through the incorporation of a negative image." (Fuss, p. 235).

I was unprepared to open up my mind to accept or embrace alternative definitions of feminism. "Like any other word, 'feminism can't be used unless it has meaning, and any meaning necessarily sets it apart from other possibilities." (Johnson, p. 111). I thought of feminism as being apart from what I deemed in my mind an overriding, inclusive category that looked at people not from the perspective of their sex but as human beings and individuals solely. I was concerned with the ideas that feminism was an inside category that excluded men, and was thus controlling and perpetuating the same judgment mistakes in regards to gender value. "...A commitment to being inclusive and nonhierarchical makes many feminists leery of definitions, since definitions can be used to establish an exclusive 'one true feminism' that separates 'insiders' from 'outsiders'." (Johnson, p. 111). My linguistic stereotyping created my false sense of knowledge in this arena and my conviction in the exclusionary quality of feminism. "Change may well happen by working on the insides of our inherited sexual vocabularies and turning them inside out." (Fuss, p. 239). I can understand why a departmental name change seems attractive, but it is my opinion that a reworking of what feminism and feminist theory mean and have achieved would be more useful than closeting it.

"Feminism is neither a lifestyle nor a ready-made identity or role one can step into." (hooks, p. 53), and "...provides an ideological basis for change on every level of human existence..." (Johnson, p. 102). By defining feminism as being "off-putting to a large range of individuals," the people seeking to change the gender department's name were actually acting against their own criticism of feminism. Through their narrow definition of feminism as being "off-putting" and not worthy of student' or faculty's "personal and intellectual interests and investments," their statement pigeon-holed the idea of feminism in exactly the negative way that they purport feminism to do. By excluding the term or the theory of feminism, the department is actually being exclusive instead of inclusive, which is the argument wielded most often against terms such as feminism! Instead of being afraid of politically charged terms, I think it is the duty of educators and students to embrace them and challenge their need for safety or complacence. "...At the same time that [feminism] can frighten us or make us feel uncomfortable, it can also empower us because it makes such compelling sense of what's going on and what it has to do with us." (Johnson, p. 115). By changing the department name, we are giving in to the pressures to be safer but less real. I personally did not come to Bryn Mawr or Haverford College in order to be reassured that all of my previous stereotypes in any field of study were true; I value the education, despite my initial reluctance, on feminism and its importance. By eliminating "Feminism", we ignore and offend the previous and current efforts of feminism as a movement towards change and improvement in gender relations. "Feminism is the only ongoing conversation about patriarchy that can lead to a way out." (Johnson, p. 130).

"[Feminism] played a part in most attempts to understand and do something about patriarchy and its consequences." (Johnson, p. 113). This to me has emerged as the most compelling argument in support of feminist study and practice. I now recognize feminism as a vehicle for discussing and dictating change in everyone's lives; women and men alike. Feminism has the history and legacy of uniting people of all genders to promote equal and legitimate interpersonal relationships and power structures.

"A broader and deeper feminism is about the very terms on which equality is figured. It is about women's right to participate as men's equal in society, but also about the power to shape the alternatives from which both women and men may choose. It's about behavior; it's about the power to change society itself." (Johnson, p. 119).

In other words, feminism is not stagnant or boring, it's useful. It is a valuable and politically valid tool for effecting and improving women's and men's lives. I do not devalue the term "Sexuality", in fact I find it a fascinating and thought-provoking concept. Gail Rubin writes, "...the relation between feminism and sex is complex. Because sexuality is a nexus of the relationships between genders, much of the oppression of women is borne by, mediated through, and constituted within, sexuality." (Rubin, p. 35). The department statement posits that removing "feminism" in lieu of "sexuality" incorrectly encompasses feminist theory. "Re-naming the concentration recognizes that the extension of these [feminist] theoretical initiatives and imperatives has led to a more comprehensive understanding of gender." To argue that "Sexuality" studies can take the place of feminist studies is misleading, according to Rubin. "Feminist thought simply lacks angles of vision that can encompass fully the social organization of autonomous theory and politics specific to sexuality must be developed." (Rubin, p.43). Johnson suggests that, "Some people...have declared a postfeminist era. But we aren't post feminism; we're in a backlash coming at the tail of a temporarily exhausted women's movement." (Johnson, p. 128). By asserting that the name change "accurately represents the current state of scholarship in the field" does not do justice to the current writers and passionate feminists today.

Finally, saying that students are no longer interested in feminism belies the research and thought that I have put into this paper and that of my peers who also have treated and debated this topic. I support the contemplation and study of sexuality, especially as it pertains to multiple disciplines and life experiences. However, advocating a new line of thought and education does not necessitate the negation of an influential and governing previous line of thought. "Personal experiences are important to feminist movement but they cannot take the place of theory." (hooks, p. 56). This is what to me signifies the greatest reason for keeping the name "Feminism" in the title of our Gender studies program. Without embracing the challenge of the word "Feminism", we invalidate the theories and movement of Feminism and its legacy. Without it, we would not be free to debate its merit in our classrooms today. For a true department and vision of inclusion, we must embrace and challenge feminism as an integral part of our gender and sexuality studies in the pursuit of a more perfect understanding.

Works Cited

Dalke, Anne. "Re-Naming the Feminist & Gender Studies Concentration:
An Account of the Past Process of Deliberation--and a Sketch Towards the Future." CAP doc. April 14, 2004

Fuss, Diana. "Inside/Out." Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. 233-240.

hooks, bell. "Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression." Feminist Theory Reader. Ed. Caroline McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim. New York: Routledge. 2003, 50-57.

Johnson, Allan G. The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1997.

Rubin, Gail. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality." American Feminist Thought at Century's End : A Reader. Ed. Linda S. Kauffman Cambridge, Ma : Blackwell, 1993. 3-64.

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