What is feminism to you?

Defining feminism is always tricky. For a start, feminists don’t actually agree on a definition. Secondly, feminism is not a monolithic political or social movement, but a collection of different movements, activisms and political philosophies. Feminism is a catch-all term we use to define people (although some feminists would argue it is a label that can only be applied to women) who believe that women are historically and culturally disadvantaged in present society and want to reform society to change this. A more precise definition must take into account the following:

  1. Different feminist groups define the word “woman” in different and conflicting ways. (ie. “women as a biological sex class” or “woman as a gender identity”?)
  2. Different feminists group understand the causes of women’s historical and cultural differences in radically opposing ways. (ie. the liberal idea that women’s disadvantages are due to a lack of equal rights versus the materialist idea that all women are oppressed by a patriarchal, racial and class system).
  3. As a result, all these groups champion policies and ideas that some other group(s) oppose. (Witness the transgender, prostitution and abortion debates)
  4. Nearly all groups claim the label “feminist” for themselves exclusively and deny the other group’s claim to the name based on these opposing views.

This is why it has become more usual to hear about “feminisms” in the plural, rather than feminism in the singular.

I, of course, have my own feminist views. If you read my blog or Twitter with any regularity, you will have a pretty good idea of where I stand. But, as a teacher, my aim is always to present all the versions of feminism I have come across and present judgment of none. Nevertheless, I will always be clear in my classes which version is of my own particular leaning. In this post, I hope I am adopting this strategy. In the end, it doesn’t matter what “flavour” of feminist I am, or which “wave” I most identify with. It’s about giving a definition of feminism that contributes to a Twitter dialogue I recently read.

Feminism as word only came into existence at the end of the nineteenth century. However, the general idea of women leading disadvantageous lives in society had been around for many centuries indeed and was expressed globally in different contexts. Historians of women and gender have shown this repeatedly.  As a result, some historians, like Karen Offen for example, argue that we should expand any history of feminism to take these examples into account.

This suggests to me that my opening attempt at an explanation of feminism as “a collection of different movements, activisms and political philosophies […] who believe that women are historically and culturally disadvantaged in present society” points to the inescapable centrality of “women” to any definition of the term. Feminists want women not to be disadvantaged in society  (however they define this disadvantage) and their actions are defined by what they perceive women need to escape this position.

It also suggests that any activism who does not centre women cannot be feminism, even if the course of this activism might help women in some way. In the same way, many feminists who consider that a woman’s disadvantages cannot be understood without reference to multiple oppressive systems, may help non women in some way with their activism. This does not mean that the concerns of men are usually at the forefront of their policymaking. The Combahee River Collective said this best:

If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.

Finally, if we attempt to make feminism an “all inclusive” social justice movement, the end effect is to marginalise women and to gloss over the multiple ways women are disadvantaged in different places, cultures and times. The evidence of how women are derided and labeled “treacherous” for their insistence on the need for women-centred politics within political movements, whether Marxist, nationalist or any other, shows us very clearly that any notion of feminism that does not start from an uncompromising focus on women is on the first step to irrelevance.

Selected Bibliography:

Eisenstein, Zillah, and Barbara Smith, eds. ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement’. In Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology. Nueva York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Inc., 1978. http://circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html.
Hewitt, Nancy A., ed. No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2010.
Lerner, Gerda. The Creation Of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy. New York: Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 1994.
Offen, Karen. ‘Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach’. Signs 14, no. 1 (1988): 119–57.
Miller, Francesca. Latin American Women and the Search for Social Justice. UPNE, 1991.
Riley, Denise. ‘Am I That Name?’: Feminism and the Category of ‘Women’ in History. Language, Discourse, Society. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1988.
Smith, Bonnie G., ed. Global Feminisms since 1945: A Survey of Issues and Controversies. Rewriting Histories. London ; New York: Routledge, 2000.

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