Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What the Heck is Feminism Anyway?

“I think feminism is empowering women to be independent, confident, smart individuals. It is valuing the beauty and equality of women through the perspective of an individual who truly respects women. Feminism is not a crazy women cult idea, it is an everyday action to stand up and endorse the characteristics of individuals, and discredit the female gender acting as a classification of the stereotypical nature.”
-Natalie Stevens, 17

What do you think of when you think of a feminist? Do you think of a woman who hates men, doesn’t shave her legs or armpits, burns her bra and is generally unpleasant? Or do you think of a girl kind of like you?

“I think feminism is, as a woman, standing up for yourself, what you believe in, and the ability to respect and appreciate yourself.”
-Emily Riley, 16

Sure, some feminists do fit the stereotypes that are out there, but the truth is, and you might not even realize it, but you are probably a feminist.

“You believe in equality? That women shouldn’t be beaten up or raped? That we should be treated as autonomous human beings capable of making decisions for ourselves? Yes? Good. You’re a feminist. Deal” (Valenti, 24)

Feminism is, quite simply, the belief that women are equal to men. You don’t have to go out and throw out your bras, stand on picket lines, stop shaving your legs, toss out your make-up, hate men, or stop enjoying “girly” things to be a feminist. (But you can if you want to.) Feminism takes that belief of equality, and works toward obtaining it.

“I think feminism is I guess being a girl or acting girly. Girl power!”
-Sarah Conly, 13

If you enjoy playing sports, reading, getting an education, learning to drive, having free time to yourself, singing, acting, thinking about what you want to be when you grow up, writing, wearing pants, being a citizen, having boys as friends, or traveling, you are experiencing the benefits of feminism. All of those things, (as well as many more things,) were at one point in time rare or restricted activities for women (if they were an option at all).

Feminist thought analyzes the ways in which women have been oppressed throughout history to try to create equality between men and women in the future. That’s not scary… that’s good! Part of the reason why feminism is cast in such a negative light, is because it is seen as a threat.

A threat to whom?

If you pay attention in history class, you might notice that history is a very male-dominated story. Kings are men, soldiers are men, philosophers are men, innovators are men, explorers are men, villains are men, good guys are men… and women are wives. For making up roughly half the world’s population since the beginning of the human race, women don’t pop up a lot in history books. There are two general reasons why:

1.) Women weren’t allowed to do a lot of things. Depending on where they lived, what time period it was, and what economic class women belonged to, women were systematically shut out of many opportunities that they would most likely be free to enjoy today. Even once laws started changing and women could do more things, it was very hard for them to “break into” certain male-dominated activities. (If you would like to read about some women who broke through those traditional gender barriers, Ahead of Their Time is a book with many two-to-three page profiles women who became explorers, scientists, pilots and activists way before it was accepted.) Since women weren’t allowed to do the same things as men, obviously there are fewer stories about them in your history book.

2.) The histories (or, "herstories”) of women have not been given a lot of time in academics. Although I dread stating the cliché I’m about to type, white men wrote a lot of history books. They wrote a lot of other books too. And then a lot of white men became professors and taught these books to a lot of students, who, until relatively recently, were mostly more white men. But white men are not the problem. The problem that has kept history so narrow and one-sided is that it remains largely uncontested. If lots of people demanded that history be taught from a more equal standpoint, then we might have a better history book.

Do you think your American History class might have been a little different if you had learned about history from the Native American’s point of view? Of course! Just because it isn’t taught doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Women have history too, so it is important too seek it out until it is taught. The discipline of Women’s Studies emerged in the 1970’s, and since then, academic discourse surrounding feminism and women’s history has increased. “Women’s Studies embodies the goal of feminist education, the analysis of society from women’s perspectives with a view to changing it” (Warwick, 182). However, outside of a university setting, academic attention to Women’s Studies is rare.

The threat of feminism lies in the threat of upsetting conventional, traditional perspectives on what the world is. However, the fact that women (along with many other people left out of “The White Man’s History Book”) have a place in history shouldn’t be viewed as a threat. Rather, it should be celebrated! If you were reading a book and pages had been ripped out so that every other page was missing, wouldn’t you wonder what those pages said? The book wouldn't make sense without them! Without the stories of women, blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Latinos, homosexuals, bisexuals, transgendered people, Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists, that’s what history books are like: they don’t have the whole story. We're taught to believe that these history books that only have the histories of certain people are the whole story and not to question the missing pieces when we should.

"I'm honestly not completely sure and haven't thought about a definition too much, but I'd say feminism is the passionate belief that females should be considered equal both socially and politically in society.
-Izzer Berrang, 16

Without the whole story, it’s not surprising that a lot of people are confused about feminism. Even feminists are confused. Feminism has so many components and factions that sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint what’s what. First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave… Liberal, Radical, Marxist, Anarchist… Post-modern, Post-colonial… Freudian, Lacanian… What? These are only some of the better known “types” of feminism. Although these different schools of feminism may disagree with each other about some things, they’re all feminism. You don’t have to choose one of those stuffy labels to be a feminist either. There are lots different kinds of women and girls who are feminists, with lots of different kinds of opinions, ideals, goals, backgrounds, and interests. Although this makes it harder to try and define feminism, it allows feminism to be more fluid and fit in where it is needed.

However, it is important to note that feminists have not always belonged to such a broad movement. During the women’s suffrage movement, uneducated women and black women were often turned away by the feminists running campaigns. This initial discrimination has stigmatized feminism as a thing of white, middle-class women long after its perpetration.

Feminism is now much more inclusive, but it is still important to dispel the myths that feminism is only looking out for the interests of white, middle class women. That doesn’t sound very equal, and that doesn’t sound like feminism. Across the world, feminism takes on many shapes. In America, feminists might be involved in trying to prosecute a company for not paying men and women equally, while in developing nations feminists might be more concerned with finding clean drinking water for their villages. As Audre Lourde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” (Antrobus, 632). Different women have different needs, so it is important to acknowledge and include those women and their needs.

Well, I live in a pretty equal world now, why should feminism be important to me?

“Many who do accept and support feminist views over-estimate the advances that have been made. They feel that equality has been achieved and therefore the women’s movement is redundant” (Morgan, 131).

Feminism is more relevant than you might think. While your world might seem pretty equal, there is still a lot that must be challenged and changed before men and women are fully equal. In the United States alone (covering global feminist issues is much too broad for this little article), women’s movements and feminism work at creating a more equal world for women and men. Some things that feminism focuses on are:

-Women’s access to health care: This includes things like access to contraceptives, breastfeeding information, the improvement of healthcare for minorities, sex education, disability services, the improvement of environmentally hazardous work and living places, and access to alternative medicine (Kirk, 211-223).

-Gay civil rights: From the inclusion of transgender and intergender people into anti-discrimination legislation and accepted in the public sphere, gay marriage and civil unions, to combating homophobia, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and straight allies in the United States are fighting for a more equal society.

-Challenging harmful media representations of women: Women in the media are more often that not, skinny, white, and attractive. Minorities are severely underrepresented, and while depicted often conform to “white” beauty standards. Women are much more likely than men to be commodified in advertising and much more likely to have their bodies photographed in sexually demeaning and passive ways. Why should women be depicted as something they are not? Feminist critiques of the media seek to point these inequalities out and pressure the media to depict women more realistically. (Kirk, 208).

-Gender equality in education: Title IX makes gender discrimination in schools illegal, but that doesn’t stop it from happening outright. Feminists must challenge discrimination and use Title IX to ensure equality. Additionally, feminists fight for the inclusion of women’s perspectives in literature and history classes, and delve deeper into women’s issues in Women’s Studies classes.

Feminism empowers women and girls to be strong in who they are, question gender discrimination, seek the whole history of humans, and work for a more equal future.

Activism does not have to mean burning your bras to protest your caged breasts. “Activism always involves creating change, but creating change can mean simply intervening when and where one happens to be. Helping at-risk youth, changing the norms of gendered behaviors … creating new power networks within an academic institution—all these activist moves in our examples grew out of women literally seeing and hearing and feeling the needs around them” (Martin, 90).

So think about it. Are you a feminist? Are you interested in activism, either on a large-political scale or a smaller, person-to-person scale? Do you support the inclusion of minority perspectives in academic discourse? Are you interested in examining women’s perspectives throughout history? Do you believe that gender inequality is wrong and should be fixed? Do you believe in civil rights for all people? Do you believe that the American media promotes an unhealthy, unrealistic, and outdated image of feminine beauty and that it should change to reflect the women who are consuming that image? Do you believe in challenging the status quo?


Then You might be a feminist.

Antrobus, Peggy. "The Global Women's Movement." In Kirk, Gywn, Margo Okazawa-Rey. Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2010, 5th ed. 629-636

Valenti, Jessica. "You're a Feminist. Deal." In Berger, Melody. We Don't Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2006. 23-27

Warwick, Alex & Rosemary Auchmuty. "Women's Studies as Feminist Activism." In Gabriele Griffin. Feminist Activism in the 1990s. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis Inc. 1995. 182-191

1 comment:

  1. "If you pay attention in history class, you might notice that history is a very male-dominated story. Kings are men, soldiers are men, philosophers are men, innovators are men, explorers are men, villains are men, good guys are men… and women are wives."
    I come from Poland. In our history there is a woman called Jadwiga. She was princess of Hungary, related to the Polish kings of the Piast dynasty. She was also engaged to marry William Habsburg but she ended up marrying vladislav Jagiello of Lithuania just because her previous engagement didn't suit the Polish nobles. Jadwiga was not queen. She was KING. That was her actual title. Until she got married. Then she became her husband's wife. She got canonized by John Paul II in 1997. Generally she is seen as a sweet and gentle lady. Yet this sweet lady grabbed a battle axe and tried to chop her way through a wooden door when she learnt that the Polish nobles called off her engagement to William without so much as informing her. A lot has changed. I can't imagine my family or my boss making decisions "in my name" , telling me ehat I should do with my life.