Friday, May 29, 2009

Feminist by any other name...

This is my first post here on Fourth Wave and I am excited and energized to be a part of such a wonderfully brilliant team of feminists. Feminists...or are they? The term makes me think of an interesting conversation I had about the aversion to that term.

I was recently in a classroom, surrounded on all sides of a conference table with bright Women’s Studies students. We kicked off a conversation about bell hooks' essay “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression” by trying to define our feminisms (Check out the article here). hooks’ article speaks about the fraught relationship to the term “feminist” many women, particularly historically-oppressed groups of women, experience. She explains “that many women are reluctant to advocate feminism because they are uncertain about the term. Other women from exploited and oppressed ethnic groups dismiss the term because they do not wish to be perceived as supporting a racist movement; feminism is often equated with a white women’s movement”. Hooks goes on to speak about the many understandings and perceptions of feminist that serve as means to distance women from the term, negating the power of claiming an identity that embraces women’s equality. hooks instead offers the idea of “one who advocates feminism” working to sidestep the problem of naming and defining for a broader need to push forward women’s rights.

When I first read the essay I was sort of shocked by the move to distance one's self from the term feminist. I happen to like the backlash that I get when I casually drop the f-bomb on someone in conversation. But it was sitting with these women from different backgrounds that I realized the trouble—or potential trouble—that the term could present to women who feel that their “feminism” is not presented or accurate in the term’s public image. I think most feminists--or at least little ol’ Midwestern feminists like myself and my peers--have experienced this sort of feminist misunderstanding. It’s what I refer to as the feminist swear, or the act of using “feminist” as a means of dismissing, negating, and undermining someone’s political agenda. It unfortunately has done severe damage to the feminist movement as women gradually step away from other women’s rights advocates for fear of be called man-hating, ball-cutting, lesbians. From this has emerged an awe-inspiring number of feminist qualifiers to better define one's feminist image: eco-feminist, liberal feminist, black feminist, radical feminist. Instead of limiting the definition of feminist, these terms, as hooks suggests, have served as a way of making a clear definition much more complex. I tend to believe that it is the basic misconception of feminism that poses trouble. Feminist is not some unilateral term that can be broadly swept over the population to describe everyone. Feminism is a term of multiplicity! Feminisms! I believe that is the means of using constructionist ideology to try and define something that has an intimate relationship to each person who chooses to employ it in conversation. So the question remains, how do we cope with the multiplicity of feminisms while continuing to push forward social change?

So, dear reader, what do you think? Do you think shifting to “one that advocates feminism" is a friendlier way of incorporating different feminist views? How do you define feminist? Do you use a feminist prefix like liberal or eco? If so, what does it do for you?


Brianna J said...

Well... for a while, I would call myself a 'socially liberal, economically libertarian, mildly sex-positive christian lesbian feminist' That was only to get a rise out of people, though - it didn't really accomplish anything! Lately, I've taken a liking to the term 'gender-based activism', but I still call myself a feminist, if only because I'm so used to it.

Interesting post - and welcome aboard!

Aviva DV said...

Welcome, Laura! Great first post. This is exactly the sort of issue I've been struggling with since starting FWF back in August.

I just call myself a feminist, but I certainly imagine that term as broadly as possible and favor the use of "feminisms" over just simply "feminism," as it implies a multiplicity of diverse yet intertwined identities and politics. I'm never really prefix-ed myself because, as you say, it always felt more limiting to me rather than more liberating.

sharonevolving said...

Hey - nice to see this blog. I too am a feminist, a really vocal and active one, but I've recently been kicked out of a feminist camp, which kinda makes ya wonder who's really in charge of who's a feminist and who's not. I'll be following your blog. I myself realized recently that feminism was a total turnoff to people because they associate it with certain stereotypes, and male-bashing. I posted on this at
Keep up the good work!

Aviva DV said...

Sharon, welcome and thanks for commenting! Feminism, in a worst case scenario sort of situation, can be restrictive, especially for those of us who don't fit a certain mold. But I'm a firm believer that it doesn't have to be there way, and there are many, MANY feminist who would never presume to restrict for others what it means to a feminist. I've always hoped I'm part of that 'camp' as well.