What is Feminism?

What Is Feminism?
by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

What is Feminism?
[Feminists are] just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” Su, an Australian woman interviewed for the 1996 anthology DIY Feminism.

Who are the feminists and what is feminism? By feminists, we mean each and every politically and socially conscious woman or man who works for equality within or outside the movement, writes about feminism, or calls her- or himself a feminist. In reality, there is no formal alliance of women we can call “the feminists.” Although there are institutions and other forums under which women and men organize and rally, feminism isn’t a bureaucratic monolith like Communism or. . . Scientology. It’s a loose collection of individuals.

No, the organized feminists whom people seem to feel betrayed by are the leaders of feminist institutions and those anointed as “the feminists” by the media: most often Patricia Ireland and her company at NOW; Eleanor Smeal and the Feminist Majority Foundation; and Gloria Steinem of Ms. magazine and Voters for Choice, among other allegiances-women whose every statement is taken as representative of us all. For example, when the stories about Clinton groping Kathleen Willey and having an affair with [Monica] Lewinsky broke in January 1998, the media devoted two months to asking “where are the feminists?” Then, on March 22, Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed for The New York Times arguing that Clinton’s behavior was gross and probably pathological, but not sexual harassment and therefore not actionable. The next week, columns abounded: Feminists Are Divided on the Clinton Scandal. It’s a sure-fire sign of oppressed status when an entire group gets reduced to one, or even three, individuals.

Now for the second question: “What does feminism mean anymore anyway?”

In the most basic sense, feminism is exactly what the dictionary says it is: the movement for social, political, and economic equality of men and women. Public opinion polls confirm that when people are given this definition, 67% say they agree with feminism. We prefer to add to that seemingly uncontroversial statement the following: feminism means that women have the right to enough information to make informed choices about their lives. And because “women” is an all encompassing term that includes middle-class white women, rich black lesbians, and working-class straight Asian women, an organic intertwining with movements for racial and economic equality, as well as gay rights, is inherent to the feminist mandate. Some sort of allegiance between women and men is also an important component of equality. After all, equality is a balance between the male and female with the intention of liberating the individual.

Breaking down that one very basic definition, feminism has three components. It is a movement, meaning a group working to accomplish specific goals. Those goals are social and political change -implying that one must be engaged with the government and law, as well as social practices and beliefs. And implicit to these goals is access to sufficient information to enable women to make responsible choices.

Of course the goals of feminism are carried out by every day women themselves. Maybe you aren’t sure you need feminism, or you’re not sure it needs you. You’re sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are – but with a political consciousness. And, vice versa: You want to be a feminist because you want to be exactly who you are. That may be a person patriarchal society doesn’t value or allow-from a female cadet at the Citadel to a lesbian mother. Maybe you feel aligned with the self-determination and human rights implicit in feminism, but you also organize your life around race, religion, or class, rather than solely around gender. For instance, in the Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History, the editors list 17 prominent kinds of feminism based on identity, including American Indian, Arab American, Asian American, Jewish, Latina, Lesbian, Marxist, Puerto Rican, and Working Class. There are also womanists, which, as coined and defined by novelist and poet Alice Walker, designates a black feminist (womanists are rarely men) without having to “add a color to become visible.” Womanism, distinct from feminism’s often white-centered history, is an alternative casting of the same basic beliefs about equality and freedom, and few womanists would deny the link to feminism. Womanism was created as a way having space at the table for all women to speak, respecting their ethnicity, religion, social and economic status, and nationality. Because of the creation of womanism, the mainstream (and more privileged) feminist movement has worked hard to become more inclusive of those with less privilege. While each of these groups is magnetized by political equality, some additional aspect of their personhood needs to be emphasized because it affects their struggle for equality.

Using a qualifier in order to further define identity is very different from foregoing the feminist label altogether. For instance, women within other social justice movements – environmental, peace, human rights, and hip-hop, for example-often opt for the term “humanist.” Although humanism includes men (and especially those who aren’t white or otherwise privileged), in reality, it is a retreat from feminism. Using humanism as a replacement for feminism is also a misuse of the term – theologically, humanism is a rejection of supernaturalism, not an embrace of equality between men and women. Internationally, twice as many women as men are illiterate, and it was only in 1998 that an international court denounced rape as a form of torture in prison, and as a war crime when conducted systematically by the military. Along those lines, gender-based persecution isn’t recognized as grounds for asylum in the United States, which means that women who are likely to be killed by their husbands or sure to be genitally mutilated if they return to their countries are usually put on the next plane back, regardless of this potential danger. (Or, like Adelaide Abankwa and Fauzyia Kasinja, they are imprisoned for years, and only granted permanent residency, and later asylum after long campaigns conducted on their behalf by U.S. feminists.) Feminism seeks to include women in human rights.

Most women come to feminism through personal experience, which is one of the reasons the core identity of feminism has to be so elastic. The term represents an incredible diversity of individual lives. Often a woman who otherwise won’t align herself with feminism will seek it out when she is confronted with an abusive relationship, or if her boss is paying her less than her male counterparts, or, on a positive note, if she needs credit to start her own beauty salon. Historically, who else besides feminists have been there to help women, whether they be Calvin Klein-devotees or Vegan Earth Mothers? Many women tap into or create feminist resources not knowing they are on a feminist path. On the work front, secretaries founded 9-to-5 — a union for (mainly) pink-collar women workers-and women supported the National Committee on Pay Equity as well as microlending and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, because no one else was interested in the problems of working women. Kris, a stylist who wrote in to Ask Amy, turned to feminist resources when she wanted to open her own salon. She didn’t appeal to the Small Business Administration (SBA) because its process is complicated and full of red tape, when all she needed was a little money to tide her over as she built up her client base. Amy sent her to New York City’s Women’s Venture Fund, which makes micro-loans. Women even turn to feminism when they want to learn how to masturbate-vulvas were mapped out in Betty Dodson’s video Sex for One, and orgasms expanded on in Susie Bright’s 1991 Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex Guide. Most safe-sex shops were founded by feminists, from Eve’s Garden in New York City, opened by Dell Williams in 1974, and Good Vibrations, founded by sex therapist Joani Blank in San Francisco in 1977, to newer sex shops like Toys in Babeland in New York City and Seattle.

Clearly, the only people actively paving the paths to women’s equality are feminists. Eventually, most women seeking to expand or change their lives find feminism. This makes it sound as if the movement is a huge force of conscious feminists constantly fortified by new recruits. Actually, a problem diminishing “enrollment” in the movement is political co-optation. The moment a concern pioneered and promoted by feminists-such as domestic violence, micro-enterprise, the fight for affordable health-care, and day care-becomes mainstream or at all successful, it is no longer seen as a women’s issue, but simply a newsworthy issue. It becomes depoliticized, taken out of the hands of the grassroots, and divorced from the very process that was necessary to its success.

The most obvious example of co-opting feminist issues is the movement against domestic violence. Until feminism, there was no word for battered women or domestic violence, no legal argument of self-defense for women who killed their abusers, and no shelter system. In the seventies and eighties, shelters, funded by grassroots feminist groups and fledgling foundations (like the early Ms. Foundation for Women), proliferated, but the government, police, and media outlets still paid very little attention to violence within the home. For example, the first shelter for women in the United States was started in California in 1964. (This was out of pure need, not because feminists were franchising.) Now, there is an organized battered women’s movement of shelters, awareness campaigns, reformed laws and police practices, and legislative strategies. For example, October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, and 1994 saw the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which set the precedent for prosecuting abusers who cross state lines, and a mandate for nationwide enforcement of protection orders. Nonetheless, in 1994 when Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered and her hulking football-hero ex-husband was accused of the crime, domestic violence was launched into the mainstream, “professionalized” according to one young activist, and divorced by the media from the grassroots organizations who had named its reality and pioneered its treatment. What this means is that today a woman like G.E. executive Sam Allison can be on the board of The Women’s Center in Milwaukee, and claim that she’s not a feminist, she’s simply an “advocate to end violence against women.”

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Melissa Bradley broke ground in the field of women’s economic development without being aware of feminists like Connie Evans, who started the Women’s Self-Employment Project a dozen years earlier. By 1998, Evans had dispensed more than $1.3 million in 600 short-term micro loans, and became the largest small-business fund for low-income women; all undertaken by her as feminist work. Bradley, who is the founder of The Entrepreneurial Development Institute and then worked for the federal government implementing its welfare to work programs, doesn’t consider her work feminist. Of course, this is assimilation, and in some ways, it is our goal. After all, as long as Women’s History and African American History are independent curricula, history itself will still be a white man’s story. In that same way, the women’s rights movement will have been successful when we no longer have to advocate separately for half the population’s human rights. On the other hand, ideally women’s egos would be more invested in their work. You can’t continue change if you don’t know the process necessary to make it. If feminists first exposed domestic violence as a reality in many women’s lives, funded the first women’s shelters, and drafted and fought for legislation that is now working to end violence against women, then an “advocate to end violence against women” (Sam Allison’s term for herself) is just another word for “feminist.” Issues divorced from their feminist roots eventually become depoliticized, and the resulting social programs are reduced to treating the symptoms rather than curing-or preventing-the disease. In order to have a robust movement, domestic violence and economic development need to be re-identified as feminist issues and victories. And, Allison and Bradley need to be outed as feminists.

Fearing Feminism

Now, let’s discuss what a feminist isn’t. T-shirt and button slogans such as a feminist is “opposite of a doormat” and “not a masochist” have outworn their usefulness in bringing clarity to the subject. Feminism is more often described by what it isn’t than what it is, which creates some confusion (and is the reason why we defined it before going into all this). The inadvertently humorous descriptions by Right-wing ideologues such as Pat Robertson don’t help, either: “Feminists encourage women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, become lesbians, and destroy capitalism.” Of course, that definition is not so much wrong as hyperbolic. To a fundamentalist, that’s just a description of no-fault divorce laws, abortion rights, rejection of God as a Father, acceptance of female sexuality, and a commitment to workers.

Nonetheless, women far to the left of Robertson still fear feminism. The fact that the feminist movement has developed networks to help women who are victimized is one reason that women fear the word. Identifying ourselves as feminists means addressing uncomfortable topics: the humiliation of being discriminated against, the fact that we are vulnerable when we walk home late at night or even in our homes, or the sadness of discovering that the sons in our families are treated altogether differently from the daughters. Injustice and oppression are hard to face, a fact that is evident in the number of rape and sexual harassment charges that emerge years, even decades, after the event actually happened. To use one example, Juanita Broaddrick waited twenty years to accuse Bill Clinton of forcing her into sex in a hotel room. This was during a time when forced sex among acquaintances-what is now called date rape-was excused as relatively inevitable, certainly not criminal, male behavior. Feminists fought for a realistic legal definition of rape that acknowledged degrees of sexual assault (and protected male rape victims, too), a minimum one-year statute of limitations, rape shield laws that prohibit using a victim’s sexual history against her (or him), and the training of emergency room and police personnel to gather evidence, including a so-called “rape kit,” when a victim comes into their hospitals or precincts. Feminism would have meant being there for Broaddrick-utilizing the legal system and social service institutions-the second she could get out of the hotel room to press charges. To take it one step further, the goal of feminism is to create a climate in which Clinton couldn’t possibly have raped Broaddrick, or anyone, without knowing that “no means no” and a prison sentence was imminent. Even at the beginning of the Second Wave, women were resistant to acknowledging discrimination. The results of the 1972 Virginia Slims poll (the first one that acknowledged women’s issues) found that men observed discrimination against women more often than women did. As we said, consciousness is everything. Even now, acknowledging inequality begs one to do something about it-and that is a daunting, albeit righteous, responsibility.

Feminism’s philosophy certainly isn’t narrow-minded enough to be solely about our sexuality or our pay-checks, and certainly not about man-hating or chivalry. (In our opinion, whoever gets to the door first should be responsible for opening it). Still, some people choose to stay away from feminism because they don’t want to be associated with spooky stereotypes about feminists and their freaky excesses. You know this rap: some feminists think all sex is rape, all men are evil, that you have to be a lesbian to be a feminist, you can’t wear Girlie clothes or makeup, or that married women are lame. This conversation is usually baiting and can ride the force of homophobia or internalized Phallofilia (socialized glorification of the male principle and men). Women who love lipstick and also standing up for themselves, but are not politicized, are especially vulnerable to being conned into distancing themselves from the movement, while fully hoping for and expecting to be treated equally.

A good example of this is the Lilith Fair. Canadian chanteuse Sarah McLachlan put together a historic Mothership of ladies (another term that deserves to be reclaimed; this time from uptight, upper-class olden days and proffered as just another, kind of jaunty, word for women). These were stars who had topped the music charts and McLachlan trotted them across America to make the point that, not only are female rock stars achieving a critical mass, but women rake in the audiences. The tour earned over $16.4 million in the first year alone and drew over 75 percent female audiences all three years of its life. To make it even more stunning, the Lilith management gave checks averaging $30,000 to a battered women’s shelter or grassroots social service agency in every locale in which the lavender Lilith backdrop undulated. But what happened when McLachlan was asked about women and politics? “The tour isn’t a soapbox for extremist feminism,” she said in a New York Newsday interview during the first tour. “This is not at all about dissing men.” There are certain assurances we just shouldn’t have to make, especially when a majority of the back-up band members are male, as is the vast majority of the stage crew, sound people, bus drivers, talent management, and the male-owned companies that underwrote the tour. Besides, as a friend of ours pointed out, even if there weren’t a male presence behind the front-women at Lilith, there is no need for the disclaimer. After all, an all-black tour of hip-hop musician wouldn’t feel obligated to assure people that they are not dissing whites.

Furthermore, if Sarah McLachlan had brushed up on her feminist history, she would have been aware of Olivia Records, Redwood Recordings, Ladyslipper distribution, and Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Then, she could have built upon that separatist womyn’s music movement (which flourished in the seventies) as her foundation, a movement that created a network of producers, labels, and festivals entirely outside of the mainstream. Shining a light on the long line of women who continue to transform the male-run music industry would have gotten Lilith closer to its implied goal of equal treatment for women. McLachlan didn’t remain fearful of the feminist implications of her tour. According to Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, an artist who performed at Lilith all three years, after a few years of being immersed in this feminist experience, McLachlan changed her tune and proudly called the tour feminist. “I think Sarah always had the same vision for Lilith,” says Ray. “But she became much more confident about standing up for the idea that women need an all-female tour, they want it, and they’re going to take it without apology.”

Most of those Ladyslipper/Michigan/Olivia feminists are womyn-loving-womyn, an association which Lilith and many other women in rock tend to fear. “The idea that all feminists are lesbians is scary enough for some women to stay away from the feminist label and movement, even when their beliefs are basically feminist,” wrote Barbara Findlen in her pioneering anthology Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. Homophobia is as essential to root out of the movement as racism was and is. To eschew calling yourself a feminist because you don’t want to be called a “dyke” is like not joining the civil rights movement because you don’t want to be called a “nigger” or a “nigger lover.” Besides, regardless of one’s sexuality, all people have a vested interest in reclaiming the inherent dignity of the terms lesbian, gay, and queer, since straight women who refuse a subservient role (and straight men who refuse to dominate) are likely to be called gay. Findlen also points out the odd way that some straight women reconcile themselves with this threat: by arguing that feminists aren’t all dykes. (Which implies, among other ignorant assumptions, that all gay women are inherently feminist.) Rather than challenging the homophobia-and misogyny-head on, this tactic sidesteps the issue, allowing women to embrace a limited feminism without disavowing dyke-baiting.

In truth, the movement is comprised of women from all points on the sexual spectrum. And, because they may be more able to risk male disapproval, lesbian and bisexual women have had a particularly creative and strong history in the women’s movement, from founding the aforementioned womyn’s music scene to writing world-changing books such as Sexual Politics (Kate Millett), Sister Outsider (Audre Lorde), and Sisterhood is Powerful (Robin Morgan) to being the most iconic activists (Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, and Rita Mae Brown). It’s interesting to note that homophobes never attack feminist critic Camille Paglia for being of the Sapphic persuasion – proof that dyke-baiting and bashing feminists is only employed in the service of woman-hating. As Kaia Wilson, formerly the guitarist for lesbian super-group Team Dresch and currently for the Butchies, puts it: “There can be really good reasons for not wanting to call yourself a feminist, but most of the time, it’s due to misogyny.”

Even when the winds of misogyny and homophobia aren’t blowing feminism’s house down, women can be their own big bad wolves. Injudicious niceness, which is a socialized disease, often explains why women tend not to demand equality. It also may be why feminist women feel it necessary to answer questions that are hostile to feminism, no matter how silly or offensive. Conversely, when a woman is politically oriented and knowledgeable about history, she knows the burden of proof should be on the questioner and is less likely to have a misguided sense of politeness. When someone asks, “Why is it that all feminists think they are better than men?” (or insert any weird generalization involving lesbians, matriarchies, and hatred of sex), one should respond with something along the lines of “Who are you referring to?” Imagine the organizing and theorizing which has been stopped because we have allowed ourselves to be delayed by these distractions. In the case of the mythical statement, “Andrea Dworkin says that all sex is rape,” recommend actually reading her book Intercourse (the salient chapter is called “Occupation/Collaboration”), and starting the conversation from there. To give you a taste, Dworkin writes pungently: “Women lie about life by not demanding to understand the meaning of entry, penetration, occupation, having boundaries crossed over, having lesser privacy: by avoiding the difficult, perhaps impossible (but how will we ever know?) questions of female freedom.” Clearly she is making a much more subtle, disturbing, and ultimately liberating point than an easy generalization could convey. If you want more clarity, you could do what the Hungry Mind Review did, and ask Dworkin directly what she thinks sex is. “I think of sexual contact and sexual intimacy as pleasure,” she told them. “And as a way of experiencing freedom.”

Feminism is often mistaken as being an enabler, a “sop” discouraging women from taking action in their lives, the genesis of the victim culture that critics like Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Sommers so despise. Even women who rely on and are seeking feminist resources can mistake feminism for the equivalent of a Knight in Shining Armor to save them from their woes. In fact, the urge to protect women is part of the problem feminists fight. As Susan Faludi (famed author of Backlash and, more recently, Stiffed) and others have noted, protection starts out polite-women and children first off the sinking ship and so forth-and ends up justifying why women can’t be naval captains or firefighters or subjects for medical research. Women can’t ride this antiquated stereotype and at the same time fight for independence. In reality, feminism requires action and responsibility for oneself.

Take job discrimination as a case in point. A clerk at Wal-Mart, sensed something fishy because for the last five of her ten years at the store, her salary had stayed the same, while male cashiers were given annual raises. Other feminists had done their part by creating laws against sex discrimination, trainings for implementation of these laws, and organizations to help women through the process. The Wal-Mart clerk must do her part – document the discrimination and file a complaint.

To sum up, feminism is helped by a working knowledge of history, and requires a willingness to act on behalf of yourself, and to stand up for all women in the face of everything from misogyny to a social mandate that says “be nice.”


References to “Ask Amy” are to www.feminist.com/ask/amy.htm This is an excerpt and slight adaptation from Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). Learn more at www.manifesta.net.

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