No, not that one, you dirty gutter-minded liberals, bless all y’all’s hearts.
I say that particular F Word around folks I don’t yet know very well and I get a wide range of emotional reactions, everything from delight to disgust. The men usually get nervous; even the liberal men. Many of the women are instantly on guard. They seem to be wondering: am I one of those “angry feminists” they’ve heard about or am I going to be “normal”; am I going to be upset if they’re not feminists; am I going to be hyper-critical of their life choices; am I going to be a sanctimonious prick; am I going to try to recruit them. And really, only that last fear is valid. 😉
It’s important to begin any introductory sort of conversation about feminism with some acknowledgement of the history of oppression of women, even though by now most people are more or less familiar with it. There’s always someone who isn’t. Briefly, then:
Women have historically been denied the right to own property because we’ve been considered to be property. Women have spent millennia as the legal property of men, being raped, sold/traded like a commodity, beaten, and/or killed by the men who’ve owned them. This legacy lingers. In fact, Tennessee only got around to making it illegal for a man to rape his wife under all circumstances earlier this year, which was the result of feminist work. (As of last year there was something like 15 states where spousal rape was a lesser crime than other rape. LAST YEAR. 2004.) Women have been categorically denied education — an educated woman can fight back — and in some cultures today it’s still a punishable offense to teach a female to read. We were denied the right to vote here in the US until 1920, we’ve been denied the right to work to support ourselves and our children, and we’ve been forced into prostitution or unwanted marriages to support ourselves and our children. We’ve been denied the right to have equal custody of our children, and we’ve been denied the right to make decisions about our own reproductive processes, such as birth control use and abortion.
These grievous offenses represent only a fraction of the overall reasons why feminism has continued to emerge from the social fabric, time and again, over and over. There have been feminist movements all throughout history, a fact that doesn’t get covered in a lot of World History or Western Civ courses. But oppression always has resistance, it’s just that when oppression wins, the resistance doesn’t get a chance to write a chapter telling its side in the history books. Feminism is not a new phenomenon, its recent relative success in the US notwithstanding.
When feminism emerged in the US it did so for the same reasons it always has; because women were being categorically and systemically oppressed. Of course, as usual, rich women had it better than poor women, and white women better than non-white women, and straight women better than non-straight women (I’ll talk more about this in a minute), but there was still a recognizable oppression that was categorically about being female. White women did not have any more right to not be raped by their husbands than black women; the children of rich women were just as much owned by the male head-of-household as the children of poor women; straight women were not being enthusiastically promoted into boardrooms while queer women were kept at the reception desk. It’s been categorical.
And whatever our differences, we women all have this history of oppression in common, as well as its remaining legacies today. We also have the opportunity to learn to stand together against the renewed fervor with which the conservative movement is trying to resurrect many of these oppressions right back into the law again.
For a little while, feminism in the US really worked. Over decades, women marched and protested and rallied, they wrote books and raised their consciousness and burned their bras and said hell no we won’t back off the demand for the vote and the pill and equal pay and equal rights. And today we all enjoy much of what they demanded for us. (God, I love those women. I owe those women a debt of gratitude which I intend to pay-forward to future women by working to ensure them greater equality by the time they get here.) We won the vote and the right to take the pill. We can get good jobs. We can go to college, and we can send our daughters to law school just as well as our sons. We got the ERA approved in over half the states. A lot of great work was done.
But then a weird thing happened in the late 70s/early 80s. Well, lots of weird shit happened in the late 70s/early 80s, and if you were cognizant then you know what I’m talking about, but the weird thing I mean to mention specifically is the Reagan Revolution. The modern conservative movement began to gain substantive power with Reagan’s election in 1980. The 80s were a fucking mess for liberals and progressives, yo. And somewhere in there (everyone argues about precisely where) the backlash propaganda more or less succeeded in turning feminism back into a dirty word again — and not a dirty word in the good way.
Here’s what feminism is: The belief that people, generally, have equivalent worth regardless of sex; the belief that society should be structured (laws, customs, norms, rights, etc.) to reflect and protect this equality; and the commitment to work that will bring about this equality.
That’s it, that’s all.
Now of course, there are all different kinds of feminists. Some examples include eco-feminism, which as you might guess has a focus on environmental issues; Marxist feminism, which comes at feminist issues from a class analysis perspective and does a lot of economic theory; constructionist feminists, who are mostly into theory like postmodernist feminists, and who believe that most (not all) differences between men and women are socially constructed/learned behavior; and essentialist feminists, who take the opposite tack from constructionists and argue that there must be fundamental, innate biological differences that account for the differences in male and female behavior.
And there are more, but today I just want to stick with what most feminists believe, no matter which sub-group they might align with because it best represents their high-priority issues.
What feminism is fighting against, basically, is the hierarchy of value in culture that privileges men and male concerns over women and female concerns. This hierarchy is a core feminist concept. You can think of it like a ladder of issues, with those on the bottom valued the least and increasing value attached to ever-higher rungs. Feminists argue that we live in a patriarchy, and that our male-dominated social structure is responsible for creating and maintaining this hierarchy of value in which, for example, a career outside the home has much more value attached to it than motherhood and housekeeping, which are both so de-valued by the patriarchy that they are generally the lowest paid work or wholly unpaid work. Feminists oppose this structure vehemently. Feminists have written countless books tracing out how “women’s work” has been systemically de-valued by male-dominated social structures, and why & how feminism seeks to change that. Anyone who tells you that feminists don’t place a high value on motherhood is either ignorant and/or dishonest.
The commitment to feminism is a commitment to social equality — which, I should point out, does not mean sameness. Feminists do not think everyone is or should be “the same”; that’s just as much a right-wing talking point as the man-hating thing. Both are utter bullshit. Feminists think folks should be treated equally, which is a very different thing to say. Consider: 2 + 2 = 4 and 3 + 1 = 4. These equations are different, but equal. That’s the concept. Everything is not the same, but that doesn’t mean it automatically has to turn into a hierarchy, with one thing always worth more than another thing. A lot of feminist values are organized along a more horizontal line, with the choice to have a career not being generally valued any more or less than the choice to not have a career. The feminist value is not about which choice gets made, it’s about the idea that having the choice is good; having a choice that you can make free of as many outside influences as possible is better than not having a choice, or having a heavily coerced choice. If you are manipulated by unfair outside forces into choosing between a rock and a hard place, then you don’t have much of a choice.
The extent to which choices are coerced is another key concept for modern feminist work. Just because something is legal or illegal doesn’t mean that there isn’t intense social pressure that is sexist in nature and is aimed at keeping women down. As an example, consider that we had no women doctors for quite some time in early America because women were categorically refused admission to medical school. It wasn’t illegal (I don’t think it was, anyway), it was “just the way it was”. But feminists fought that, and even though the first woman to be admitted was only let in as a joke, she was nonetheless enormously successful and women started to become doctors despite significant widespread pressure to make different choices. Over a hundred years after the first woman graduated from med school, there was still a pervasive and mistaken belief in society that women weren’t capable of being doctors. I still remember an episode of All In The Family where the Meathead, a liberal feminist man, was pretty freaked out about the idea of a woman performing surgery on him, which had a profound effect on me as a small child. Women have been mercilessly harassed at med school, in attempts to gain licensure, and on the job, and all of this stuff had a measurable effect on the career choices women and girls were making. Choices are not made in a vacuum, and feminists understand that, so feminists fight against not only oppressive laws, but also oppressive “traditions” and social norms in the hopes that someday sex will not be relevant to career choices.
Many people seem to have the misperception that feminism shouldn’t exist anymore because now things are equal. This unfortunately does not only come out of the mouths of young women who don’t know what their immediate world would have looked like before the last generation of feminists changed things so drastically. There’s a whole anti-feminist movement that spreads horseshit about how equality has already been achieved at the same time as it bashes feminists for fighting for equality. It’s typical rightwing hypocritical nonsense, but they are very good at cultural messaging, so this is a problem for the modern feminist movement because people are buying it. As we can all see, women’s rights are under heavy fire these days, and we need more help than we’re getting from people of all sexes.
But feminism is not just about legal rights because, as I mentioned, sexism runs much deeper than the law. Discrimination on the basis of sex is now illegal, yes, but just as no serious non-racist person would argue that there’s not still a massive problem with racism in America, no serious non-sexist person would argue that there’s not still a massive problem with sexism. An excellent case can be made (and has been made by many feminists, among them bell hooks) that the two problems are inextricably intertwined. And that they are as well intertwined with the problems of classism and homophobia.
Think again about the ladder of value. It applies not only to issues, but also to bodies. Some bodies are highly valued within the culture while others are trapped at the bottom of the ladder by virtue of their skin color, social class, sexual orientation, genitalia, or any combination thereof. (To this concept, you can also add in other body-markers, like disability status, or identity-markers, like religious belief, all of which also matter w/r/t value to varying degrees in different social contexts.) Rich straight white Christian(esque) men are on the top rung, and the rest of us…are not. Those at the top understand very well how precarious their position is, so they need for the rest of us to remain in conflict with one another, because otherwise we could upset their control overnight, given how many of the “rest of us” there are. Those with power thus manufacture and encourage conflict about identities among those with lesser power, which serves to reinforce the status quo on several different levels: for example, at the practical level it is a major time suck and people who are bickering amongst themselves (and also working 2 jobs and supporting 4 kids along with their aging sick parents etc.) have no time to plan peaceful revolutions; and at a more meta-level, this bickering amongst ourselves only serves to reinforce the concept of “difference=conflict”, which prevents cooperation before it even starts.
As a feminist, I have a deep respect for all manners of identity differences. I understand that people have a compelling need to define themselves in myriad ways, and I personally find a great deal of beauty, joy, and strength in this diversity. But I’m also working to build bridges between identity groups; I’m working to expose our common interests and create liberal political coalitions in which, together, we are far more powerful than the institutions that try to keep us powerless by setting us against one another.
Much of the work that modern (and postmodern) feminism is doing is largely about broadening women’s choices, whether that’s about laws or about social conventions — without oppressing another group, of course, so again, there’s no man-hating. Feminism is not done at the expense of men’s rights. It’s done at the expense of male privilege, which is that thing that men only have at the expense of women’s equality. So feminism is not unfair, no matter how many anti-feminists whine and cry about how unfair equality is.
Feminism at its core is an extremely simple idea: equivalence of worth regardless of sex. Such is theory. But it is true that in practice it rapidly becomes ridiculously complicated. Such is politics. The devil is always in the details. And there are endless feminist arguments about the details, just as you can tune in here to the Booman Tribune every day and see the endless liberal arguments about the details.
That’s probably enough for us to start having a conversation, yes? Does this idea of feminism jibe with what you thought, or not? Is there anything new here? Anything that stands out as particularly good or ill-conceived? Tell me what y’all think.
Or, you know, just throw a pie and drop a shot of absinthe. Whatever. ;p