A Crash Course In The Meaning Of Feminism

The word “feminism” encompasses a lot of different beliefs, and a lot of different agendas, yet we use it as an umbrella term for both the philosophy pertaining to gender-based (in)quality and for the movement working to attain gender equality.  While this can be helpful, in that there are fundamental similarities which unite the feminist philosophies with the feminist movements, the reality is that there are distinctions.

For example, when people say that feminists hate men, they aren’t talking about feminist scholars, they’re talking about feminist activists, and their comment really only applies to reactionary feminists.  That’s hardly mainstream feminism, but mainstream feminism gets associated with it because it’s more extreme.  This has led to all kinds of misconceptions about feminism, and I think it’s time we had a real conversation about what feminism is.

So let’s start with feminist thinking: there are different schools of it, too many to list here.  Feminist theory generally refers to writings and schools of thought which provide critiques of power hierarchies, often through the lens of gender.  In this sense, feminist theory often relies heavily on a basis of standpoint theory, wherein social phenomena are analyzed from the standpoint of marginalized groups.  For this reason, feminist standpoint theory is one of the most prolific schools of feminist writing.  But feminist scholars have applied these fundamentals to different fields as well-~-for example, there are feminist IR theorists who espouse feminist empiricism and peace feminism and feminist conflict resolution theory, among other things.  Feminist theory accounts for a range of academic sub-disciplines that are still being developed today.

Feminist theory can be intersectional as well, and in recent years feminist academics have moved  in this direction more and more as it has been seen that intersecting and overlapping identity characteristics help to define a person’s lived experiences.  Marxist feminism looks at the intersection between class and gender and the role of capitalist production systems in perpetuating gender inequality.  As another example, the experience of a minority woman subject to racial oppression as well as gender-based oppression will not be the same as a white woman who only experiences the latter.  Critical race feminism is the school of thought which most directly addresses this issue, again often through the methods related to standpoint theory.  The purpose of critical race feminism is to identify the problems caused by overlapping hierarchies that define our social organizational structures.

Everyone with me so far?  I hope so!

Now, when I say I’m a feminist, I don’t necessarily mean that I’m a feminist scholar.  I happen to have done work on intersectionality and oppression, using feminist standpoint theory as my basis, but in general, that’s not what people mean.  When people self-identify as feminists, they are generally speaking identifying with the feminist movement. The feminist movement obviously has its roots in the ideas that were born of original and ongoing feminist academic thought, of course, but there are some clarifications that should be made with regards to the feminist movement

So what does it mean for people to identify as feminists?  Well in general, it means that they-~-that we-~-are working towards general gender-based equality.  The mainstream feminist movement is, generally speaking, pro-choice, pro-birth control, anti-slut shaming, fighting violence against women, in favor of equal pay, in favor of greater opportunities for women in the workplace, etc.  General issues that you’ve probably heard of.

Obviously, there are different schools of thought within feminist activism.  I already mentioned reactionary feminism.  Radical feminism seeks to deconstruct gender roles and restructure the way in which our society recognizes gender.  The branch of feminism with which most feminists is liberal feminism; liberal feminism holds that women, like men, ought be able to make decisions regarding their own lives without the interference of coercive influences, and hold that institutions within society perpetuate gender-based inequality.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Now, within classical/liberal feminism there are two main schools of thought, and in some ways they have manifested themselves into two divergent agendas within the movement.  This isn’t something that is necessarily apparent to people looking at feminist organizations or at rallies like the Unite Against the War On Women rallies last year, but it exists nonetheless.  These two schools are known as egalitarian feminism and difference feminism, and here’s where you need to pay attention: egalitarian feminists  that women ought be treated the same as men under the law  while difference feminists argue that laws should reflect differences between men and women, such as their roles as child-bearers and victims of gender-based violence.

Mainstream feminism displays aspects of each of these.  When we advocate for the Violence Against Women Act, for example, this can be seen as a manifestation of difference feminism: women need extra protection because they are more likely to be victimized.  But when we argue for things like equal pay, our arguments come from egalitarian feminism.

Even individuals who identify as egalitarian or difference feminists may, at times, support things that are generally associated with the other branch.  A difference feminist may well support equal pay and rape shield laws, and an egalitarian feminist may well support VAWA.  And mainstream feminism, generally speaking, embraces all of these goals, in order to widen appeal and to deal with a broader range of gender-based issues.

But it is important to recognize that, while modern feminists are still concerned with laws, we are also concerned with access issues.  We are concerned with how rape victims are treated.  We are concerned with how women are driven out of STEM fields.  We care about promotion practices within corporations and the number of women serving in Congress.  We are concerned with issues that go beyond simply what is legislated.  That’s both difference feminism AND egalitarian feminism, mind you.  That’s mainstream feminism.

It should also be noted that feminism looks different in different parts of the world.  What Arab feminists are working towards may not necessarily mirror what Western feminists desire, but realize that gender exists within the context of a culture as well.  It is not for white women to tell Arab women, or African women, or Asian women, what constitutes fair treatment.  (A little feminist postmodernism for you, I suppose).  In addition, it should be mentioned that there are many pushing for American feminism to become more intersectional, to better address the concerns of transwomen and women of color.  This intersectionality is something that appears far more in feminist theory research than in the actual actions of the feminist movement.  It’s not a reason to give up on feminism, but it is a reason that feminism needs to evolve further.

Discussions of feminism have gotten muddled in recent months and recent years, and it sometimes seems like people are unsure what feminism is, or what the term refers to.  But hopefully this post helped to outline what all these different terms mean, so that when we talk about feminism, we’re all on the same page.


~ by Randi Saunders on January 4, 2013.

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