Friday, December 16, 2011

As Ms. turns 40, women still can't agree on a definition for FEMINISM

"A central problem within feminist discourse has been our inability to either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or accept definition(s) that could serve as points of unification."  
-- bell hooks "Feminist Theory from Margin to Center"

Forty years ago this month, Ms. Magazine began as an insert in  New York magazine. The publication's cofounders Gloria Steinem and Letty Pogrebin appeared on NBC's Today show.

As a feminist and a journalist, of course I'm interested in the story of how this magazine got its start and has endured through the years.  And, of course, I respect the hard work and tenacity of these feminist pioneers.

But what I found even more interesting about this piece are the opening perspectives on the definition of feminism. Watch now, and come back for my analysis:

It was true then, and it's true now.  Mainstream feminism is a movement existing without a true definition. Much too often we hear "What feminism means to me" statements like the ones in the "Today" video.  These views contain verbiage that sound meaningful, and sometimes contain elements of truth, but they don't identify an underlying cause of discrimination and oppression.

Most importantly, without a baseline definition, there is no basis for unity.

Lack of a baseline definition has lead to a societal and political malaise surrounding feminism, as reflected in statements like these from the video:

"I don't see feminism as a really strong movement today."

"It's not really even totally meaningful to me in the sense that I take for granted the equal rights of women."

In her book, "Feminism is for Everybody:  Passionate Politics," feminist writer bell hooks does what liberal mainstream feminists have failed to do after 40 years, she offers a simple, baseline definition for feminism:

"Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression."

This simple definition works, and is needed, hooks says because it makes it clear that the problem is sexism.

"And that clarity helps us remember that all of us, female and male, have been socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action.  As a consequence, females can be just as sexist as men," hooks says.

This definition does not target men as the enemy, another commonly held belief about feminism.

"To end patriarchy (another way of naming the institutionalized sexism) we need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism until we change our minds and hearts," hooks says.

It seems perfectly simple.  So, let's look at how a few other definitions offered in the "Today" video measure up.

"Feminism, or the word feminist, means to me that you're an independent woman who can take care of yourself."

Well ... First, every woman is not a feminist.  This definition implies that being born female and being a feminist automatically go hand in hand.  They don't.  There were strong independent women who took care of themselves long before the feminist movement, and there are strong, independent woman today who do not identify themselves as feminists, perhaps due in part to misconceptions and lack of a basic definition for the movement.

hooks adds that definitions emphasizing independence are "almost apolitical in tone" and are "the type of definition many liberal women find appealing" because they evoke "a very romantic notion of personal freedom that is more acceptable than a definition that emphasizes radical political action."

"Feminism is demanding equal rights in the workplace or in everyday life."

"(If the) Definition of feminism is men and women have equal rights, then I'm a feminist."

Equality -- specifically women's legal and or social  equality with men -- is a word that is commonly associated or even "equated" with perceptions of feminism.  Yet, hooks, asks the $1 million question in her book "Feminist Theory from Margin to Center": 

"Since men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to?"

Class and race are major factors that are left out of a "simplistic definition" limited to legal and or social equality, hooks says, and adds, "Feminism defined as social equality with men might easily become a movement that would primarily affect the social standing of white women in middle- and upper-class groups while affecting only in a very marginal way, the social status of working-class and poor women."

hooks concludes that "neither a feminism that focuses on a woman as an autonomous human being worthy of personal freedom nor one that focuses on the attainment of equality for opportunity with men can rid society of sexism and male domination."

Therefore, it is only when we commit to feminism as a movement against sexism that we have the opportunity to affect change that benefits both mean and women.

Defined this way, "Feminism is for everybody," hooks says, because it "aims to end domination to free us to be who we are - to live lives where we love justice, where we can live in peace."

Sounds good to me.

BTW:  bell hooks is the pen name of Gloria Jean Watkins.  According to, "Her pseudonym, her great-grandmother's name, celebrates female legacies and is in lower case because, 'it is the substance of my books, not who is writing them, that is important.'"

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