By Merle Hoffman, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine
All my life there was a kind of disconnect between my internal and external realities. "Funny," people would say, "you don't look Jewish. Funny, you don't look like a concert pianist. Funny—you don't look like a feminist." But I was all of those things and more. And equally today, as we struggle to define a new standard of feminism, appearance, age, dress, and labels are merely detours, diversions. Thought and action are the fault lines that matter.
Is Barack Obama a feminist, as a Ms Magazine cover that famously pictured him wearing a t-shirt with the words "This is what a Feminist looks like" claimed? No; witness his tepid response to the killing of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller and his caving on support of abortion rights, by, for example, denying abortion coverage in the Health Care Bill provisions for women with pre-existing conditions.
Is Sarah Palin, with her gun and fellow right wing, anti-abortion "mama grizzlies" in tow, a feminist? No. She lays claim to feminism's history while manipulating its values.
And everybody seems to be asking whether Lady Gaga, wildly gyrating on stage and making appearances in a meat costume, is a feminist. As philosopher Nancy Bauer put it, "Gaga really believes that she's a feminist and that her way of bespeaking and displaying herself is supposed to manifest a kind of power."
Any discussion of whether Lady Gaga is a feminist is a distraction: representing sexual power is not power. Representation is not reality.
It is obvious we can no longer operate on previous models used to identify feminists. Obama, Palin, and Lady Gaga, purposely or not, have been able to coopt the word, divorce it from its original context. They have all taken advantage of the fact that we have entered the world of cafeteria feminism, with people picking and choosing among the set of attributes the word feminism classically embodied. As a result, feminism has been denuded to mean anything anyone wants it to mean, which means that it has come to mean almost nothing.
The Feminist Litmus Test
So what is a feminist?
The litmus test has always been quite simple: Gloria Steinem said that, "A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men." At its root feminism calls for the understanding, validation, and acceptance of women as human, having within them what has historically and scientifically been seen as the thing that separates us from the rest of the animals: our ability to reason. Reason is defined as the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences.
The fundamental right to reproductive freedom and justice stems from that: the recognition of the fundamental humanity of women in any society, exercised in their ability to reason and choose. The ultimate choice, of course, involves bodily integrity. By ceding this power to the state or church women lose their humanity to the hypothetical humanity of either the fetus or to the "collective good" as those in power define it. "Not the Church, not the State — women must decide our fate,"was one of the old battle cries of the pro-choice movement. I always come back to the point that reproductive freedom is the front line and bottom line of women's humanity—in other words, their feminism.
Any woman who does not support reproductive freedom, including abortion rights, cannot be a feminist. Period.
The "big tent" of feminism is not about gender. It is not about age. It is about the vision of social justice that feminism represents. Today, as has always been true, there are many women who do not look like feminists (or what someone thinks a feminist looks like) but who do embody feminist values.
I picture all the women and young girls fighting for justice in whatever way they are able, in their college classrooms and in their workplaces; at their computers and iPads or out in the world. I embrace them. But I will always challenge their thinking, because they are not what they wear, who they fuck or what they buy. They are what they think, and what they do about what they think. In the words of Barbara Strickland, "What I am proud of, what seems so simply clear, is that feminism is a way to fight for justice, always in short supply."
Merle Hoffman is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of On The Issues Magazine. She is the Founder, President and CEO of CHOICES Women's Medical Center.