What’s a Feminist? Do We Need a Definition?

Cross-posted with permission from patriarchalDISORDER

Since I created the Google Map "Mapping the Femisphere," I’ve had requests to get on the Map (by invitation only and I welcome requests) from people I don’t know.  So, I’ve inquired about their work as a feminist or other, especially after clicking on their website, blog or Facebook page and seeing nothing about feminism or even particularly about the status of women.  In one case, the requestor never answered.  In another, the requestor expressed a desire "to help women" but realized that she hadn’t done much… yet.

I started thinking about the definition of a feminist, or a womanist, or an activist working to help women.  It’s pretty clear what being an "activist" is.  Isn’t it?  Although being feminist doesn’t equal being womanist (I’m not the best explainer of the differences and urge you to visit writings by Alice Walker, who defined the distinction), I think there’s lots of overlap.  What being a feminist and/or a radical feminist is has defined my quest to create meaning as a woman living in patriarchy for about the past 30 years, so I have formulated some "identifiers" in that category.  But I also have questions for other feminists and womanists.

Does "identifying" as feminist make you a feminist?  If you were asked to explain your feminist philosophy or to state what still needs to be done in the world regarding the status of women either in your home country or globally, would you be able to answer?  Is joining the Facebook group "This Is What a Feminist Looks Like" a form of activism as a feminist?  Do you blog about feminist/womanist issues or the human rights of women?  How do you do sisterhood?  Do you do sisterhood at all?  And what is sisterhood to you?  Do you promote women?  Do you help women?  Do you mentor any women?  Do you give money to existing organizations that fight for women’s rights all around the world?  When a misogynist statement is made around your family’s holiday table or in a group with whom you socialize, or at a party, do you call it out?  Do you organize at your workplace for parental leave, childcare, a schedule allowing you to parent as well as have a career?

Or are you merely content to say "I want equal rights for women" and leave it there?  Who in the United States will say "I’m not in favor of equal rights for women" these days?  (Actually, I recently posted on Facebook and Twitter about a religious movement telling women God wants them to submit to their husband’s authority, but I think it made the New York Times because these days it’s the exception that proves the rule).  "Equal rights for women" is a cliche, in my opinion, and reveals that the speaker hasn’t examined what being feminist requires.  It reminds me of a dating service I joined especially for people who loved classical music.  The questionnaire was paper and pen (uh huh, ancient), and one day I got a thick manila envelope of the handwritten answers of every guy who had seen my profile and wanted to meet me.  One man listed his favorite composer as "Montovani" and that was the only one he listed.  Montovani is to classical music what muzak is to the Beatles.  That answer told me he knew nothing about classical music!

Am I being an elitist bitch by thinking there should be a "standard" for calling oneself feminist?  The last thing I want to do is turn women off to feminism!  In fact, I’m working on a theory that will appeal to women who are very much in sync with feminism but don’t identify with it because of its bad rap as a bunch of angry, man-hating lesbians

I’m asking this question earnestly.  What makes a woman or man feminist other than thinking women should be "equal?"  Because I don’t think this statement communicates anything and, moreover, communicates some kind of identical-ness or aping of men, patriarchal values and structures which many feminists want to tear down and re-vision.  No, women don’t want to be the same as men because that’s not an improvement on humanity.  What does "being equal" mean, then?  Do you mean equal pay for equal work?  Do you mean that there should be an absolute 50/50 split in doing the domestic drudgery?  Do you mean that until Congress has 50% women that women are not equal to men?  Do you mean that when 50% of corporations are headed up by women we’ll be equal?  When half of the Fortune 500 list is women we’ll be equal?  When women in countries like Afghanistan and many other countries as violent against and repressive to women have full human rights? 

Yes, I do think feminism has become individualized into meaninglessness, but hey, maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe a movement in the 21st century is a million points of light (did Reagan make up this phrase or just popularize it?), shining individual lights on the plight of women.  I don’t think there’s any opportunity for leverage in that approach, but I know feminists who think the kind of in-the-street, collective action of the 60’s and 70’s isn’t necessary anymore.

So, tell me:  does feminism need a definition of feminist?

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  • I received the below comment on my blog PatriachalDISORDER; although these ideas aren’t new to me, it’s a succinct articulation of the threat feminists pose to the status quo. I’m debating whether or not to reply, although at the moment I’m so focused on research relevant to systems of dominance that this kind of arguing seems like a waste of time. If you want to know more about “mediamancer,” a link to his Blogger profile is at my blog. I have to say that his closing observation, “the feminist is a law unto herself” is worth appropriating as a mantra for feminists. Thanks, mediamancer!

    mediamancer said…
    Mere “equality” doesn’t define it well enough — after all, the patriarchal authors of the Bible and the Constitution also promoted the equal dignity of persons. Feminism is really about power. That is, total control over one’s body and one’s children, and the ability to destroy anyone who opposes female will, and the ability to force society at large to pay for female privileges. A true feminist, a “powered women,” will want society at large to pay for her birth control, her abortions, her health care, and her education, and would not only force corporations to keep inefficient, distracted women on staff, but would also force them to hire on-site doctors to tend to the special demands of feministic women. A true feminist will also loudly proclaim all men to be borderline psychopaths and supporters of a “rapist culture,” because this depresses men and makes them easier to control, thus increasing female power. And a true feminist will ignore research that shows that children thrive best in father-led families, because in her mind, the phrase “best interests of the child” means whatever she chooses to do — neither God nor man have any moral claim on her, for the feminist is a law unto herself.