“What is feminism?” – A Feminist’s Perspective

Finally, here is my first installment of some of your answers to the question I asked last week – what is a feminist? I originally wanted to separate answers based on age, but I decided it would be more interesting to talk about feminism from the perspective of people are, without qualm or question, feminists, and then to discuss answers from people who maybe aren’t feminists, or at the very least, aren’t sure.

Before I continue, I want to thank all of you who submitted answers. Everything that was written was thoughtful, intelligent, and honest. I didn’t agree with all of it – in fact, there’s a decent amount that I didn’t agree with – but I’m so glad I got to see the perspectives of so many different people. The large variety of answers had me rethinking my own identity as a feminist and really questioning what I understand as feminism, which is incredibly important, and really gave me an opportunity to solidify, clarify, and maybe modify some of my own beliefs. I hope that writing your responses – and reading those of others – will help you do the same.

After the break: feminists tell us what the hell they mean when they say that they’re feminists!

So: what is feminism?

For a lot of people, this was a relatively simple question: feminism is equality.

In my view, a feminist is any person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

-F, 37, Baltimore

a feminist is someone, man or woman, who believes that women should have the same equality, opportunity, respect and legal protections as men.  A feminist is free to hold any political belief they want, but they do not feel the need to impose that belief on all women.  Feminism is freedom and trust, pure and simple.

I think feminism is believing in equal rights, for every group, not just more power for women (as some people I know think it is).

-F, 15, NSW Australia

“Feminism is:  a core belief that men and women—while not biologically or sociologically the same—should have the same rights and opportunities. It also means that one should question every assumption about how the world is.”

-F, 46, DC

Feminism is the struggle for equality and rights for all women (of all races, ages, sexualities, classes, countries of origins, etc). It is the apparently strange idea that women are actually human beings too.

-F, 22, WA

Not that any people I’d consider “old” actually responded to this survey (no respondents in their nineties – maybe I’ll ask my great aunt next time), but I found it interesting that the oldest and the youngest people who responded as feminists were those who feel that feminism is, plain and simple, equality of opportunity. Of course, there was a young adult or two who responded the same way. This is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of feminism, and I guess my own answer (“gender equality”) ultimately appears to fall in this category.

A bunch of you didn’t just say “feminism is equality” – you were also focused on the idea that feminism means not seeing men and women through a gendered lens.

Feminism is the idea that being a woman does not negate one’s ability to have either a brain or an opinion.  Not that all women necessarily have either – but then neither do men.  Feminism is the idea that, more importantly, a woman’s opinion should not be disregarded because she is a woman (the nitpicker in me would like to qualify that this does not apply to sex-based questions; obviously, my views on the most comfortable jockstrap are not going to be all that useful).

-F, 21, Georgetown

Good call on the jock strap.

According to me, equality.  Not just political equality though.  Being a feminist means you treat others (men AND women) without the influence of gender stereotypes.

-F, 19, Georgetown

I once heard someone say “feminism is the movement to end arbitrary boundaries.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself, but I would like to elaborate on this quote.  Feminists understand gender as a pervasive organizer of everyday life: it shapes our identity; it shapes our interaction with others; it shapes marriage, family, culture, education, religion, the workplace, and all other institutions.  Furthermore, feminists understand that gender organizes our society in such a way that devalues women through arbitrary boundaries.  Religious dogma that says that women must submit to men: arbitrary boundaries.  A culture that constantly tells women to be sexy while simultaneously scolding them for being sexual: arbitrary boundaries.  A society that views women as weak and illogical: arbitrary boundaries.  So if feminism is indeed a movement to end these arbitrary boundary, then I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t identify as a feminist.

-M, 23, University of Mississippi

For me, this a more thorough interpretation of modern feminism. Yes, it’s true that women are still working the second shift at home, and that men are making more money than us in the same jobs. But from where I sit in this Starbucks on Wisconsin Ave., I can’t do much about that. What I can do is try to make my own world a little less obsessively gendered – a world where it’s not “girly” for a man to watch figure skating (in fact, PLEASE watch figure skating) or drink tea or write in a journal, or “manly” when a woman tries to grill or play the bass or drink cheap keg beer while watching soccer. Maybe it’s true that more women like figure skating than men, but the way I practice feminism is to accept that it’s not just a “women’s thing” – it’s an individual preference. I should probably alter my own definition. “Gender equality,” at least to me, doesn’t feel like it necessarily encompasses this nearly enough.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s having some definitional trouble, though – even some people who call themselves “feminists” aren’t really sure what they mean, or have a few definitions that they’re still trying to reconcile:

I’m starting to wonder if feminism doesn’t perhaps enforce the idea of gender dichotomy vs. spectrum…Also, in my definition, feminism (despite having womanly etymology) does not necessarily specify equal rights between two genders.

-F, 19, Rochester, NY

I’m pretty sure being a feminist is about more than just talking about being a feminist…I hear a lot about feminist critiques of media, like criticism of advertisements or analysis of a novel.  I hear about this both referentially (Katie Roiphe wrote about feminist critiques in “The Naked and the Conflicted”) and directly in the feminist media I subscribe to.  Is that what it means to be a feminist?  To debate how sexist Joss Whedon is or isn’t, and to point out examples of oppression in advertising?  I’m not so sure about this.

-M, 21, MD

Why is it so difficult for us to define feminism? There are very few definitions here that are actually similar. How is it that we still can’t figure this out? Perhaps part of the difficulty is that as a group of women and men who identify as feminists, we all identify with different parts of what we perceive as “feminism.” As someone who has barely entered the working world and clearly isn’t married, my life isn’t touched by the second shift or the wage disparity. What affects my life is the advertising in Cosmo, the friends who say that our male friend is whining like a woman, etc. Inherent gender bias comes through pretty clearly to me in these situations, and I don’t like it. Some people, though, are obviously more affected by the more tangible aspects of sexism. And others are still trying to wade through the syntactic mess of what it means to respect women without overanalyzing Dr. Horrible or ignoring the gender spectrum.

So how do we deal with that whole gender spectrum thing?

I would like to see the feminist movement aid the transgender rights movement. I think if the two of them combined forces it would go a long way towards publicizing the idea of a gender spectrum and would make the movement a clear effort towards equal rights for all, rather than a battle of the sexes.

-F, 19, Rochester, NY

As a feminist who sees “gender” as a social construct, the idea of embracing a gender “spectrum” – where you don’t have to be 100% masculine or feminine – sounds really good to me. What’s interesting, here, is that this particular feminist doesn’t really see that as being a part of feminism at present. To her, the majority of feminism is still a “battle of the sexes” – a perception a lot of us are trying very hard to change.

This came up in another feminist’s comments, as well:

I don’t think that men and women are the same, and I don’t think that the experience of being male is the same as the experience of being female.  And I don’t think that that should necessarily change.  The ways in which the experience differs, yes, but not the existence of difference.  I think that women who attempt to overcome sexism by making men and women the same miss the point, which in my opinion should be that men and women are worth the same as human beings.

-F, 21, Georgetown

This feminist almost has the opposite problem with feminism as the feminist in Rochester. For some, we’re not doing enough to breakdown the gender binary. For some, that gender binary is a positive thing, and we should probably leave it be.

Do feminists inherently need to care about other forms of discrimination or oppression?

A few feminists brought this up specifically – that as feminists who are concerned about the societal boundaries that being a biological woman imposes on us, we are also obligated to care about the boundaries that are imposed by society on those who are born poor, or born a skin color other than white, or born disabled, etc. I agree. This came up a lot more for those who weren’t sure if they were feminists – in fact, this was a major argument for a lot of those respondents – and I’d like to spend more time addressing it in that segment.

“I am a woman who expects people to accept my opinions as legitimate ones; therefore, I am a feminist.”

This particular feminist (F, 21, Georgetown) believes that “every woman with an opinion is really a feminist.” This was difficult for me to swallow.  I don’t think that women are inherently feminists just because they think. I don’t think there an inherent contradiction in being pro-life and a feminist (depending upon the reasons that make you pro-life), and the fact that this feminist “[plans] to change my surname when I marry” is totally okay. But I do believe that when who attempt to enforce strict gender binaries – despite possibly being intelligent, thinking individuals – are probably not feminists.

But this really gets into the meat, I think, of what it means to be a feminist. Are women feminists because they have achieved success as women? This feminist seems to think so, and while I disagree, there’s certainly some level of bad-assness in a strong, powerful woman, even if she’s standing on a podium and trying (albeit, accidentally) to keep my healthcare really expensive and completely nonfunctional.

This feminist is unique. Most of the people who shared her views – that strong, powerful women are inherently feminists – weren’t sure if they, themselves, were feminists. But this feminist believes that feminism is about being taken seriously as a woman – and that any woman who expects to be taken seriously, whether she likes it or not, is a feminist.

Feminism as freedom:

I am a feminist. I am a year old single woman who works to support myself. I vote. How could I not be? My mother stayed home to raise three children as the spouse of an Army wife and I absolutely support that decision. Again, how could I not? She had a crucial part in raising me to be a free thinker and a voter who spoke my mind.

-F, 37, MD

I am a feminist.  I am a feminist because I know that women and men should be given equal rights, dignity, and voice.  I know that as a feminist, our choices should be dictated by our own morality and not the imposed morality of anti-choice laws. I am a feminist because I trust women. Because I believe that women should be free to dictate the courses of their lives, just as men are privileged to do.  I am a feminist because I want control of my own life, and I will not allow any authority over my life choices other than my own conscience.

These feminists wrote of something that I think we often forget: that feminism means that you can make the decision to stay home and raise three children. Feminism has given us the opportunity to say “yes!” to working outside the home, but it shouldn’t take away the “no.” As long as someone in a household is working to support the family, it doesn’t matter whether that person is male or female. It means that women are intelligent enough and trustworthy enough to make that decision on their own, and that men don’t get to choose the course of our lives.

Becoming a feminist:

I do consider and call myself a feminist. I came to this conclusion after mostly reading blogs on the topic, but it was also fueled by listening to (mostly male) classmates say extremely sexist things about whatever we were doing in class and thinking ‘how the fuck does anyone think saying that is okay?’ or ‘wow, people seriously still hold those beliefs’. I had always sort of assumed the sexism was in adults, people I didn’t know, but when I realised what people were saying was very misogynistic, I realised that women were definitely not treated equally by society, and young men were still brought up to believe these things.

-F, 15, NSW Australia

I am definitely a feminist. I have been since I was a wee tot. My idea of feminism has changed a lot over the years, though. When I was younger, I just understood the BASICS (Abortions are a woman’s choice! Rape is bad! I can do anything (well…almost anything) that a boy can!) Since I started reading feminist and womanist blogs, I have started to understand that the sexism in movies, songs, and basically all media is important to tackle. I didn’t even SEE the sexism in a lot of movies that I watched in high school. I’m a feminist because I believe that I am frickin’ badass and I deserve to not be treated terribly. I’m a feminist because I care about women who are treated terribly and deserve better. I’m a feminist because I am always working to make the world just and right.

-F, 22, WA

I feel as though my own trajectory as a feminist has followed similar paths. In high school, it was frustrating to listen to classmates, male and female, talk about what things women and men could and couldn’t do. But reading more, being exposed to more, has shown us that sexism actually underlies so much of what we experience. I’m sure most of it isn’t there on purpose – very few people are purposely making movies that only show women as weak and desperate. But we’ve all grown up in a society that thinks a certain way about how women and men are supposed to act, and how women and men are supposed to be treated. By talking about the changes we want to see, and trying to make those changes in our own lives, we are, I think, doing something to help break down these expectations for ourselves and those around us.

    • Eileen
    • June 27th, 2010

    Great post, Mara! (and I think this is a good way to divide up the responses, too) I never really stopped to consider how many people view feminism differently from the way I do…hell, until I left for college, I didn’t even understand what people meant by “gender is a social construct.” I do wonder, though, whether gender can ever be eradicated and, if it were, whether that would be a better experience or a worse one. Thanks (and thanks to your readers) for giving me something to think about :D

    • Melissa
    • June 27th, 2010

    Mara you’re doing such great work on this blog! I love reading your thoughts and those of your other readers. Miss you dear!!!

    • Jane
    • June 29th, 2010

    I really enjoyed reading your post, it was very interesting and thoughtful and nice! :)

    • Angela
    • June 30th, 2010

    Wow Mara! This is the first post of yours that I’ve read and I don’t think it will be the last! This was REALLY interesting and I can absolutely see how it made you examine your views– it certainly made me!

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