“In essentials, unity…” answering a 16 year-old’s question about what feminism really is

I get a lot of emails, both from my own students and from blog readers, that sound like this one which came in yesterday from “Annabella”:

I’m 16, and I’ve called myself a feminist since the 6th grade. But lately I feel as though I’ve been identifying with a movement that I don’t actually share views with. people say that all that being a feminist means is that you believe in women’s equality, but people (online, as that’s the only contact with feminists I have) act like it truly requires much more than that. The other day I saw a link for a letter which said, among other things, that prisons were so corrupted that we should abolish them all together, and that strengthening anti-domestic violence laws was selfish or something because of how it would affect the black community. I understand that there is racism, but abolishing prisons seems to me to be insane. What would we replace it with? People also act like getting married is anti-feminist, and that it disrespects gay people. They say that heterosexual couples should not get married until gay people should get married. I really do wish gay people could get married, but why can’t I exercise that right if I wish? Not getting married won’t change anything. People also say disparaging things about religious people, specifically Christians. Some of the blogs are painful to read, as a Catholic. I understand the church has made a lot of mistakes, and that it is very sexist, but is that my fault, and does it make me stupid that I’m not an atheist? I don’t think it does.

I try to remind myself of all the sexism in our society, but every time I do I come across someone saying something like “make-up is a demonstration of patriarchy’s pyramid of oppression and it’s wrong for women to wear it.” And I think that’s just their brand of feminism, but I can’t help but be reminded of the conservative’s claim that feminism has gone too far. It seems like a good point to me. What do you think?

Am I a feminist?

Yes, Annabella, you are a feminist. And do let me recommend the marvelous Feminism 101 blog for more help.

Two things are important to remember. First, there is no agency that credentials feminists. No one — not a blogger, not a professor, not a politician — has the final say on who is and isn’t a feminist. Second, there are certain things that unite all feminists, chiefly a commitment to the struggle to bring about enduring equality between men and women. To be a feminist, you need to be committed to equality — but within the feminist movement, there have always been and will continue to be disagreements about what equality ought to entail.

For example, I belong to the “liberal” (rather than radical) feminist tradition. In the liberal tradition, we are particularly concerned with issues of personal choice, and with expanding access to choices. For many liberals, choice is a very high good; in other words, to some of us in the feminist camp, we care more about your freedom to choose than what it is you are choosing. For example, Annabella, taking a husband’s last name. Liberal feminists may take a dim view of a woman taking her husband’s last name following a heterosexual marriage, but they still believe it is a choice a feminist could make. Liberal feminists would be concerned with ensuring that the choice to take the name was made based on desire rather than duress. Not every action need be subjected to an incapacitating level of analysis!

As for the issue of make-up, radicals do tend to see the focus on beauty as inherently oppressive. Other feminists are less sure. The position that many liberal feminists take is that beauty and fashion are more complex than our radical friends imagine; what can be oppressive can also be redemptive. Many of us feel that wanting to be attractive and wanting to look good are normal human wants, and that the feminist approach to fashion should be to broaden the spectrum of what is considered beautiful rather than seeing the pursuit of beauty as invariably anti-feminist.

These arguments rage in the blogosphere over things like make-up, or waxing, or the burqa, and even over heterosexual intercourse. The same divide shows up each time. One camp (usually the radical camp) says that the thing itself (make-up, vagina-over-penis sex, waxing) is inherently oppressive. The other side generally says, “Gosh, that’s not always true: what a woman does usually matters less than why she’s doing it, and how it makes her feel.” When it gets nasty, the radicals accuse the liberals of bourgeois navel gazing, and we liberals accuse the radicals of a crude essentialism that ignores the freedom of the individual. And so it goes on and on.

The debate over violence and prisons reflects the same thing. Many radical women-of-color note that we live in a racist system in which black and brown men are much more likely to end up in prison — and for longer sentences — than white men. As a result, a focus on increasing penalties for rape and other sex crimes will disproportionately impact the poor and marginalized. Radicals sometimes see what they term “middle class white women” as narrowly focused on personal protection from rape and assault, and insufficiently concerned with the larger social forces that make victims of many people, not just women. Liberal feminists often agree that the system is racist, but refuse to jeopardize women’s safety by undermining the imperfect but indispensable criminal justice system.

And again, the same thing happens around religion. Many in both the liberal and radical feminist communities (and by the way, there are many feminists who would reject both adjectives as too limiting for themselves) are indeed atheists. Some do argue that traditional Western religion (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) is inherently patriarchal; that the foundation texts (Torah, Quran, New Testament) are so steeped in misogyny as to be irredeemable; that these faiths always demand women suffer and sacrifice for the good of men. Others — Jewish, Muslim, Christian feminists chief among them — argue that it is indeed possible to fuse a deep faith in God with a deep and radical belief in the equality of men and women. I’ve written a lot on that topic myself, and count myself a feminist of faith. “There is no male or female in Christ Jesus”, the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians. From a feminist Christian perspective, the idea that God wanted certain roles to be held only by men is as outdated a reading of the Scriptures as the defense of slavery it also contains.

And you know what? Almost always, everyone involved in these arguments about God, marriage, waxing, fucking, last names and make-up is a feminist.

But is everyone who calls himself or herself a feminist really a feminist? Are there limits to the label? I think there are, and as a liberal feminist, I think the critical point of separation comes at the moment you seek to use the power of the state to deny others a basic freedom. A feminist can be personally opposed to abortion, but someone who lobbies to outlaw abortion and deprive other women of access to the full range of reproductive services is not a feminist. Feminism is rooted, I think, in a reverence for women’s sovereignty over every aspect of their own lives. We live in communities, yes; we live in cultures. Our choices impact others. But most of us come into this world alone, and most of us leave it in the same way, loved (one hopes) by those who came before us and by those we leave behind. And in between, Annabella, we seek to lead our best possible lives, lives of joy and purpose. Our own joys and purposes are difficult enough to discern. With a few exceptions, we do well to honor the choices of others, even when those choices mystify and sadden us. Part of being a liberal rather than a radical feminist is a deep respect for that kind of individualism, that kind of freedom. We want it for our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, ourselves.

In the sixteenth century, during the Protestant Reformation, the Archbishop of Split (in modern day Croatia) came up with a formula that is often misattributed. He said In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” What he meant was that Christians should distinguish between what you needed to believe in order to be Christian and things you didn’t.

Feminism works the same way. The essentials are equality and freedom; the non-essentials are, well, so many things. And sometimes, we could all do with a bit more charity.

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33 thoughts on ““In essentials, unity…” answering a 16 year-old’s question about what feminism really is

  1. Good post. Especially liked this part:

    I think the critical point of separation comes at the moment you seek to use the power of the state to deny others a basic freedom. A feminist can be personally opposed to abortion, but someone who lobbies to outlaw abortion and deprive other women of access to the full range of reproductive services is not a feminist. Feminism is rooted, I think, in a reverence for women’s sovereignty over every aspect of their own lives.”

  2. I was a feminist long before i called myself one. I think its great that someone is actively researching feminism at a young age. I remember at about 15 a boy i knew made a comment “Women have smaller feet so they can stand closer to the stove” and i socked him in the nose impulsively. I wish when i was younger I had learned about feminist issues and could have used my intellect to argue the reasoning of his joke instead of being violent!

  3. Abortion is actually one of the ones I’d feel least like that about. As much as I find it an important issue, I’ve gotten into way too many arguments with people who would otherwise completely fit any reasonable definition of feminism (and whose reasoning for opposing abortion isn’t the caricature many feminists like to paint of “willing to allow random Congressmen to have control over their bodies”).

  4. Great post! I’m bookmarking it.

    I appreciate your logic for determining where the line between feminist and non-/anti- feminist lies. A good distinction.

  5. If she is interested in a primer on the prison abolition issue, I highly recommend reading Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Absolete?” (in quotation marks only because I can’t italicize). It’s a really, really great introduction to the debate, and Davis’ writing is very clear and easy to read.

  6. To be quite honest I’d also like to see an explanation for this universal stance that pro-life necessarily equals anti-feminist. I’d personally call myself pro-choice (for various reasons) but I am unashamed to admit that I used to be pro-life and I can certainly still see where those on that side of the fence are coming from. There are various legitimate reasons for the pro-life viewpoint that don’t involve anti-feminist sentiments.

  7. Of course it is possible to be “pro-life” without being anti-feminist. It is not possible to work towards depriving women of the legal right to choose abortion and still call oneself a feminist. Personal, prayerful opposition? Certainly compatible with feminism. A fervent wish to see a world where abortion is unnecessary? Definitely compatible with feminism. Believe me, I’m there!

    Wanting to pass legislation to put doctors who perform abortions in prison? Either advocating for the arrest of women who abort — or treating them like infants and thus not arresting them, but only their doctors? Not remotely compatible with the feminist tradition.

  8. “Are there limits to the label? I think there are, and as a liberal feminist, I think the critical point of separation comes at the moment you seek to use the power of the state to deny others a basic freedom.”

    So what are do you think about feminists who wish to ban pornography? I know you might dislike some of its forms, but freedom of sexual expression seems pretty essential to me.

    On another note, I’m always confused by feminists who claim feminism “is the radical idea that men and women should be equal”, as if that is a statement which does not require some pretty serious unpacking to mean anything specific.

    I personally disagree that concepts such as patriarchy or rape culture reflect social reality, but I equally agree with many feminist arguments, such as that women and men should not be held back by gender norms. If I raised the first two issues on many feminist blogs I would get shut down as an anti-feminist, but that simply isn’t the case.

    To the 16-year-old who inspired this post, I’d suggest she read George Orwell’s essays on political language and debate, as well as a primer on logic and fallacies before entering into the murky world of gender politics.

  9. I think feminists can disagree about pornography in a way that they can’t about abortion access. Porn may be important, but it is something external to us, something we produce. The violation of human freedom that is done when we ban pornography may be great or it may be small, but we can all agree it pales in comparison to the violation that comes when we exercise control over what a woman can do with her own flesh.

    Banning porn doesn’t mean a woman can’t have sex, for example. Banning abortion means something radically more extreme. I’m anti-porn personally but firmly anti-censorship, but know some feminists who do support legislation to make porn illegal. I think that’s on the feminist spectrum — just as personal private opposition to abortion is on that spectrum. But forcing a woman to have a baby she doesn’t want to have? You’ve gone beyond the pale, wandered off the reservation, gone two tokes over the line, etc.

  10. As a Catholic feminist, I just wanted to say to Annabella — it’s great that you’re starting to ask these questions when you’re still in high school. You’re definitely not alone out there!

    If you’ve never explored liberation or feminist theologies, I would really encourage you to check them out. Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is was transformative for me and is my go-to text for feminist theology. Anything by Jon Sobrino for liberation theologies and explanations of a preferential option for the poor will open up whole new ways of thinking about your faith and justice.

    For me, the root of feminism is a preferential option for those on the margins — the idea that those who suffer from injustice can see truth more clearly and should have their needs and voices prioritized — which comes directly from these theologies. I hope they may be useful to you too. Good luck in your journey. And Hugo, thanks so much for your thought-provoking and encouraging writing, as always.

  11. As a man, I find it increasingly difficult to identify as profeminist because the I feel that feminisim itself has become a sort of subculture instead of a movement. Feminism has become so caught up in arguing about what it is and who is or isn’t feminist that it doesn’t actually DO much of anything anymore; most of the “results” I see, the legistation I cheer for when passed, is backed by people who don’t are more busy doing than identifying.

    I hate getting into arguments every time I identify myself as “Profeminist”, from the sexists that think that it makes me a Quisling, to the liberal feminists who deride me for not co-opting the label of “feminist” fully, and the radicals who think that I’m just looking for brownie points and perhaps trying to get in their pants by flaunting “feminist cred”.

    I don’t want to wear “Profeminist” as a badge. I don’t want to hang out in the subculture blogs. I want to sign petitions, write to politicians, make leaflets and posters, disrupt, shout down and sabotague the efforts of sexists and MRA groups. Maybe participate in some marches, so long as my presence doesn’t look like a co-opting of the movement. But most of the people I see DOING these things aren’t doing it for Feminism with a big F, but because they just believe in equality and progressive vales.

    Has Feminism and feminist become snarl words for both sides? Is it more trouble than it’s worth for a progressive to identify as feminist?

  12. I want to sign petitions, write to politicians, make leaflets and posters, disrupt, shout down and sabotague the efforts of sexists and MRA groups. Maybe participate in some marches, so long as my presence doesn’t look like a co-opting of the movement.

    Then do it! That’s a major part of my feminist practice. Since, as Hugo points out, there’s no organized feminist “pope” each feminist can be a feminist in the way that works best for hir. I work with Planned Parenthood, the Women’s History Museum, and other national groups; I also make sure that my young students learn to see past gender roles (as much as possible, given that I’m just one teacher!), and I take other action in my daily life to work towards feminist goals of liberty, equality, and solidarity.

    Just remember, that “feminism” is not a united, monolithic, organized movement — and it never was. Feminism is many different practices, working in different ways towards some shared goals. Be a feminist the way that works for you!

  13. I always call myself a feminist. I call myself a Democrat too, but don’t always agree with all Democrats, either. It’s like Comrade Svilova said, feminism isn’t monolithic.

  14. “The violation of human freedom that is done when we ban pornography may be great or it may be small, but we can all agree it pales in comparison to the violation that comes when we exercise control over what a woman can do with her own flesh.”

    This is something of a rhetorical trick, though. The basis for every pro-life person I’ve personally encountered having that belief is that a fetus is not her flesh. They give reasonable, not-crazy arguments in favor of this (I’m not saying valid, just not-crazy). To put words in their mouths, they feel that the importance of a woman having the right to control over her own flesh is 9, and the importance of not killing a child is 10, and they believe that a fetus is a child. The same way that I would feel if you told me some woman had killed her 4 month old child because she realized she wouldn’t to be able to support it, that’s how they feel when told some woman “had killed her 4 month old fetus” because she realized she wouldn’t be able to support it. I have a hard time calling them out as irretrievably unfeminist for this.

  15. Oh, I don’t think all pro-lifers who want to throw doctors and post-abortive women in jail are crazy. I just think they can’t claim to be feminists. A child outside the womb is not part of a woman’s flesh; demanding that she not harm the child doesn’t impose the same burden on her as demanding she carry an unwanted fetus to term. I understand the pro-life movement thinks those are analogous, but it doesn’t make it so. And again, feminists can believe a lot of things — but forcing a woman to carry a baby she doesn’t want to carry, and using the power of the state to arrest her physician or her — is simply inconsistent with feminism as it is generally understood. It’s a massive contortion to make it fit.

  16. Blargh…I feel like I’m not expressing myself well. (And so I’ll try again at 7:30 in the morning after about 3 hours’ sleep…always a great recipe for clear writing.) I’m not saying that you were calling them crazy. I’m just saying that the logic I was always given is: (a) a fetus is not part of a woman’s flesh (b) it’s actually a separate human being (c) a woman’s control over her body may be important, but the right of said separate human being to not be killed is more important (d) killing said human being ought to, in fact, be a crime, because it’s killing a human being. And I’m wondering which of those parts you would consider fundamentally opposed to feminism. Part (c) seems most likely, but I have a hard time saying that “You and I are fundamentally different in that you value one person’s life over another person’s freedom” is a good description of “You are *in no way* feminist.” (And the not-crazy statement was just to say “while I disagree with part (a), I find their arguments plausible,” in the same way I find some of my students’ arguments plausible, but wrong.)

  17. Of course it is possible to be “pro-life” without being anti-feminist. It is not possible to work towards depriving women of the legal right to choose abortion and still call oneself a feminist. Personal, prayerful opposition? Certainly compatible with feminism. A fervent wish to see a world where abortion is unnecessary? Definitely compatible with feminism. Believe me, I’m there!

    Hmmm… thanks for the clarification, Hugo. I certainly would agree that it’s not a feminist stance, but I suppose what I’m saying is that there are many justifications that, in my opinion, are not diametrically opposed to feminist goals. Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t you yourself pro-life at one point? And even then, I would feel it ridiculous to call you an anti-feminist.

    Quite honestly, I see abortion as a zero-sum game. Can the fetus be defined as “living” for the purposes of this discussion? I’ve examined the current information to the best of my ability and I’ve determined that no, it reasonably cannot- at least for the first trimester. I use that as an arbitrary line because I feel as though the “real line”, whenever it may be, would be well beyond that. Because we do not know for 100% certainty either way, as a society we have to make a choice. I’ve made mine, and I have no moral problems with early abortion. Now, that doesn’t mean I’d be encouraging the women in my life to use abortion as birth control- but those are my emotions talking.

    I am completely opposed to late-term abortions because I become less sure. And yes, that includes cases of rape and incest. “Compromise” in this issue is unacceptable.

  18. When I was pro-life, I was still in favor of legalized access to abortion. I just wanted to work to change hearts and minds to have what I then called a “preference for life.” I never, ever, ever advocated restrictions on abortion access.

  19. Ah, my mistake. But how have your views changed? Isn’t that what you still advocate?

    I realize that this is likely the place in which I most diverge with the feminist viewpoint. Because I do advocate making late-term abortions illegal. To me, many such operations take place at a time in which the fetus is more developed- sometimes viable- and I cannot in good conscience condone an abortion under those circumstances. If that means that I have to turn in my feminist ID (or my liberal ID, or whatever) then so be it. But those are my views, and they’ve been that way for a long time. To me, a woman’s bodily integrity does not trump the “right to life” that the pro-life movement is always going on about. When should the fetus be granted this “right to life”? That’s the million-dollar question. Again, I’ve always advocated for the end of the first trimester. So I guess I’m not completely pro-choice, but given that the vast majority of abortions do occur early on, I would consider myself more closely allied with the pro-choice camp.

    Obviously, the ideal is a world in which abortions are unnecessary. But even in a virtual utopia, such a goal is unrealistic because there will always be mistakes. So we need to deal with this issue in an imperfect world.

  20. I’ve been staunchly pro-choice almost all my life, save for a few years in the early 2000s when I stumbled into the Mennonite church and became fascinated with the consistent-life ethic. My position then was that abortion was a grievous tragedy that ought nonetheless be permitted.

    Working with teens brought me back to reality. I think the issue of late-term abortions is best left to women and their doctors. No one chooses late-term abortions frivolously; there’s always an excellent reason to do a very difficult and frequently traumatic procedure. Like Dr. Tiller, whose work I supported, I “Trust Women.”

    And again, no one issues feminist ID cards. We get to have a conversation, all of us, about what feminism means. The fact that I teach women’s studies and am a reasonably well-known blogger on feminist issues doesn’t give me any authority to decide who is and who isn’t a feminist. What I am offering is the suggestion that respect for women’s choices is at the very heart of what it means to be a feminist. And that our feminism perhaps does come into question when we start to advocate restricting those choices. But that’s just my view, rooted in the classically liberal feminist weltanschauung.

    We aren’t the Southern Baptist Convention. We aren’t Holy Mother Church. No excommunications or defrockings or shunnings.

  21. Of course. And I completely understand the visceral reaction that many feminists have toward anything pro-life. Hell, maybe I really shouldn’t call myself a feminist, and I mean that sincerely. It’s definitely something I’ll give some thought to- so thanks for that. I don’t think that the women or the doctors involved in late-term abortions are bad people. They are obviously doing what they think is right and/or necessary… but I disagree. And I disagree quite strongly. But in the end it’s as simple as that. Though I do have my limits. Very late abortions (say, 26 weeks) I find morally bankrupt.

    In the end, I take on issues as I see them, without regard to where they may fit on the political spectrum, the feminist spectrum, whatever. Of course, I do find that almost all of my views fit solidly in the liberal camp. This, perhaps not so much.

  22. This letter left me scratching my head. Annabella is put into a tizzy by seeing one letter advocating a very radical action (closing all prisons) under the guise of feminism, somehow manages to see “women must not wear makeup” everywhere, yet cannot find the squintillions of feminist websites, blogs and discussions that actually discuss more specifically feminist, middle-of-the-road issues?

  23. I’ve found that the term “feminist” scares off many people who hold dear the beliefs that you describe as being essentially feminist. This is especially true of men and religious people. While I fully support the agency of self-identification, I can’t help but feel that choosing to shun the term “feminist” is anti-feminist for a number of reasons.

    First is that it perpetuates misunderstandings and stereotypes about feminist thought. By refusing the label for being too radical gives it the appearance of being just that. It reinforces conservative stereotypes of feminism as being militaristic, anti-man, and therefore outside of the mainstream. I can’t help but see parallels to the Civil Rights Movement and the idea of not identifying oneself with the movement because of opposition to the militarism of the Black Panthers. Feminism, like civil rights, is a big tent and it need not be defined by its most radical members. But people who hold feminist views privately while denying the label publicly help to undermine the movement’s legitimacy.

    In addition to marginalizing the values of feminism, I feel that refusing to identify as a feminist robs the movement of progress. Most of these people hold vague but firm belief in the essential values of feminism: equality and freedom. That is to say they are moderates and are turned off by radicalism. But these people who are the closest in ideology to the status quo often represent the adjacent possible in the evolution of a move equitable society. Removing oneself from feminist dialogue and debate makes reconciling feminist ideology with reality more unlikely.

    But one of my biggest grievances is men who refuse to embrace the term “feminist”. Their excuses are as innumerable as they are feckless but their is always an undercurrent of misogyny: that feminism is women’s work, r at least a women’s word. (And note that I do recognize that there are schools of thought that designate feminism as a women’s space and men identify instead as feminist allies, these men are excluded from my ire.) Believing that being called a feminist is emasculating is in direct conflict with ideals of gender equality. In this way, I believe that feminism is exclusionary. Feminism is feminist and misogyny is misogynistic, but refusing to be called feminist is also misogynistic because it reveals these men’s implicit biases against what they perceive feminists to be.

    And that’s why blog posts like yours are important because it makes it easier for people to finally come out as feminists.

  24. As I was developing my feminist perspective in high school, I called myself an “egalitarian” because “feminist” a)was equivalent to “liberal” a.k.a. The Antichrist in my small religious town, and b)seemed like picking sides.

    It was in college when a gender studies professor, like Meg said, defined feminism as “a preferential option for those on the margins”. Then I decided to claim the label. Since then, it’s been interesting to interact with people who are surprised to find out I would call myself a feminist “because you don’t seem to hate men!”

    When they find out that I’m pro-choice and Christian, that I wear makeup and I’m critical of cultural messages about beauty, that I love both baking pies and rhetorical criticism – it knocks down some stereotypes about what it means to be feminist and what feminists are working for, and makes the whole idea of feminism more open and less threatening.

  25. Thanks, Bryce. You articulated so well something I’ve felt for a long time about those who reject “feminist” but claim the views of equality, liberty, etc.

  26. Well, Bryce, you make a good case but in the end you’re advocating coercion. “Call yourself a feminist or you’re a misogynist! That’s clearly not true, as the term “feminist” is not synonymous with women and thus a disdain toward feminism is not the same as a disdain toward women.

  27. But AVT, if one is not in favor of full equality for women, can one really have full respect for women?

  28. One can be in favor of equality for women but simply not identify as feminist. In fact I think that would describe quite a lot of people.

  29. I think one could also have disdain toward feminism and still support equality for women. For example, perceived extremist sentiments in the movement, general narrow-mindedness, heavily biased toward middle-class white Western women, obvious negative attitudes regarding men, need I go on?

  30. So, one could have a disdain for mainstream feminist institutions yet still support equality for women? Sure.

  31. I don’t see why not. Explain to me how that’s impossible. I mean, for one, there aren’t very many mainstream feminist institutions today, because the whole movement has kind of receded into the background (likely due to its aforementioned flaws). In addition, since women have achieved legal equality (in the only places feminists seem to care about, anyway) it’s kind of a relic.

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