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: â€œIn essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.â€ 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.