A proposed definition of “feminism”

I teach at a state university deep in the interior of the USA.  The other day I was grading some papers students had written about ancient Greek culture.  One student focused on women’s clothing in ancient Sparta.  She included a paragraph starting with the famous phrase “I’m not a feminist, but…”  In her case, she’s not a feminist, but she believes that it is an unacceptable infringement of the equality of persons for the law to require women to cover their breasts in situations where men are allowed to go shirtless.   That puzzled me.  If a principled insistence that women must have a legal right to bear their breasts in public doesn’t make you a feminist, what do you have to do to earn that title? According to the eminent philosopher Lady Gaga, only someone who despises men can be a feminist.  That would disqualify most of the feminists I know, including many people who have spent decades on the radical fringe of the women’s movement, and several who have made a living as professional advocates of what they call “feminism.”

I haven’t brought this up in class, since I’m not quite sure where a discussion of the word “feminism” might lead.  Also because we’re behind schedule, and I want to catch up.  Eventually I will bring the question up, though.  To clarify my own thinking, I’ve been trying to craft a definition that will describe what I mean when I say “feminism.”  What I have on this so far breaks into two parts:

1, The belief that women have a right to play a wider variety of social roles than they play at present.  2, The habit of placing a higher value on this right than on the traditions that tend to restrict it.

I see seven advantages to this proposed definition.  First, the expression “wider variety of social roles” accommodates, on the one hand, liberal feminists who want to praise both women who choose to play traditional roles and those who move into what have been male-dominated areas, and on the other hand radical liberationists who want to stamp out the traditional roles on the grounds that they tend to crowd out the nontraditional ones.  By the same token, it leaves room both for feminists who claim that pornography and other forms of sex work can be a way of empowering women, and for those who argue that the sex industry and its products are just so many attacks on women.  In each debate, both sides agree that women should have a wider variety of options than they do now, but disagree about whether a particular sort of role opens more possibilities than it closes off.

Second, the vagueness of the term “social role,” which may seem like a weakness of the proposed definition, is in fact one of its strengths.  Consider the question, are right-wing female politicians feminists?  If they seek offices that have been strongly gendered as male, then to a certain extent they are feminists, no matter what they may say.  So, US Representative Michele Bachmann claims to view the proper role of a wife as submission to her husband.  Yet at this moment, Representative Bachmann is running for the presidency, an office in which she will not only be barred from taking direction from her husband, but which no woman has ever held, and which makes its holder, as commander-in-chief of the US military, a symbol of one of the most masculinized institutions in society.  Of course, it is possible to exaggerate the extent to which right-wing women are feminists in spite of themselves when they run for high office.  One thinks of Margaret Thatcher appointing a cabinet in which she was the only woman.  The ambiguity of “social role” captures the paradox.  Some might say that the relevant social role is “politician”; as this role has been open to women for some time, it was not an act of feminism for Representative Bachmann or Lady Thatcher to seek advancement within a political career.  Others will say that the role of “politician” is one thing, the role “head of national government” quite another.  So that any woman seeking to add that role to the repertoire of female possibilities is perforce a feminist, whatever she may call herself.

Third, “at present” makes it clear that the qualifications for the label shift over time.  To return to the example of Representative Bachmann, she is one of 72 women currently serving in the US House of Representatives.  While that leaves the House more than 80% male, it is a sign that service in Congress is not viewed as the sole prerogative of men.  So one could not say that the simple act of running for the House made Representative Bachmann a feminist.  The 41 women who served between 1917 and 1951, however, could be so labeled, especially the 23 who were elected to seats that had not previously been held by their husbands or fathers.  Among them were a number of women who were fiercely conservative in many ways, but even in the act of avowing their support for the old ways they were in fact increasing the opportunities women had to participate in politics.

The fourth advantage stems from the phrase “than they play at present.”  Notice, the idea is not that women should be free to play roles they are not now free to play, but that they should be free to play roles that they do not in fact play.  This avoids the dead-end of feeling obligated to make a legalistic argument proving a history of sex discrimination every time we express joy that women are starting to enter a previously all-male domain.

The fifth advantage is the converse of this.  Saying that feminism involves the ” belief that women have a right to play a wider variety of social roles than they play at present,” we do not imagine feminists as people who shame women into playing particular roles.  So, if all the sewage workers in town are men, one need not go around insisting to each woman one meets that it is her duty to take a job in that area in order to meet this definition of “feminist.”  I see that as an advantage in a definition of “feminism” since I’ve never met a feminist who insisted on such a thing.

Sixth, the word “habit” at the beginning of the second clause of the definition opens the door to assertions like those I’ve been making about right-wing women, that one can be a feminist without knowing it or intending it.  Beliefs and the labels attached to those beliefs tend to be associated with each other so closely that it is hazardous to say that a particular label “really” applies to a person who rejects it.  So  someone who resists the label “feminist” might well resent being told that s/he holds beliefs which merit the label.  However, we all have habits that we aren’t aware of.  So it might be fair to expect that if we present a reasonable person with evidence that s/he has a habit which we call “feminism,” that person will at least see why we want to say that s/he is a feminist.  Not that such a person would necessarily be unreasonable if s/he continued to reject the label, but s/he might be less likely to be insulted by our presumption in applying it to him or her.

Seventh, saying that feminism involves “habit of placing a higher value on this right than on the traditions that tend to restrict it” is another way of opening the label to people who differ in other ways.  Some people whom we would call feminist refuse to find value in any tradition that restricts the variety of social roles women are free to play.  Others place very high values on many such traditions, but not usually so high a value that they would be comfortable with their restrictive aspects.  For example, there are many people who grew up as Roman Catholics and who wear the feminist label proudly.   Some of these look at such policies of that church as its refusal to ordain women to the priesthood and break away from it altogether.  Others continue to participate, not necessarily because they like those policies but because they find other elements in the tradition that in their view make it worthwhile to stick around.  Emphasizing, as this clause of the definition does, that feminism is about placing a higher value on the right of women to play a wider variety of roles than they do at present than on traditions that restrict that right allows people on both sides of this dispute to continue calling themselves “feminist.”

The proposed definition is more or less a top-of-the-head exercise.  So I’m not committed to it.  If someone could suggest another definition that preserves all seven of its strengths, I’d be excited to hear about it.

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