By Karen Offen
March 4, 2011
In her article Feminism Is as Feminism Does, Merle Hoffman invokes the question that many have been asking for decades: What is a feminist and argues that the word feminism itself has been mis-applied by the media. Hoffman insists that upholding the fundamental right to reproductive freedom and justice is the baseline for deciding who is a feminist today.
If one looks at feminism historically, however, that baseline leaves out people whom most of us think of as feminists, including Hubertine Auclert, the French woman suffrage advocate who in 1882 pioneered use of the words fminisme and fministe. By the 1890s these two words had begun to spread throughout the Western world. The issue of reproductive freedom the right to control ones own body was not yet on the agenda, though it quickly arrived in the early 1900s. But it remained controversial. It cannot be considered the benchmark.
In the 1980s I began to puzzle over the same questions of what is a feminist. My response became an article, Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society in 1988, which has been translated into a number of foreign languages — French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese — and included in an abbreviated form in an encyclopedia article.
Looking at feminism across cultures, I noted that, Everyone seems to have different answers, and every answer is infused with a political and emotional charge. The word feminism continues to inspire controversy indeed, even to evoke fear among a sizeable portion of the general public. If words and the concepts they convey can be said to be dangerous, then feminism and feminist must be dangerous words, representing dangerous concepts.
This description remains as fresh as it was in 1988. Figuratively speaking, we continue to reinvent the wheel. Based on a historical comparison over several centuries, my definition of feminism does not pivot around any particular issue, including reproductive freedom or the vote or womens right to employment. Feminists have appealed to many issues.
The core I arrived at after many years of study is this:
Feminism emerges as a concept that can encompass both an ideology and a movement for sociopolitical change based on a critical analysis of male privilege and women’s subordination within any given society. As the starting point.
…feminism posits gender, or the differential social construction of the behavior of the sexes, based on their physiological differences, as the primary category of analysis. By so doing, feminism raises issues concerning personal autonomy or freedom but not without constant reference to basic issues of societal organization, which center, in Western societies, on the long-standing debate over the family and its relationship to the state, and on the historically inequitable distribution of political, social, and economic power between the sexes that underlies this debate. Feminism opposes women’s subordination to men in the family and society, along with mens claims to define what is best for women without consulting them; it thereby offers a frontal challenge to patriarchal thought, social organization, and control mechanisms. It seeks to destroy masculinist hierarchy but not sexual dualism.
Feminism makes claims for a rebalancing between women and men of the social, economic, and political power within a given society, on behalf of both sexes in the name of their common humanity, but with respect for their differences. The challenge is fundamentally a humanistic one, raising basic issues concerning individual freedom and responsibility as well as the collective responsibility of individuals to others in society and modes of dealing with others. Even so, feminism has been, and remains today, a political challenge to male authority and hierarchy in the most profoundly transformational sense.
I categorized as feminists any persons whose ideas and actions meet three criteria: (1) they recognize the validity of women’s own interpretations of their lived experience and needs and acknowledge the values women claim publicly as their own (as distinct from an aesthetic ideal of womanhood invented by men) in assessing their status in society relative to men; (2) they exhibit consciousness of, discomfort at, or even anger over, institutionalized injustice (or inequity) toward women as a group by men as a group, and (3) they advocate the elimination of that injustice by challenging, through efforts to alter prevailing ideas and/or social institutions and practices, the coercive power, force, or authority that upholds male prerogatives .
Some of the specific claims that have been made by feminists in European history have been for: educational opportunity, changes in laws governing marriage, control of property and one’s own person, valuation of women’s unpaid labor, opportunities for economic self-reliance, and ending the maligning of women in print. They also extend to demands for admission to professions, adjustment of inequitable sexual mores, ending prostitution and sexual exploitation, control over women’s health, birthing, and childrearing practices, state financial aid to mothers, and representation in political and religious organizations. I wrote: Such claims can all be seen as culturally specific subsets of a broader challenge to male pretensions to monopolize societal authority, that is, to patriarchy.
We need to de-block memory. The knowledge of feminisms history is a precious legacy to younger generations, especially those who resist the label feminist until they encounter obstacles that block their paths to self-realization. Why didnt I learn about that in school they ask. This question is one we should all be asking, and insisting on answers.