What is Feminism?
A feminist definition from an actual feminist.
The funny thing about the f-bomb is that when it comes to those who advocate or those who oppose, one thing continually happens: people usually get it all wrong. Feminism is not an exclusive club, but it’s also not something you should just be flinging about like a used napkin.
Like any -ism, feminism is a practice and a political ideology. It’s a complex system of knowledge created by thinkers, grassroots organizers, political actors and in recent history academic institutions. Unlike other philosophies, however, which have been dominated by men, feminism is a system of thought created by women through feminist movement-building.
Most people who have questions about feminism receive their information third-hand from deeply unreliable resources, whether from the conservative media, corporations or belligerent apologists. This article will provide you with an actual feminist definition of feminism.
The primary definition of feminism by Merriam Webster dictionary is 1) the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Many feminists, including myself, would argue that this definition of feminism is incredibly outdated.
Here’s the problem: this traditional definition of feminism contains no citation from actual feminists. Political theorists like bell hooks, Angela Davis, and the late Audre Lorde who have been fundamental to the discipline reject this definition because it doesn’t address political, economic, social and most importantly racial differences between women and men. Within this definition there is an underlying assumption that women of all groups and men of all groups hold the same positionality, which is simply not true.
The other issue with this definition is the word equality. Equality can simply be understood as giving people the same treatment, usually without regard to their social situation, economic standing, or historical background.
For instance, when thinking about the abolition of slavery and the 14th Amendment, which provided all naturalized citizens “equal protection of the laws”, the Jim Crow Era was quickly implemented by white supremacists and government officials, which created segregation, disenfranchisement and increased rates of violence against the black community. “Equality” in the United States has simply been used as a way to promote moral supremacy and American exceptionalism, not a way to actually uphold democratic processes. Thus, although it may be true that women want fair treatment and the same opportunities, we also want to dismantle the culture of sexism that undermines opportunities for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.
A Feminist’s Definition of Feminism
So here’s a great start: the author and social activist bell hooks, defines feminism as “ a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984). Within this definition she directly addresses an imbalance of power and inherent differences. By calling out oppression and sexist exploitation, bell hooks is calling out inequalities that are riddled throughout our society, that influence our policies, and create negative discourses and violent actions against women. The other reason this definition is so important is because as she says, “It makes it clear that the problem is sexism,” which demonstrates that sexism is a way of thinking not restricted to a particular gender. Although men predominately benefit from the oppression of women, women and femmes can reproduce these ideologies through internalized misogyny.
This definition is more expansive, it’s political and most importantly it’s historical. Feminism is a political struggle, it is both self-reflective and socially transformative. There’s a multitude of rhetoric about feminism, but not enough truthful resources. It’s time for us to dismantle that.