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Feminism for the rest of us

by Ope Bukola on March 29, 2010

Last weekend, I attended a panel discussion at the Brooklyn museum moderated by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. The panel, featuring Kates Shulman, Farai Chideya, and Marisa Meltzer, was billed as a discussion of feminism’s future and called “Redstockings, Riot Grrls, and Right Now: Three Generation of Feminism in Conversation.”

Don’t know Riot Grrl? Redstockings? Well, neither did I. Feminist history wasn’t covered in my high school curriculum and I didn’t take women’s studies classes in college.  What I took away from the panel was that, while its values are still relevant, the feminist “movement” needs to go a long way to be accessible to American women today.

The Feminist PR Problem

In spite of how much women have gained since the 1960s, feminism as a movement remains divisive. Admittedly, a lot of mainstream ideas about the movement are rooted in misinformation.  Bra-burning demonstrations, which most scholars agree never happened, have yet to leave the popular imagination. The basic ideals of the movement – equal rights and legal protection for women – tend to get lost amidst all the backlash against “radical, man-hating” feminists.”

Not all criticism of feminism can be choked up to negative media portrayals however. If the panel conversation was any indication, some of the (dis)credit can be blamed on the movement’s relationship with its past. The conversation too often veered into the esoteric: how Ms. magazine or Sassy changed lives, distinguishing characteristics between second, third, and fourth wave feminism, etc.  In the panelists’ defense, both Farai Chideya and Marisa Meltzer offered practical solutions for listening to and engaging young people who don’t necessarily speak the language of feminism. And Jennifer Baumgardner pointed out that many young women are “living feminist lives whether or not they’re using the language to describe it.”

Still, to keep up with American young women, the movement needs to move beyond certain revered institutions (e.g., Ms.Magazine) or sainted causes (e.g., Reproductive Rights).  I support and appreciate the role that both have played in our progress. But I also think the “feminist movement” needs to broaden its messages to stay relevant to an increasingly diverse population.

The Ones Being Left Behind

If they had to describe a typical feminist, I think most people would say obnoxious, elitist, and probably white.  Historically, women of color have struggled to find a place within feminism. (Womanism evolved partly in response to the perceived lack of black women’s voices in feminism).  Third wave feminism, supposedly more socio-economically and culturally diverse, is not the dominant image of the movement.   This is problematic for a movement that wants to thrive in an increasingly  diverse country.

Likewise, socially conservative women represent another potential missed opportunity. Religious/Spiritual affiliation among American youth remains robust and the feminist movement needs a better sell to social conservatives.  Can you wear a hijab and be feminist? Be pro-life and feminist? I’d say the answer is yes in both cases but feminists aren’t at the forefront of showing how the movement’s values (e.g., dignity, equality, right to privacy, etc.) can operate in a religious and/or conservative context.  We are quick to defend those who tweet their abortions but mum on how to make an argument for the sanctity of life that still respects a woman’s right to choose.

Why Feminism Still Matters

In spite of its bad rap, feminism is more relevant than ever.   My introduction to feminism came a few years ago when my then 16 year old sister asked for a copy of Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.   Levy’s exploration of women’s self-objectification has only become more magnified withFacebook, YouTube and other media that allow us to broadcast our lives widely.  A greater openness and embrace of sexuality has freed women and girls. It’s also led to a culture where the fun picture a girl takes on her friend and posts on her facebook profile becomes fodder for predators on porn sites.  Last week, I read a story on the US Pole Dancing Competition. I could see the value of pole dancing as a sport that takes as much dexterity as many others BUT I it’s harder for me to reconcile its value as a “sport” when  the athletes (all incidentally women) are wearing 8 inch death heels and next to no clothing. We still need to have some critical conversations on the balance between liberation and self-exploitation. If the feminist movement can free itself from some of the strongholds of the past, it could be well-placed to start and lead the conversations.

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  • Whitney

    I think its so incredibly important for women of color to be active in mainstream feminist conversations. So many of us haven't traditionally identified bc there's this tendency on the part of white feminists to pick one issue and buoy it up to be THE feminist problem, like women in the workplace (70s) or abortion today. Often, women of color either dont have the same issues or ours are more nuanced and not necessarily helped by mainstream efforts. But, I think its ultimately up to the person to make a place for her/himself within the conversation and bring the issues to the forefront. I love books like “Feminism is for Everybody” by Bell Hooks and “Women Race and Class” by Angela Davis to introduce people to the relevant issues of women of color BUT both of those books are dated! We (women of color, or specifically Black and Latina women) are definitely in need of a movement of our own!

  • oob205

    I agree that we need a new movement. I think it's harder to start the
    conversation today though since it would require getting a handle on what
    the “big issues” are and to make sure those issues are broadly relevant to
    women of color. I also think we need to take some of the aggression out of
    it. Black men and women, in particular, already seem to have so much tension
    that a feminist movement that appears pro-black women at the detriment of
    black men would do us no good.

  • moonjelly

    “in the beginning was the Word, and word was Consciousness. Feminist consciousness–understanding that women can and should be WHOLE HUMAN BEINGS, not measured in relationship to male supremacy–is, was, and always will be the soul of feminism.”

    This quote comes straight out of the Manifesta. My exposure to feminist studies comes by way of French “new wave” feminism–the writers/philosophers/literary theorists that emerged post Simone de Beauvoir. though these women (Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray) were highly divided amongst themselves, and to group them together like this has its problems, it's important for me to share..or at least gesture toward the locus of “their” concern with feminism, which was less with specific socio-historical issues, but with the very Language that we use to describe them itself.

    Irigaray did a lot of fieldwork in Italy studying conversations between women and men. She noticed that women (and girls) were loathe to put themselves in the first person subject (often substituting I for we, he, they, etc.) while men had no problem positing themselves as subjects.
    Though her work makes more sense when we're talking about the French language specifically, she wanted to highlight through her studies that Language itself is not neutral, but already sexed. In the beginning there was the Word, fine, but…whose Word??
    So she began advocating for a “feminine language”–a concept that's pretty hard to wrap one's head around, since we can only speak and think using linguistic signs and systems that have been in place for thousands of years. Still, while her ideas might sound esoteric (and to some people) irrelevant, I think her larger message is incredibly profound: that woman has yet to develop her full pychic potentialities and become a “FULL HUMAN BEING,” a phrase the writers of Manifesta seem comfortable enough to use, because the language she is born into is not Hers. Her language lay elsewhere, and perhaps the “full humanness” of womanhood is not a logocentric humanness at all–the way man's certainly is.

    Freud coined the term “black continent” to speak of woman's inscrutability in the context of developments being made in 20th century psychoanalysis. Ironic that this image of the black continent (an allusion to the vagina, since Freud was so enamored with the idea of morphology-as-destiny) was also used time and time again through literature to describe Africa.

    Irigaray was bold; she challenged many of Freud's ideas regarding female sexuality and basically mocked him. In This Sex Which is Not One (written in the 80s I think) she transfigures woman's morphology to describe her incredibly “labile” thought processes and creative energies. According to Irigaray, woman should not HAVE to be made to confirm to the logic of a discourse that has been always historically masculine. She should not have to conform to the uniformity of grids. She is Other. The problem with this thinking, as many were quick to point out, and probably why there are such incongruities with the thinking of American feminists (stereotypically more pragmatic,invested in praxis rather than theory) is that if Language is already man's Language, and woman has not yet developed a language of her own (not that we can say she ever will) how can women speak at all NOW?

    I think Irigaray would say that, of course women can speak. And they do. Just like men, if they wish. Women can adopt language and be more skilled at it that any man. But what she misses by investing her whole being in language (in other words, consenting to be just as logocentric as man) is all that woman has not yet had the opportunity to offer civilization. In other words, if we're simply arguing over issues that remain on the level of sociality (historically dominated by men, and therefore, of course problematic for us) we're always missing out on something else too. This marks an aporia, or irreconcilable paradox.

    Sorry, I didn't mean to belabor my message–not even sure if I was able to get it across. But i think it's important for all women, particularly those that call themselves feminists, to be versed, or at least exposed to aspects of culturally diverse feminism(s).

  • aprjoy

    Just came over from your post on Racialicious. This line particularly struck me:

    “We are quick to defend those who tweet their abortions but mum on how to make an argument for the sanctity of life that still respects a woman’s right to choose.”

    I would say this, along with the marginalization of women of color, is why as a black, Christian women, I will NEVER identify as a feminist!

  • Tiara the Merch Girl

    “I could see the value of pole dancing as a sport that takes as much dexterity as many others BUT I it’s harder for me to reconcile its value as a “sport” when the athletes (all incidentally women) are wearing 8 inch death heels and next to no clothing.”

    Skin gives you better grip on the pole, and heels give you height. And there are male poledancers, they just don't tend to get as much media attention.

    But really, In a post about “feminism for the rest of us”, is there really any reason to add slut-shaming in there? So what if they wear heels and dress skimpily; does that mean they deserve less respect?

  • Opé B.


    I don't think I implied or suggested slut-shaming anywhere in that
    statement. Nowhere do I write that pole dancing or expressing sexuality
    through pole dancing is wrong (because I don't think it is). I'll be clear
    on what I mean by questioning its value as a “sport” in the competition's
    context. I've seen pole dancing classes, etc. in many a fitness facilities
    but skimpy clothes and heels didn't seem like a requirement. I would argue
    that the “uniform” in this case is there to please the partriarchy/men than
    for their usefulness as a sport. And your point on male pole dancers is
    taken but they weren't in this particular competition. The slut shaming of
    women who express their sexuality in a way that society disapproves of is a
    problem. But that's not what that line is doing in the post

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