“Me, A Feminist? No Way!”: Herein lies the problem.

“Me, A Feminist? No Way!”: Herein lies the problem.

When I broach discussion of feminist texts with my Rhetoric and Composition students (many of whom are freshmen), I like to ask who in the class considers themselves a feminist.  Semester after semester, the question garners the same response: nary a hand is raised, and this is not just due to shyness in front of peers.  It is due, sadly, to a combination of factors: lack of a clear understanding of the term feminism; negative stereotypes cultivated by radical individuals or splinter groups that have come to be unduly associated with the entire movement; and a complacent sense that full and total equality between the sexes has already been achieved.

Here is a pure and simple definition of feminism from OED: advocacy of the rights of women based on the theory of equality of the sexes.

Based on this definition, all those living in America, the land of the free–that is all women and all men who value the women in their lives (mother, sister, spouse, aunt, cousin, niece, friend, coworker, mentor, etc.)–should be okay with not just admitting to, but also proudly professing to have feminist ideals.  (After all gents, it was men such as John Stuart Mill in the 19th c. who facilitated the growth of modern feminism.) You do not need to be marching picket lines to be entitled to personal acknowledgment of an –ist or an –ism.  How many people claim to believe in, for example, Catholicism, yet rarely enter a church though they may be daily mindful of the tenets of their faith? Enough said. At this point, I would settle for more cafeteria feminists if the only other alternative is no feminists or, worse yet, anti-feminists.

Furthermore, anyone who read newspaper critiques of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin last year should be able to attest to the fact that the world still needs feminists.  Even in a liberal paper like the New York Times, Maureen Dowd attacked Hillary for not striking an appropriate balance between masculine and feminine qualities.  And, as for Sarah, well, there are so many examples to choose from, though an op-ed (also in NYT) that reduced her to a cheerleader still stands out in my memory. The brutal dissection of Sarah’s appearance, behavior, and positions on women’s issues by the media and general public surpassed any criticism received by Hillary.

If the current climate of feminism were condensed into a play, it might aptly borrow its title from Thomas Middleton’s 1621 drama, Women Beware Women.  Women are harsh judges of themselves and even harsher judges of one another.  As I continue to revisit the (still-swelling) comment threads for Judith Warner’s “Ban the Breast Pump” post (which I wrote about yesterday), I am struck by the divisiveness of the responses.  And yet I am heartened by the intermittent calls for acceptance of difference that draw on originary, old school, and unifying feminist tenets.

Am I a  feminist? Yes, absolutely.  Am I a better mother than someone else because I breastfed my daughter, never gave her formula, and used a breast pump? Nope.  But I am a better human being because I profess, practice, and promote a positive brand of feminism that draws on self-respect and respect of others, education, and compassion.

Are you a feminist?

6 Responses to ““Me, A Feminist? No Way!”: Herein lies the problem.”
  1. Erika says:

    The term “feminist” has garnered such a divisive connotation that it’s hard for me to raise my hand in assent. (Picture a sort of half-hearted arm waffling up and down in response to a question posed in class where I don’t totally know the answer.)

    My problem is with the word “equality.” Men and women are not the same. My husband was not given breasts to nourish our children, and I don’t have the strength to attach the tiller to the lawn tractor to plow the garden. He’s not as patient and nurturing as I am; I’m not as decisive and analytical as he is. However, in every way–physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually–we complement each other. We make each other better. We fill in each other’s gaps.

    I realize that I am blessed to have a husband like him. I realize that many people don’t have this.

    Are we of equal value–yes. Are we of equal “magnitude”–no. But our differences should be celebrated and recognized as the puzzle that they are to fit together, not sanded down so the edges are the same.

    In many ways, I feel that the feminist movement has gone too far. Many of its leaders attempt to undermine and belittle the very qualities that make women so powerful and glorious. I wish more of the feminists in the media adopted the attitude in this post–respect for all women whether they breast or bottle feed, work outside or inside the home, etc. Instead, women like Linda Hirshman are out writing books about how women should be forced to work outside the home because the feminist vision is failing.

    Look at our first lady. I felt a real wave of warmth for her when she had the courage to say that she was going to spend her time in Washington ensuring that her daughters and family were taken care of, in tact, and the same people upon leaving the White House as they were entering it. Many feminist critics have expressed disgust at her for “wasting” her education and putting her career on hold for her family, instead of recognizing her power as a wife and mother to make this world better by starting with her family unit. Michelle Obama understands that women can have it all, they just can’t necessarily have it all at the same time. And her career “sacrifices” and time off will certainly pay off. Her career will always be there. Her children won’t. Society will always need lawyers. Her daughters won’t always need her. But instead of the media talking about how she’s using her education and experience to empower her daughters and young women at home and abroad, they talk about her clothing.

    I prefer to call myself a “humanist.” I believe that every person–male, female, black, white, born, and unborn–deserve an equal opportunity to live the life the best life that God intended for them.

  2. Stephen Tillman says:

    Upon one of Professor Nicole’s recent class discussions, I came to realize that I was more of a feminist than I thought. It never occured to me that I was indeed advocating the rights of women by simply avoiding the types of behaviors that bring about the abatement of female dignity. I always assumed that the essence of any -isms consisted of extroverted parading, joining with extremist groups, and things of that nature; the implicit components of feminism are often overlooked.

    When I consider how women’s rights may be defended in terms of inactivity, it brings to mind the concept of civil disobedience which was projected by Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the like. While I’ve always regarded myself as a respectable guy (yes, guy) who would never violate a woman’s rights, my inactivity (hence “civil disobedience”) lacked a purpose-driven charge. In other words, I refrained from sexist offenses, not because I understood and valued women’s rights, but because I was aware of it’s deviltry and feared being scolded. I doubt my parents would consider themselves feminists, and though they merely intended to shield their children from iniquity, by discouraging misogynist attitudes in passing, they’ve equipped me to discern the value of feminism. Many other individuals aren’t as fortunate to have parents as such, which leads me to believe that a lack of morals and/or the discipline to learn promotes the slant on feminism. I realized this as I guffawed at a dry eraser board at the manufacturing plant where I work. In scrawling black marker it read, “the downfall of a men is woman.” Needless to say, the plant where I work employs many individuals who either cannot advance due to language barriers, or those who’ve dropped out of school.

    I definately agree with Erika that differences should be valued, and that women should be respected by both sexes regardless of their circumstances, and I was tempted to disagree with her statement concerning unequal magnitudes of men and women, but I fumbled trying to develop a plausible argument. It seems that we all want to believe that men and women are equal in all aspects; mentally as well as physically, but society has established a concept of hierarchy that has deadened us to the concept of equality.


  3. Paige Gibbs says:

    After Professor Stodard’s class where she asked the feminist question, I was shocked. Not only was I more of a feminist than I thought, like Tillman, but everyone else was too. Everyone in the class thought the same was I did about the matter, and it made me realize what a good point that Professor Stodard had made.

    To add on to her theory, I agree that “the feminist” persona has escaped from the minds of people of today. A lot of people consider a feminist as a harsh, radical woman who believe men are being unfair to them, when thats not what it means at all. That’s what I thought at least, and after seeing the actual definition that the Professor showed us, that changed my opinion dramatically.

    I agree in what most of what Erika posted about equality. Men and women can never be equal in certain areas, such as physical and emotional strengths. There are going to be things that males can’t do, but females can, vice versa. That is the naturalism we also discussed in class, and Erika brings tht up.

    However, I think that men and women are equal in value. A life is a precious thing, and if either a man or woman died in the same way, you would feel the same amount of empathy for them. Men and women have equal value of life, therefore needed to be treated the same.

    I think more professors should take what my professor did to their classes, and see if they get the same reaction as she got. It will not only be an interesting experiment, but it will also open up students eyes in the world of feminisim, and show them it is not the negative image they were imposed to think. I am a feminist, and most people are…they just don’t know it yet.

  4. Stephen Tillman says:

    I’ve uploaded a photo of that dry eraser board that I was talking about: http://i44.tinypic.com/2i6e6c8.jpg

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