Feminism Is for Everybody | Excerpt
from Chapter 1, Feminist Politics: Where We Stand
Simply put feminism is a movement to end sexism. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than ten years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.
As all advocates of feminist politics know most people do not understand sexism or if they do they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media. The feminism they hear about the most is portrayed by women who are primarily committed to gender equality ó equal pay for equal work and sometimes women and men sharing household chores and parenting; they see that these women are usually white and materially privileged. They know from mass media that womenís liberation focuses on the freedom to have abortions, to be lesbians, to challenge rape and domestic violence. Among these issues masses of people agree with the idea of gender equity in the work place ó equal pay for equal work.
Since our society continues to be primarily a "Christian" culture masses of people continue to believe that god has ordained that women be subordinate to men in the domestic household. Even though masses of women have entered the work forces, even though many families are headed by women who are the sole breadwinners, the vision of domestic life which continues to dominate the nationís imagination is one in which the logic of male domination is intact, whether men are present in the home or not. The wrong minded vision of feminist movement which implied it was anti-male carried with it the wrong minded assumption that all female space would necessarily be an environment where patriarchy and sexist thinking would be absent. Many women, even those involved in feminist politics, chose to believe this as well.
There was indeed a great deal of anti-male sentiment among early feminist activists who were responding to male domination with anger. It was that anger at injustice that was the impetus for creating a womenís liberation movement. Early on most feminist activists (a majority of whom were white) had their consciousness raised about the nature of male domination when they were working in anti-classist and anti-racist settings with men who were telling the world about the importance of freedom while subordinating the women in their ranks. Whether it was white women working on behalf of socialism, black women working on behalf of civil rights and black liberation, or native American Indian women working for indigenous rights. It was clear that men wanted to lead and they wanted women to follow. Participating in these radical freedom struggles awakened the spirit of rebellion and resistance in progressive females and led them towards contemporary womenís liberation.
As contemporary feminism progressed, as women realized that males were not the only group in our society who supported sexist thinking and behavior that females could be sexist as well, anti-male sentiment no longer dominated the movements consciousness. The focus shifted to an all effort to create gender justice. But women could not band together to further feminism without confronting our sexist thinking. Sisterhood could not be powerful as long as women were competitively at war with one another. Utopian visions of sisterhood based solely on the awareness of the reality that all women were in some way victimized by male domination were disrupted by discussions of class and race. Discussions of class differences occurred early on in contemporary feminism, preceding discussions of race. Diana Press published revolutionary insights about class divisions between women as early as the mid-seventies in their collection of essays Class and Feminism. These discussions did not trivialize the feminist insistence that "sisterhood is powerful," they simply emphasized that we could only become sisters in struggle by confronting the ways womenóthrough sex, class, and raceódominated and exploited other women, and creating a political platform that would address these differences.
Even though individual black women were active in contemporary feminist movement from its inception they were not the individuals who became the "stars" of the movement, who attracted the attention of mass media. Often individual black women active in feminist movement were revolutionary feminists (like many white lesbians). They were already at odds with reformist feminists who resolutely wanted to project a vision of the movement as being solely about women gaining equality with men in the existing system. Even before race became a talked about issue in feminist circles it was clear to black women (and to their revolutionary allies in struggle) that they were never going to have equality within the existing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
From its earliest inception feminist movement was polarized. Reformist thinkers chose to emphasize gender equality. Revolutionary thinkers did not want simply to alter the existing system so that women would have more rights, we wanted to transform that system, to bring an end to patriarchy and sexism. Since patriarchal mass media was not interested in the more revolutionary vision it never received attention in mainstream press. The vision of "womenís liberation" which captured and still holds the public imagination was the one representing women as wanting what men had. And this was the vision that was easier to realize. Changes in our nationís economy, economic depression, the loss of jobs etc. made the climate ripe for our nationís citizens to accept the notion of gender equality in the work force.
Given the reality of racism, it made sense that white men were more willing to consider women rightís when the granting of those rights could serve the interests of maintaining white supremacy. We can never forget that white women begin to assert their need for freedom after civil rights, just at the point when racial discrimination was ending and black people, especially black males, might have attained equality in the work force with white men. Reformist feminist thinking focusing primarily on equality with men in the work force overshadowed the original radical foundations of contemporary feminism which called for reform as well as overall restructuring of society so that our nation would be fundamentally anti-sexist.
Most women, especially white women, ceased to even consider revolutionary feminist visions, once they began to gain economic power within the existing social structure. Ironically revolutionary feminist thinking was most accepted and embraced in academic circles. In those circles the production of revolutionary feminist theory progressed but that theory was not made available to the public. It became and remains a privileged discourse available to those among us who are highly literate, well educated, and usually materially privileged. Works like Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center which offer a liberatory vision of feminist transformation never receive mainstream attention. Masses of people have not heard of this book. They have not rejected its message, they do not know what the message is.
While it was in the interest of mainstream white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to suppress visional feminist thinking which was not anti-male or concerned with getting women the right to be like men, reformist feminists were also eager to silence these forces. Reformist feminism became their route to class mobility. They could break free of male domination in the work force and be more self-determining in their lifestyles. While sexism did not end, they could maximize their freedom within the existing system. And they could count on there being a lower class of exploited subordinated women to do the dirty work they were refusing to do. By accepting and indeed colluding with the subordination of working class and poor women, they not only ally themselves with the existing patriarchy and its commitant sexism, they give themselves the right to lead a double life one where they are the equals of men in the workforce and at home when they want to be. If they chose lesbianism they have the privilege of being equals with men in the work force while using class power to create domestic lifestyles where they could choose to have little or no contact with men.
Lifestyle feminism ushered in the notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women. Suddenly the politics was slowly removed from feminism. And the assumption prevailed that no matter a womanís politics be she conservative or liberal she too fit feminism into her existing lifestyle. Obviously this way of thinking has made feminism more acceptable because its underlying assumption is that women can be feminists without fundamentally challenging and changing themselves or the culture. For example lets take the issue of abortion. If feminism is a movement to end sexist oppressionn and depriving females of reproductive rights is a form of sexist oppression, then one cannot be anti-choice and be feminist. A woman can insist she would never choose to have an abortion while affirming her support of the right of women to choose and still be an advocate of feminist politics. She cannot be anti-abortion and an advocate of feminism. Concurrently there can be no such thing as "power feminism" if the vision of power evoked is power gained through the exploitation and oppression of others.
Feminist politics is losing momentum because feminist movement has lost clear definitions. We have those definitions. Let's reclaim them. Letís share them. Letís start over. Letís have T-shirts and bumper stickers and postcards and hip-hop music, television and radio commercials, ads everywhere and billboards, and all manner of printed material that tells the world about feminism. We can share the simple yet powerful message that feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression. Letís start there. Let the movement begin again.Return to Feminism Is for Everybody