Tag Archives: feminism

On the Definition of Feminism

Woman_suffrage_headquarters_ClevelandRecently a friend posed the following question on her  Facebook page: “What is your definition of ‘feminism’?”

I read several of the responses listed in her comments section and then added my own reply, which is my personal interpretation of the definition found in Webster’s Dictionary: “To me, it (feminism) means that women should have the same education and career opportunities as men. Period.”

While most of the respondents wrote similar definitions to mine, I must admit that I was a bit surprised that some women still find themselves hesitant to identify with the term, feminism, due to perceived negative connotations that continue to accompany a word that strives to promote gender equality.

In order to more thoroughly understand why feminism carries such a vast array of definitions, we must first look at the history of feminism as a doctrine and examine its political impact throughout history. Feminism, by its very definition, requires action. Those who work to create a society that protects gender equality must look at the current state of a government’s policies and address the fairness of any laws and practices that result from such guidelines.  Additionally, throughout history the politics surrounding gender equality have been closely related to religion in that many traditional patriarchal religious beliefs often dictated the distribution of power between the sexes. Thus, when women suffragists in the United States confronted the political status quo, not only were they criticized for disrupting the country’s existing customs and beliefs, but they were also viewed as challenging church doctrine. Keeping this in mind, as well as the fact that even among the suffragists there was often great dissension over the direction in which the movement should proceed, it is no wonder that modern feminism also carries mixed feelings when discussed.

The introduction of the birth control pill in the early 1960’s brought about a new wave of feminism, closely linking the movement to reproductive rights and sexuality as women more openly discussed the notion that the ability to plan for pregnancy (and the newfound freedom to plan against pregnancy) provided them the same opportunities for employment and economic advancement as men. And, as the Supreme Court delivered its opinion in the historic Roe v. Wade case, abortion rights also got added to the mix when discussing reproductive rights.

Suddenly feminism became a fight of “us against them”.

However, in my opinion, feminism is not a case of, “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” Instead, feminism is simply the notion that women, as human beings, deserve the right to pursue whatever interests they desire. They should be allowed to follow their dreams, whatever those dreams may be. Just like not all men will study to be lawyers or doctors, not all women aspire to the traditionally female roles of wives or mothers or teachers or nurses. We should support one another no matter what our individual personal goals might be. Working mother, stay-at-home mom, corporate CEO, English teacher, politician, single, married, gay – these differences are not things to argue over. They are experiences that we can share with each other in an effort to educate one another on the variety of lifestyle choices that create a healthy, industrious, and enlightened civilization. All of us, male and female, possess various individual talents that enable us to contribute to society as a whole. Without the opportunity to study or work toward our goals we become unproductive citizens, unable to add value to the world around us.

And that, to me, would be a waste of humanity.

Just as the term, “love”, can be used in a variety of contexts, so, too can the term, “feminism”. And it is important to remember that we all reserve the right to use either term in the manner which we choose. All too often, in an attempt to maintain their own identity when discussing a term that has become a label, women apologize for their belief in gender equality.

It’s time we stop apologizing for our belief that women deserve the same rights as men.

On “Writer’s Block”

Manymother and daughter days I sit and stare at my blank computer page while dozens of ideas flow through my head. They start at one side of my brain, squiggle their way into the area just behind my forehead – where I spend a few minutes contemplating them – and then quickly race off as the next set of ideas chases them away, demanding that I move my focus from the old, fleeting thoughts to the newer, stronger, prettier ones. And, of course you know what happens, right? Yup. I wind up with nothing on the page.

Today I found myself sitting in front of my laptop, contemplating all kinds of topics such as what cultural triggers caused my mother and grandmother to marry at young ages, even though they preferred to pursue their own educational or professional interests, or the various ever-present issues surrounding the treatment of girls in sports. I even spent a few minutes basking in the joy of observing my daughter share an article on her Twitter feed about the continued economic importance of women’s access to birth control.

And I wondered to myself, “What, if anything, does any of this have to do with celebrating women? How do I write about any of these topics and bring about some sort of resolution?”

While admittedly these topics are quite broad and individually provide enough fodder for blog posts of their own, I think for today I will just keep them together and address the importance of the fact that not a day passes that I don’t think about things that affect women in some way or another. And neither should you.

For example, think, for just a second, about your mom. Did you ever take time to find out what motivates her to pursue the interests that she does? What are her greatest achievements? Does she have any regrets? Why did she make the decisions she did that led her to her present stage in life? Were her decisions based on cultural ideals that dictated “proper” behavior at that time? Or were they based on goals and dreams she – and perhaps those whom she admired and respected – designed for herself? If you, like me, have spent energy researching and contemplating these things, then good for you! You, too, are celebrating women on a regular basis simply by harboring a genuine interest in the lives of the women important to you.

If, however, you don’t know the answers to any of these questions, then consider yourself challenged. Go, now, and ask your mom (or your grandmother, or your sister, or your wife, or your next-door neighbor) the following questions: What motivated you to (marry/not marry, earn a degree, seek out a specific profession, have/not have children, etc.)? How did you feel you fit in with the cultural norms of your youth? Or, did you not fit in? How do you feel about your decision now? What was your greatest achievement and why? What are your hopes and dreams for girls and women of the future?

Take time to learn about the women around you.

After all, knowledge is power, and once all of us learn to appreciate the importance of allowing our girls to pursue their hopes and dreams in the same manner we allow our boys to do so, our economies strengthen, our world grows safer, and our lives become more enriched.

On Learning About Feminism

Antioch College, in Yellow  Springs, OH, was the first college in the country to admit both non-whites and women with equal status to white men (Wikipedia)

Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, OH, was the first college in the country to admit both non-whites and women with equal status to white men (Wikipedia)

In January of 1985 I embarked on my second semester of my freshman year in college. As I scheduled my classes for the upcoming spring, I determined that this semester would be different from the last semester: I resolved to earn an ‘A’ in at least one class this go-around.

Since I tested out of English Comp 101, the university allowed me to enroll directly into Comp 102, which suited me just fine because I fancied myself a budding writer looking for the tools I needed to pursue my personal goal of writing the next Great American Novel, and to do so I needed to get the boring preliminary classes out of the way as quickly as possible.  Time was of the essence here, you know.

Imagine my surprise and displeasure when my PhD candidate-grad assistant-professor informed me after grading my first essay that I would not, under any circumstances, make an ‘A’ in her class.

I withdrew from her office, holding my butchered-with-red-ink, ‘C’ graded, pathetic composition at arm’s length from my body as I trudged back to my dorm, ready to cry and change my major to the much less subjective field of Computer Science (the major my dad recommended I study in the first place. Hooray for STEM-minded dads!).

Through some miraculous feat of determination (and the lack of anything better to do during the hour-and-a-half allotted to my schedule for Comp 102), I managed to continue attending her class and scraped out a ‘B+’ for my final semester grade. And, in the process, this remarkable professor taught me two things that stayed with me for the rest of my life: avoid using ‘to be’ verbs as much as possible in my writing, and – despite my personal upbringing where my family placed my brother and me on equal footing with regard to education and career choices – women continue to struggle to achieve the respect they need for their professional and personal success.

My professor focused her PhD thesis on pop culture and its effects on women in social situations. She theorized that there was a direct correlation between the prolific distribution of porn and the increase in date-rape crimes on college campuses. I participated in a focus group she hosted (for extra credit, of course – how else do you think I managed to obtain the highest grade possible in her class?) that discussed the use of pornographic images in music videos, magazine ads, and movies and how these images turned women into one-dimensional sex objects instead of living, breathing human beings capable of making their own decisions – especially in regard to what happens to their bodies. In short, due to the portrayal of men as dominant over women, pop culture reiterated the idea that boys reserved the right to treat girls as possessions instead of equal human beings capable of making their own decisions about their sexuality, career pursuits, family planning, and so on.

My participation in this focus group awakened me to the idea that not everyone looked at women as intellectually equal to men. Two years later, as I sat in my business classes populated by a disproportionate amount of male to female students, I further recognized the prevalence of sexist attitudes in Corporate America when a male professor pointed out that, at the time, only a minority of Fortune 500 companies boasted female executives (God bless him for even discussing the topic in class.) My burgeoning feminist beliefs reached full maturation when, as an assistant manager with Wal-Mart in 1989, I learned that my district manager took it upon himself (as in, without my permission) to inform the Home Office that no, I would not be interested in entering their newly designed buyer trainee program, despite the fact that they had called to personally invite me to join the program. After a brief deliberation, I decided that I would, indeed, like to relocate to the Home Office in Bentonville, AR. Unfortunately, my district manager’s assertion that I stay put caused the director of the program to withdraw his earlier invitation – a fact I didn’t learn about until two months later. Which is when I began the search for a new job.

Among some groups (most specifically, of course, intimidated men), the term “feminism” carries negative connotations. “Men haters”, “bra burners”, “radicals”, “feminazis” are just a few of the many derogatory terms used to describe those of us who believe that gender should have no bearing on a person’s ability to earn a living or pursue his or her educational interests. At times, even I have shuddered at the label, “feminism”.  And then I read the actual definition of the term:

Feminism: “The doctrine which declares that social, political, and economic rights for women be the same as those for men.” – Webster’s Dictionary

This definition does not state that feminism advocates for women to become men (or stop being feminine), nor does it declare that women are superior to men. It simply states that women – as human beings – deserve the opportunity to enjoy the same rights as men. Period. And that is a doctrine that both men and women can subscribe to with a very clear conscience. Equal educational and economic opportunities for myself and my daughters. For my friends and their daughters. For women both at home and abroad. Because, how can we expect to overcome poverty, hunger, and war if only half of the population is educated and/or employed?

How about you? When did you first identify with feminism? Did you ever experience discrimination and, if so, how did you handle the situation? Were you ever encouraged to not pursue an interest or job opportunity due to your gender? If so, tell me about it in the comments section below – I love to hear your stories!