Monday, October 30, 2006

Musings on the F-word

When I began the application process for this internship, I noticed that the word “feminism,” or any of its derivatives, was nowhere to be found in the mission statement or goals of YWTF. I found this strange, since, to me, it was clearly a feminist organization. Although I was aware that the word was controversial, I thought, surely we must be past this by now! Of course you’re feminists—we’re all feminists here. What’s the problem? And so, I set about drawing my own conclusions as to why the word is such a hot spot within the Movement today.

Ever since my first sociology class, when the word “feminist” was defined as someone who advocated that women have equal social, political, and economic rights to men, I have identified it as such. I never understood other women’s reluctance to adopt the title, assuming that they were worried about being labeled as man-hating lesbians or “feminazis.” To me, this was retroactive; how could we ever fully take possession of the word, and ourselves, if we continued to hesitate based on the reaction of men? My mother, for example, has never considered herself a feminist, while in my eyes, she was the embodiment of the word: a strong, powerful woman who is proud of, and comfortable in, her identity as a mother, a worker, a teacher; a woman who raised two equally strong-willed daughters, often holding down multiple jobs to provide for us; a woman who always made sure her husband would meet her halfway; a woman who quit her job of five years with no back-up plan when she found out that the new guy, who was performing the same job, was getting paid more; a woman who respects herself. All of these things made her a feminist to me, but to her, she was just doing what she felt was right. And my mother is not alone; the more people I asked, the fewer I found that willingly self-identified as “feminists.” At this point, I had to ask myself: should we be using this word if a majority of women reject it?

“Isms” can be tricky things. I find them problematic for a number of reasons. Essentially, the attempt to condense a vast, interlocking, overlapping history of struggles and oppressions, both subtle and blatant, into a single, all-defining word, really downplays the importance, and intricacies, of the issues associated with the word. You know that old Kierkegaard quote, “If you label me, you negate me”? It’s similar to that. “Isms” take any number of intangibles and try to make them concrete, easy to pin down; and while this can be a useful tool for preliminary phases of education, it is in no way conclusive or illuminating. In fact, it implies a sense of separateness from other “isms,” when in fact, feminism is inextricably related to questions of race, class, age, sexual orientation, and a myriad of other factors.

Which brings me to my next point: as Katy talked about in her “Feminism Is Not an Island" blog, the “women’s movement” has a history of neglecting those it purportedly seeks to include. Early suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, thought that their goals were being distorted by those of the abolitionists, and believed that winning the vote for white women took precedence over basic human rights for all women, thus effectively removing the support of black women, who certainly coveted the right to vote, but were otherwise occupied escaping human bondage. The “feminism” of the 1950s and ‘60s, as exemplified by Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, sought to open up the world of work to the masses of American women so long confined within the domestic sphere, a goal which was irrelevant, if not offensive, to many women of color, and to poor white women, for whom work was not an option, but a mandate; some may have dreamed of being able to stay at home with their children, but for these women, it was not an economic reality. When African American women in the Civil Rights movement became disillusioned with their treatment in organizations fighting to end the more obvious manifestations of racism in the Deep South—Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael’s infamous joke, “The position of women in SNCC is prone,” comes to mind—they found a white women’s movement that was, by and large, unwilling to integrate, or to attempt to understand, the intersection of sexism and racism.

Since women who possess the faculties and resources to fight for equality (within the preexisting male-centric political model) have been socio-economically estranged from their sisters, by both internal and external forces, the “feminism” has become fractionalized in the public eye. We have all of these divisions: heterosexuals versus lesbians; career mothers versus stay-at-home moms; women of color versus women of white privilege; high school dropouts versus the academic elite. While these women do have differences that need to be acknowledged, I believe that they are able to coexist under the same umbrella. Their isolation is one of many inevitable negative results of a system that has historically underrepresented the voices of women. Those who perform on the socially accepted stage of activism and political efficacy have been able to do so, for the most part, because they have had the advantageous white, upper-middle class wind at their backs. Women’s fertility increases as economic status decreases; the poorest citizens are less likely to be educated about and utilize contraceptives; and school systems in low-income areas often lack the resources necessary to present students with the means to access further education. It is unfortunate that women with families, especially when single, are forced to divide their time between work that pays the bills and the unpaid work of housekeeping, as caretakers, laundresses, cooks, chauffeurs, and consumers. Because of this divide, childfree women are disproportionately influential on the stage of political activism. These inequalities have caused a bias in popular conceptions of the women’s movement by silencing the stories of those women who function somewhere beneath the radar of the media’s consequentially skewed vision of what a feminist is.

This is all changing, slowly, but we’ve still got a long way to go. YWTF’s choice to avoid the word “feminism” makes a lot of sense to me: feminism has too many ties to its sordid history of exclusivity and stodginess. We’re starting something fresh here, and we want to make the voices of all younger women heard, not just a select few.

No comments: