Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Feminism--or gender justice?

As the semester draws to a close, I'm left considering how feminism fits into a wider legal worldview, how feminism has shaped that world, and finally, where I fit into the world of feminism.

As I read the various viewpoints and opinions of feminist legal theorists this semester, I was also studying family law, estate law, and legal history. The overwhelming lesson I gained from the synthesis of these classes is how far we, as women, have come in the realm of law over the last few hundred years. It wasn't so long ago that Blackstone declared that women have no separate legal identity from their husbands and Lord Hale ruled that husbands could not be guilty of marital rape because "the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract." In that light, the feminist movement has accomplished incredible things, transforming the institution of marriage into a relationship of equals and securing unprecedented rights for women.

As I sit in King Hall's computer lounge and look around at my fellow students, these victories are not merely theoretical. There are just as many women here who aspire to be lawyers as there are men. We only have to struggle with the law insofar as we struggle to understand its complexities--there are no outright barriers, as there once was in this country, and we do not lose our legal status if we choose to marry.

Nonetheless, I am deeply aware of the inequalities still pervasive both within the legal communities and in our wider culture. Violence, sexism, wage inequalities, lack of adequate health care, and many other factors still disproportionally impact women. As I type this, our supposedly liberal Congress is pushing a health care reform bill that stigmatizes reproductive choice. Once again, women's rights are being sacrificed for a so-called common good that's starting to look like it's best for--who else?--insurance companies and rich stockholders.

Yet my studies of feminist legal theory this semester have only reaffirmed my feeling that feminism often suffers from tunnel vision. As a reproductive justice advocate, I'm often frustrated by the level of focus that pro-choice groups give abortion rights while ignoring other issues that impact the reproductive health and rights of LGBT people, people of color, and people with disabilities. Similarly, I believe that it is crucial for feminism to shift its focus from relatively privileged women to groups historically marginalized within or outright excluded from the feminist movement, such as trans women and sex workers.

To that end, I've found myself questioning not the basic tenets of feminism, but the way we talk about it. As a student of political language and issue framing, I believe that the way we frame ideas is crucial to the success of an ideological movement. For example, conservatives have attacked our system of civil law by framing limitations on recovery as "tort reform," and bolstered tax cuts for the richest Americans as "tax relief"--linguistic choices that have fueled their political success.

Recently, I've been playing with how framing might apply to the feminist movement, to help re-energize and re-focus a movement which has been subject to severe political backlash in recent years. In doing so, I've started to wonder if "feminism" is the best word for my personal political identity. What I consider my "feminism" blends with my allegiance to other social justice movements--anti-racism, disability rights, LGBT rights: human rights. Furthermore, when it comes to gender, I feel that one of the areas where change is most needed in our culture today concerns the rights of transgender, intersex, and genderqueer people--those who don't fit with the traditional gender binary that our culture still brutally enforces. I also think that the same gender intolerance that catastrophically impacts transgender people affects everyone negatively--male, female, and in between--limiting our individual freedoms to express our unique identities.

With all this in mind, and influenced by my background with the reproductive justice movement, I find the term "gender justice" intriguing. Without the gendered root "fem" in the term, I think that "gender justice" provides room for a wider-reaching and more inclusive movement, based like the RJ movement on a human rights model. Its use would emphasize that gender justice is not just about women (with the question that follows of what we mean when we say 'woman') but about everyone, regardless of what gender we identify as, are born as, or are seen as. The inclusion of "justice" in the term also makes the ideas more difficult to demonize--it's hard to make a stand against justice, or alter the term to a derogatory like "feminazi." While some feminists might feel that "gender justice" might dilute a necessary focus on women, I believe that framing issues of gender equality in this way would allow both activists and those who do not identify as feminists to view the issues in a new light.

I'd be interested to hear from others on this topic. Do you think it might be worthwhile to reframe feminism in the new millennium? Or would a shift to a gender justice model merely serve to confuse the issues of gender equality we still face?

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