Monday, January 26, 2015

Are you a feminist?: A definitional problem with feminism (Part I)

"Are you a feminist?" has become one of my least favorite questions - worse than "have you checked your grades yet?" or "what are your plans after graduation?," which for a 3L in her final semester of law school is saying something.

To be fair, the question has always seemed a bit strange to me. When I was growing up, feminism was a given in my family. I was surrounded by women who defied stereotypes and embodied the equality and empowerment norms that I associate with feminism - my mother excelled in the banking industry, my grandmother was an ordained minister, and two of my aunts owned their own businesses. With these women as my examples, I grew up believing that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. Because feminism seemed so normal to me, it was (and sometimes still is) hard for me to believe that some people don’t consider themselves feminists.

So when this question started our first class session, I wasn’t entirely pleased. Merely asking the question seems to include an implicit challenge to feminism’s continued existence and relevance in our society. As I listened to my classmates' answers, I thought about why we even have to ask that question, especially on the first day of a class like Feminist Legal Theory. It’s 2015 after all? Shouldn’t it be obvious? What value could the answer possibly have?

It seemed so obvious to me: Of course we would all consider ourselves feminists! There is still so much to be done to empower women and to achieve equality between the genders. Despite it being 2015, despite women having achieved so much in even in just the last 50 years, we have not yet achieved equality. From an empirical perspective, women still struggle to achieve parity. The most recent Global Gender Gap Report suggests that we won’t achieve gender parity in the workplace for another 81 years. While we have achieved near parity in educational attainment and health and survival rates, economic and political participation continue to lag behind.  But even where we have significantly reduced or even closed the gender gap, say in economic participation or education in the US, women continue to face barriers to social and legal equality.

And then it hit me…the question may seem strange and even asinine given the facts, but the answer still matters to our discussion of feminism and Feminist Legal Theory. The question just opens the door – it seems to me that it’s the answer and its justification, the “because…” statement that follows the answer, that we really care about.

Our exercise in the classroom helped me conceptualize this idea, but it has become even clearer to me as we consider the many, often competing, strains of feminism. Like the differing theories we have begun to study, there were similarities and common elements to our reasoning, but we each had our own ultimate version of feminism (if we were even willing to call it that at the time).

Our distinct answers and justifications made clear to me that feminism has a kind of self-definitional problem – there are so many strands, so many theories from which individuals can pick and choose characteristics. We can all be feminists, but each have a different conception of what that means.

And maybe that’s why that frustrating question still matters, at least in our academic setting. Perhaps we have to first acknowledge and seek to understand each other’s conceptions of feminism in order to have a meaningful discussion and get to the ultimate issue of achieving equality.

1 comment:

Heather said...

Rebecca, your post made me think about how detrimental it can be for the advancement of women in society that we cannot agree on a definition and goal for feminism. What has cemented in my head this semester is how different every feminist’s viewpoint is. We all believe in gender equality, but what that vision looks likes varies, sometimes significantly. I worry that with too many competing ideologies, progress will be stalled. Is there a unified message we could all agree on? Could all feminists simply support the notion that we support all women's choices, whatever they are? Is that too simplistic and unrealistic? I think as you allude to, the question is no longer “are you a feminist,” but rather “why are you a feminist?” It is time for all feminists to find their commonalities to ensure continued progress.