Last week, Amanda Travers wrote a post for Feminspire about the difficulties that feminism, as a movement, faces because of its lack of unity. In a very well-articulated and well-researched piece, Travers presents a difficulty that comes with subscribing to a specific type of feminism: if you support one vision of what feminism ought to fight for, you are simultaneously fighting against other feminists with contrarian, and many times conflicting, aims. Like Travers, I will also start this response by saying that I too am a feminist. However, I have come to understand “feminism” in a very different way, one that attempts to resolve the tensions she wrote about.
“I am a feminist.” This is something that both Travers and I start with as a given. Yet it is telling that many women in positions of influence and cultural power continue to deny the same claim. Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, to name the most recent examples, have publicly denied being feminists. Even though they resist the label, I can hardly imagine that Perry and Swift aren’t feminists to an extent. Doesn’t Katy Perry enjoy the privileges of birth control, if she chooses to use them? Does Swift really want women to receive lower wages? Why, then, wouldn’t they want to be called feminists?
I think the root of this aversion toward the label “feminist” is found in the way self-described feminists like Travers understand feminism. In her article, Travers views feminism as a movement with primarily political aims. Hence her need for a definition and her drawing of borders between women — if feminism is a faction, we must have clear goals, goals which will clearly put us in contention.
I feel that my understanding of “feminism,” what I mean when I say that I am a feminist, is deeply tied to seeing feminism as a discussion, not a battle cry. I would go as far as to say that I see this as one of the most definitive distinctions between the “second wave” feminism of the 1960s and 70s and the (third? fourth? fifth? wave) feminism I experience. As Tavi Gevinson, girl ruler of the world and proud feminist, said in her TED Talk “Still Figuring Out” (a phrase I use as my mantra), “feminism [is] not a rulebook but a discussion, a conversation, a process.”
When we began Bluestockings, we had to ask ourselves, what does it even mean for anything to be “feminist-minded”? As we wrote in the publication’s mission statement, we realized feminism shouldn’t be a rigid set of guidelines or restrictive beliefs, but instead contain a fluid spectrum of definitions. It should be a malleable perspective that is both personal and public. For me it is not about “what type” of feminism I choose to ascribe to. I don’t pretend to try to answer “What is feminism?” for anyone, instead I ask — what can feminism be to me?
This is not to say that Travers’s description of a feminist is unfounded, or worse, wrong. The initial definition she supplies is undeniably agreeable, I think even for the likes of Swift and Perry. As Travers writes:
“I describe a feminist as someone who believes women should receive the same economic, political, and social opportunities as men, that women deserve equal treatment to men, and employers should pay men and women holding the same job titles and performing the same tasks at the same competency level the same amount.”
All good there. This definition of feminist aims is pretty hard to reject without coming off as unapologetically misogynistic. Which is why, as Travers also explains, viewing feminism in this sense makes it accessible to a broader demographic, which in turns makes it easier for feminist organizations and lobbying groups to vie for political influence. But, as she points out, this user-friendly feminism also posits a threat: with such a broad definition, how can feminist activists agree on one action to promote? How can they rally behind one banner?
The truth is, even though Travers feels her initial understanding of a feminist is too inclusive to be politically active, it already narrowly bases feminism as simply meaning equality under the law. There are so many more oppressions women face — rape culture and sexual violence, threats to their reproductive justice, or sexual objectification in the media that promotes negative body image. My point is, even with what feels like an umbrella definition, there is no way to cleanly box in systematic oppression. Just like it is futile, and even dangerous, to claim that all women experience this oppression in the same way, it is even less useful to ask them to rank their grievances in order of most important, most valid, most worth fighting for.
I think feminism should be generative and evolving; it should be a conversation and not a list of bullet points. Indeed, feminism to me is inherently personal. And while the personal is political, it shouldn’t try to be universal. There were several times in her article when Travers’s wrote about “true” or “bad” feminism. What does that even mean? Better yet, who gets to define “truth” and “goodness” in feminism? Are these definitions even helpful?
Travers brings up two important examples of “divisive,” even problematic, “forms” of feminism: pro-life feminists and advocates of political lesbianism. To be honest, the thought of feminism being only valid if you deny heterosexuality or a feminist being pro-life did make me gag a little. But, the root of my discomfort came from the same discontent I felt with the Travers’s argument: these “feminisms” felt divisive, exclusionary, and narrow. There aims read less as a promotion of equality and welfare in the lives of women, and more as a hijacking of the term to promote the interests of one small group.
I think that Travers and other like-minded feminists shouldn’t feel like they have to stretch their own understandings of feminism to include all women to the point of meaninglessness; or even worse, tell other women that their form of feminism is somehow wrong. You can be a feminist and have views that are conflicting with other feminists. Better yet, you can talk to those people about why your views differ; you can create a dialogue with them, you can grow from your differences. This way feminism can be inclusive, flexible, and at times, even forgiving.