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With Kaethe Morris Hoffer

Kaethe Morris Hoffer, a feminist attorney, explores equality, justice, and the complexities of living in a world in which power is abused and gendered.

Defining Feminism
©Kaethe Morris Hoffer, 2004

Two women I admire recently challenged me to think about what feminism should mean. First I heard from Jennifer, who is in high school, and with whom I've been emailing about sexism, justice, idealism and activism. She said she was sure there were multiple definitions of feminism, but she wanted to know mine. I was just beginning to collect my thoughts on sex inequality and its relationship to other forms of inequality, when I received an email from one of my best friends from law school. In it, Rachel had pasted a column by Shelby Steele, a prominent Black scholar who is vehemently opposed to treating gay marriage as a civil rights issue.

Mr. Steele believes that activists for gay marriage are wrong to "glibly invoke the civil rights movement and all its iconic imagery to justify their agendas for social change." Likening them to upper-middle-class white women who both ignored and perpetuated racism during the women's movement of the early '70s, Mr. Steele says that gay people (who appear to be distinct in his mind from people of color) are an "already free people struggl(ing) for complete social acceptance and (a) sense of normalcy." In Mr. Steele's view, this struggle is petty compared to the fight for racial equality. Moreover, since (in his view) marriage is an institution centered on procreation, the fight for it is evidence that gay people are in denial that they are fundamentally different from straight people.

I strongly disagree with most of the premises and all of the conclusions put forward by Mr. Steele. Activists working for gay marriage (many of whom are people of color) are not saying they deserve to marry because anti-gay bigotry is as bad as racist oppression-but because it is wrong. Nor is the existence of "difference," however defined, an acceptable justification for the current social and legal inequities that burden the lives of gay men and lesbians.

But Mr. Steele's article struck a chord with Rachel, which alone compels me to consider it seriously. Rachel, who is Black (I am white), is one of the smartest people I know, a committed feminist and supporter of gay and lesbian equality, and from her I have learned more than she could possibly imagine about feminism, inequality in law and life, motherhood, work and family, friendship, and complexity. While not endorsing Steele's argument, Rachel urged me to see that he was right to raise issues that must be central to anyone fighting injustice: the persistence of race inequality, the realities of white privilege, and the exploitation by white people of the rhetoric and teachings of civil rights struggles against racism.

Rachel reminded me that white feminists continue to benefit from racial inequalities, and too frequently fail to work against them, even while fighting sex discrimination. While I had been struck by Steele's disregard for how marriage is but one way that gay men and lesbians are relegated to second-class status in this country, Rachel saw his appreciation for the ways our society tolerates race inequality, even while claiming to value the teachings of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She helped me see that while the struggle for gay marriage is an important civil rights movement, any suggestion that it is the civil rights movement of our time comes dangerously close to implying that race inequality is a problem that was conquered during the "last" civil rights movement.

Given the continuing and disproportionate presence of people of color living in poverty and in our nation's prisons, it is idiotic to believe that race inequality is a thing of the past. As long as race remains a statistical predictor of poverty, illness, or incarceration, race equality does not exist. However, a "been-there, solved-that-problem" attitude pervades American thinking on the subject. Opposition to affirmative action, for example, is widespread, and appears to be based on the belief that racial inequality is a thing of the past. In this context, and in a world where the mass media furthers the myth that gay people are all white and wealthy (not to mention singularly obsessed with looking fabulous), it is no surprise that many people of color would bristle at seeing their struggles for equality invoked in the debates over gay marriage.

But appreciating some of the reasons that advocates of racial equality might oppose the fight for gay marriage is different from agreeing with, or accepting, their opposition. Although it is critical to value the leadership and expertise of people of color regarding inequality and injustice, it is also critical to be committed to activism in support of (in Andrea Dworkin's words) "a single absolute standard of human freedom and dignity." And like the norms that further race inequality, rules and customs which treat gay men and lesbians as undeserving of important legal or social benefits fail to live up to any meaningful interpretation of human freedom and dignity.

So ultimately, this is what I have to say to Jennifer:

Feminism is the struggle for equality, freedom, and dignity, for all people. Feminism is about recognizing that where people are disproportionately impacted by indignity, and poverty, and violence, and harm, and disrespect, there is inequality. Feminism is about paying attention to quantitative information, like statistics showing that Black people are more likely to be stopped by police, that women are at high risk of being raped or battered by men they know, and that gay and lesbian youth are at increased risk of committing suicide. And feminism is about listening to the brave voices of people surviving harm-like Black men wrongly sent to death row, or women in prostitution, or the woman you know from law school who is smarter than virtually everyone she meets, but whose intelligence is often doubted by people who assume she gets handed her accomplishments because she is Black. Feminism is about opening your eyes to ugliness in the world, and believing, and standing by, survivors of hate and violence and disrespect. Feminism is about learning from them what should not happen, and it is about remembering that we can do better. Feminism is about seeing and fighting the privileges, as well as the indignities, that accompany inequality.

History notwithstanding, there is enough dignity and freedom for everyone in this world, and inequality is neither biologically mandated, nor our destiny. For me, feminism is: seeing that equality does not yet exist; believing I have a duty to work for the day it does; being accountable to those who are less privileged than me; and never forgetting that as a white woman with a husband, I benefit from some of the inequalities that I oppose. And now that I am a mom, feminism for me is about recognizing that my son may grow up to fall in love with a man, or a woman, a person of color, or someone white, and that in any event, I want this world to be safe, loving, and respectful, of whoever he becomes, and whatever family he creates.

Kaethe Morris Hoffer
[email protected]



Kaethe is an attorney from Evanston, Illinois. She served on the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois from 1999 to 2003, where she chaired the Commission's Violence Reduction Working Group. She is co-author of the Gender Violence Act.



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