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What Is Feminism?
by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

The following is an excerpt from Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). Learn more at www.manifesta.net.

What is Feminism?
"[Feminists are] just women who don't want to be treated like shit." Su, an Australian woman interviewed for the 1996 anthology DIY Feminism.

In 1998, during the middle stages of Clinton's personal "woman problem," Barbara Ehrenreich made a curious statement. In a New York Times op-ed entitled "Silence of the Beltway Feminists," the great leftist author lamented that, "The feminists didn't even give [Paula Jones] a hearing," and went on to say that "Paula Jones isn't the only woman betrayed by organized feminism." Ehrenreich is famous for dissecting sexual politics, feminizing the sexual revolution, and authoring books vindicating witches and abortionists, so it seemed odd that as long as she had the floor, she-a self-proclaimed feminist-hadn't thought to give Jones that fair hearing; a hearing which the National Organization for Women (NOW) attempted to schedule with Paula Jones on two occasions, and on each occasion was stood-up by the famous plaintiff herself. So the question remain: Why didn't Ehrenreich stage her own defense of her maligned sister Paula? And if she thought she did with that op-ed or earlier when she originally reported on Jones in her Time magazine column, wasn't that a feminist defense?

Of course, Ehrenreich isn't alone in distancing herself from the movement. Other amnesia feminists-brilliant, usually prominently political women who forget that they are within the movement when launching a critique-include Katha Pollitt (a columnist for The Nation) and Gwendolyn Mink (a professor of politics at the University of California at Santa Cruz). The spectre of these otherwise feminist women pointing their fingers at "the feminists" begs two questions: Who are the feminists and what is feminism? By feminists, we mean each and every politically and socially conscious woman or man who works for equality within or outside the movement, writes about feminism, or calls her- or himself a feminist. In reality, there is no formal alliance of women we can call "the feminists." Although there are institutions and other forums under which women and men organize and rally, feminism isn't a bureaucratic monolith like Communism or. . . Scientology. It's a loose collection of individuals. There is one exception. In the late sixties, there was an actual group of activists in New York City who called themselves The Feminists. Ti-Grace Atkinson, a Second-Wave woman warrior who started off her career with the liberal gals at NOW but soon out-radicalled the radicals, was the most prominent of the group, but because they didn't subscribe to formal hierarchies, she was never the leader. Hard-core as hell, The Feminists were known for having the strictest membership rules: only one-third could be married or living with a man ("hostages," Atkinson called those ladies who socialized with possessors of the Y-chromosome). At meetings, to promote a sort of communal conversation ethic, women were each doled out an equal number of poker chips. Whenever a member wanted to speak, she paid by tossing down a chip. Of course, some women chose to speak for twenty minutes with each toss, so it wasn't an incorruptible system. But, defunct since 1973, The Feminists are not who Ehrenreich, Mink, and Pollitt mean when they wonder where the feminists are.

No, the organized feminists whom people seem to feel betrayed by are the leaders of feminist institutions and those anointed as "the feminists" by the media: most often Patricia Ireland and her company at NOW; Eleanor Smeal and the Feminist Majority Foundation; and Gloria Steinem of Ms. magazine and Voters for Choice, among other allegiances-women whose every statement is taken as representative of us all. For example, when the stories about Clinton groping Kathleen Willey and having an affair with [Monica] Lewinsky broke in January 1998, the media devoted two months to asking "where are the feminists?" Then, on March 22, Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed for The New York Times arguing that Clinton's behavior was gross and probably pathological, but not sexual harassment and therefore not actionable. The next week, columns abounded: Feminists Are Divided on the Clinton Scandal. It's a sure-fire sign of oppressed status when an entire group gets reduced to one, or even three, individuals.

Now for the second question: When the topic of feminism tumbles out of anyone's mouth, whether it be the Vamp-painted lips of lesbian film-fatale Guin Turner asking "What does feminism mean anymore anyway?", the earnest jaws of your grandfather, or one of the 75 or so people who visit Ask Amy each week, the inevitable question arises: "What is it?"

In the most basic sense, feminism is exactly what the dictionary says it is: the movement for social, political, and economic equality of men and women. Public opinion polls confirm that when people are given this definition, 67 percent say they agree with feminism. We prefer to add to that seemingly uncontroversial statement the following: feminism means that women have the right to enough information to make informed choices about their lives. And because "women" is an all encompassing term that includes middle-class white women, rich black lesbians, and working-class straight Asian women, an organic intertwining with movements for racial and economic equality, as well as gay rights, is inherent to the feminist mandate. Some sort of allegiance between women and men is also an important component of equality. After all, equality is a balance between the male and female with the intention of liberating the individual.

Breaking down that one very basic definition, feminism has three components. It is a movement, meaning a group working to accomplish specific goals. Those goals are social and political change -implying that one must be engaged with the government and law, as well as social practices and beliefs. And implicit to these goals is access to sufficient information to enable women to make responsible choices.

Of course the goals of feminism are carried out by every day women themselves. Maybe you aren't sure you need feminism, or you're not sure it needs you. You're sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are-but with a political consciousness. And, vice versa: You want to be a feminist because you want to be exactly who you are. That may be a person patriarchal society doesn't value or allow-from a female cadet at the Citadel to a lesbian mother. Maybe you feel aligned with the self-determination and human rights implicit in feminism, but you also organize your life around race, religion, or class, rather than solely around gender. For instance, in the Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, the editors list 17 prominent kinds of feminism based on identity, including American Indian, Arab American, Asian American, Jewish, Latina, Lesbian, Marxist, Puerto Rican, and Working Class. There are also womanists, which, as coined and defined by novelist and poet Alice Walker, designates a black feminist (womanists are rarely men) without having to "add a color to become visible." Womanism, distinct from feminism's often white-centered history, is an alternative casting of the same basic beliefs about equality and freedom, and few womanists would deny the link to feminism. While each of these groups is magnetized by political equality, some additional aspect of their personhood needs to be emphasized because it affects their struggle for equality.

Using a qualifier in order to further define identity is very different from foregoing the feminist label altogether. For instance, women within other social justice movements-environmental, peace, human rights, and hip-hop, for example-often opt for the term "humanist." Although humanism includes men (and especially those who aren't white or otherwise privileged), in reality, it is a retreat from feminism. Using humanism as a replacement for feminism is also a misuse of the term-theologically, humanism is a rejection of supernaturalism, not an embrace of equality between men and women. Internationally, twice as many women as men are illiterate, and it was only in 1998 that an international court denounced rape as a form of torture in prison, and as a war crime when conducted systematically by the military. Along those lines, gender-based persecution isn't recognized as grounds for asylum in the United States, which means that women who are likely to be killed by their husbands or sure to be genitally mutilated if they return to their countries are usually put on the next plane back, regardless of this potential danger. (Or, like Adelaide Abankwa and Fauzyia Kasinja, they are imprisoned for years, and only granted permanent residency, and later asylum after long campaigns conducted on their behalf by U.S. feminists.) Feminism seeks to include women in human rights.

Most women come to feminism through personal experience, which is one of the reasons the core identity of feminism has to be so elastic. The term represents an incredible diversity of individual lives. Often a woman who otherwise won't align herself with feminism will seek it out when she is confronted with an abusive relationship, or if her boss is paying her less than her male counterparts, or, on a positive note, if she needs credit to start her own beauty salon. Historically, who else besides feminists have been there to help women, whether they be Calvin Klein-devotees or Vegan Earth Mothers? Many women tap into or create feminist resources not knowing they are on a feminist path. On the work front, secretaries founded 9-to-5-a union for (mainly) pink-collar women workers-and women supported the National Committee on Pay Equity as well as microlending and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, because no one else was interested in the problems of working women. Kris, a stylist who wrote in to Ask Amy, turned to feminist resources when she wanted to open her own salon. She didn't appeal to the Small Business Administration (SBA) because its process is complicated and full of red tape, when all she needed was a little money to tide her over as she built up her client base. Amy sent her to New York City's Women's Venture Fund, which makes micro-loans. Women even turn to feminism when they want to learn how to masturbate-vulvas were mapped out in Betty Dodson's video Sex for One, and orgasms expanded on in Susie Bright's 1991 Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex Guide. Most safe-sex shops were founded by feminists, from Eve's Garden in New York City, opened by Dell Williams in 1974, and Good Vibrations, founded by sex therapist Joani Blank in San Francisco in 1977, to newer sex shops like Toys in Babeland in New York City and Seattle.

Clearly, the only people actively paving the paths to women's equality are feminists. Eventually, most women seeking to expand or change their lives find feminism. This makes it sound as if the movement is a huge force of conscious feminists constantly fortified by new recruits. Actually, a problem diminishing "enrollment" in the movement is political co-optation. The moment a concern pioneered and promoted by feminists-such as domestic violence, micro-enterprise, the fight for affordable health-care, and day care-becomes mainstream or at all successful, it is no longer seen as a women's issue, but simply a newsworthy issue. It becomes depoliticized, taken out of the hands of the grassroots, and divorced from the very process that was necessary to its success.

The most obvious example of co-opting feminist issues is the movement against domestic violence. Until feminism, there was no word for battered women or domestic violence, no legal argument of self-defense for women who killed their abusers, and no shelter system. In the seventies and eighties, shelters, funded by grassroots feminist groups and fledgling foundations (like the early Ms. Foundation for Women), proliferated, but the government, police, and media outlets still paid very little attention to violence within the home. For example, the first shelter for women in the United States was started in California in 1964. (This was out of pure need, not because feminists were franchising.) Now, there is an organized battered women's movement of shelters, awareness campaigns, reformed laws and police practices, and legislative strategies. For example, October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, and 1994 saw the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which set the precedent for prosecuting abusers who cross state lines, and a mandate for nationwide enforcement of protection orders. Nonetheless, in 1994 when Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered and her hulking football-hero ex-husband was accused of the crime, domestic violence was launched into the mainstream, "professionalized" according to one young activist, and divorced by the media from the grassroots organizations who had named its reality and pioneered its treatment. What this means is that today a woman like G.E. executive Sam Allison can be on the board of The Women's Center in Milwaukee, and claim that she's not a feminist, she's simply an "advocate to end violence against women."

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Melissa Bradley broke ground in the field of women's economic development without being aware of feminists like Connie Evans, who started the Women's Self-Employment Project a dozen years earlier. By 1998, Evans had dispensed more than $1.3 million in 600 short-term micro loans, and became the largest small-business fund for low-income women; all undertaken by her as feminist work. Bradley, who is the founder of The Entrepreneurial Development Institute and then worked for the federal government implementing its welfare to work programs, doesn't consider her work feminist. Of course, this is assimilation, and in some ways, it is our goal. After all, as long as Women's History and African American History are independent curricula, history itself will still be a white man's story. In that same way, the women's rights movement will have been successful when we no longer have to advocate separately for half the population's human rights. On the other hand, ideally women's egos would be more invested in their work. You can't continue change if you don't know the process necessary to make it. If feminists first exposed domestic violence as a reality in many women's lives, funded the first women's shelters, and drafted and fought for legislation that is now working to end violence against women, then an "advocate to end violence against women" (Sam Allison's term for herself) is just another word for "feminist." Issues divorced from their feminist roots eventually become depoliticized, and the resulting social programs are reduced to treating the symptoms rather than curing-or preventing-the disease. In order to have a robust movement, domestic violence and economic development need to be re-identified as feminist issues and victories. And, Allison and Bradley need to be outed as feminists.


The above is an excerpt from Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). Learn more at www.manifesta.net. You can hear the authors themselves at www.talktotara.com.


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Read an excerpt from GRASSROOTS: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

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