“WHAT IS FEMINISM?”
by Elena Armstrong
Feminism is a term that has been part of modern society, at least since the nineteenth century Seneca Falls convention. Since that time, its hues have changed along with the culture it is housed in. Different countries, in fact, different generations, have sought different goals within its philosophy.
The most common appellation given to feminism is the idea of "equal rights" for both men and women. Most people, pro- or anti-feminist, would agree that this would be what feminism entails, whatever it is that equal rights entail. The different schools of feminism and of their opponents arise from what is considered to be "equal rights".
Culture has much to do with the definition of who is pro-feminist or not. A conservative today might have much in common with the goals of an early feminist. For example, among what might be a very socially conservative person in mainstream American society, say, Jerry Falwell, you will be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that women shouldn't vote, be able to obtain a secondary or tertiary education, inherit property, or who would write off rape or incest as a non-crime. Most people, feminist or not, would feel that women should be able to enjoy basic constitutional rights as an individual, and not as an addendum to the closest male relative she has. It is in this atmosphere that a lot of confusion is fostered. Conservatives such as the Christian Coalition have been called anti-women, but this may not be a true statement. The grounds that conservatives are being called anti-women on is a reflection of the school of feminism that is making that accusation; what is considered "pro-women" in one group is "anti-women" in the other. A common form of rhetoric used to disparage other schools of thought, much like in other realms of contention, is that if one group really had its way, women would suffer. This is done simply to engender new recruits to a particular line of thinking, and why not all women align themselves with feminist thinking.
However, what may be defined as "pro-woman" by some groups may have nothing at all to do with feminism. Feminists have generally defined themselves as trying to reform what they believe is traditionalist thinking, which more explicitly has to do with reconstituting patriarchy. Society dominated by masculine attributes such as force and competition, and inheritance running through patrilinear or patrilocal lines are two ways in which feminists would seek to reform society. More "pro-woman" people seek to show women how they benefit within the system as it is, such as in traditional family settings or how war and free market benefit them as a gender, without any need for reform of the system. A famous example of this is Phyllis Schlafly, the lawyer who successfully lobbied against the ERA. She believed that this feminist amendment would cause more disadvantages for women than advantages; she would never equate her position with sending women as a gender back to the kitchen.
Within the field of feminist thinking there are separate camps. Commonly they are divided into "waves": the First Wave, which would encompass the nineteenth century suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone, the Second Wave, which includes many people from the sixties and seventies revolution, such as Germaine Greer, Shualmith Firestone, and Gloria Steinem, and the recent move of feminism coronated as the "Third Wave", encompassing authors such as Katie Roiphe and Elizabeth Wurtzel. As within schools of philosophy, a spectrum of ideas fans through these thinkers. Some of the most radical thinkers, in overview, tend to come from the Second Wave, though the First Wavers were at the time considered more radical than their descendants. The idea that women were intelligent enough to hold property, keep their own name in marriage, and vote was a strong paradigm shift from previously held philosophies.
In comparison, by the time the sixties rolled around, the philosophies that the Second Wavers fought for such as the overthrow of the capitalist system and sexual freedom had been broached by other activists wearing different cloaks. The flappers of the twenties had already pushed the boundaries for sexual freedom, populist movements had been endemic since Karl Marx, and even legalized abortion in the United States had already come and gone several times from legislation. The radicalism of the Second Wavers is more explosive when it is taken within its cultural context; many of the women burning bras in the seventies were wearing pinafores in the late fifties saying I Like Ike. Second Wave feminism, like many of the other revolutionary movements, was born out of the cultural unrest that capitulated the youth culture so prevalent in the sixties and seventies. Along with civil rights for blacks, anti-war rhetoric, Eastern philosophy, and psychedelics with Timothy Leary, it almost would have been strange if there weren't some feminist movement that went along with it all. There is a running theory that the feminist movement was the last of the revolutions to take off. The evidence of this claim is unclear; Betty Friedan's "Feminine Mystique", the groundbreaking manifesto that shattered the silence of disgruntled housewives everywhere, was published in 1963, and the National Organization for Women was formed in 1966. Both events seem to have taken place well within the context of other revolutions. What may be a more accurate statement is to say that the feminist movement may not have really entered the consciousness of a lot of other movements until the seventies, and may have seemed up until then a superfluous issue to other activists. Because of this, it may appear as though the Second Wave feminist revolution was the last of the movements in the sixties.
The "Third Wave" feminists, by all estimates, would seem like the most reactionary of the schools. In fact, much of the schism between the Second Wavers and the younger generation of feminists is this very accusation. To many of the sixties revolution, these people would not even be defined as feminists. Many contemporaries of the Third Wavers are loathe to call themselves feminist at all, and may have more philosophy in common with the pro-women camp than the Second Wave of feminism. Most Third-Wave feminists are pro-capitalist, taking the politically conservative stance that the eradication of the free market would be an impediment to freedom, and that the best way for women to gain equality is to learn to compete in this market. The thrust of the Third Wavers, being that they are comprised of TV-influenced Generation Xers and Echo Boomers, tends to focus on culture. The free market stance and cultural influence lends a somewhat androgynous tone to the Third Wavers' message, in that many of them sound like their male peers. The recording artist Courtney Love is a case in point. Known for her angry lyrics, Love epitomizes the ethos that she's mad and she's not going to take it anymore. Her message is analogous to that of her late husband, Kurt Cobain, who also used the arts to express his disdain. Other cultural examples would be in film, Uma Thurman playing the ex-assasin in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill", and the cultural malaise depicted in books such as Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoir "Prozac Nation" compared with novels by Bret Easton Ellis such as "Less Than Zero" and "American Psycho". Movements of unrest consist of the "grrrl" movement, which arose with the inception of the grunge movement. In many of these cultural instances, a woman or a man could represent the sentiment that the art is trying to convey, revealing a feminism that has more to do with generational context than that of gender.
Ironically, despite the seemingly gender neutral tone of the Third Wavers, the strongest bone of contention between them and their sixties "mothers" is the idea that women have become too much of what patriarchy defines as "feminine". Makeup, shaving your legs, and giving up your career, at least temporarily, to raise children are all "in". So is marriage, albeit with higher ages at the first wedding. Abortion rights don't seem to be an issue one way or another to Generation X; though it seems as though they lean slightly pro-choice, the stance doesn't seem strong enough to warrant fighting for Roe vs. Wade. As mentioned before, many Generation X- and Y-ers are reluctant to even call themselves "feminist". The Second Wavers are afraid that all their hard work will be lost in what they see as a quagmire of apathy. The reproductive technology that yielded the test tube babies without pregnancy that Shulamith Firestone envisioned in "The Dialectic of Sex" has metamorphosed into women who use that same technology to get pregnant. The April 2002 edition of "People" magazine lamented that younger marriage was coming back in for brides, citing celebrity examples such as LeeAnn Rimes, Kate Hudson, and Reese Witherspoon. The "Legally Blonde" movies, starring Witherspoon, were denounced by some feminists because Elle Woods, the main character, seemed more concerned with Versace than law. The character of Elle Woods is the epitome of "girly" Third Wave feminism, however. She proves that you can be blonde and a Harvard Law School graduate, and take on Congress while looking really good. "Girly" feminism has to do with recapturing glamour while retaining personal power. But to many Second Wavers, it seems merely reactionary.
Feminism has, over the years, changed its focus and nature, which is to be expected, as the culture has changed. Different schools have seemingly disparate aims which may in fact seem to clash with one another. Despite its changing face, however, feminism seeks to raise awareness that the intrinsic value of a person cannot be eliminated because of gender. It seeks to elucidate the fact that one half of the human race cannot be dismissed in the name of God, power, force, or any other reason. As long as it exists, it will seek to eliminate masculine society from deciding what the feminine should be, and that women have the right to define themselves.
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