Like most “isms” out there, “feminism” comes with a lot of baggage, a lot of preconceived notions and connotations, often making it a bad word, a term or designation to be avoided if one doesn’t want to seem too “radical” or attract too much negative attention. But why is that? Why is “feminism” such a polarizing term, even and especially for women who use it?
As I complete this week’s writing prompt, I’m going to continue to ask myself: what is and isn’t “feminism”? How is it being defined and by whom? Can there ever be some type of consensus about what feminism is? Or is there already one that just isn’t widely recognized?
Offering a dictionary definition of a term is a cliché, I know. But, as you and I both know, reminding others of an official definition of a word or term is often necessary due to the rhetorical abuse it endures.
Feminism (noun): belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes expressed especially through organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interestsMerriam-Webster Dictionary, online https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism
According to the above definition, feminism is essentially a belief that is advocated. A belief that “the sexes” (not necessarily only cis-gendered people) should be equal—politically, economically, and socially. This belief may or may not entail organized activity yet often does. And because such a belief must also be advocated the belief must be stated publically in some capacity, as advocacy requires public petitions for support.
What doesn’t this definition state? That only cisgender women can believe and advocate for feminism. That people who believe in feminism hate men and want more power than men. That one has to hold a picket sign and be angry and butch and [insert typical stereotype conjured up for how all feminists supposedly look and bahave] in order to be a feminist.
Simply put, according to the above definition, feminism only requires one to hold the belief that all sexes should be equal politically, economically, and socially. And that they should advocate this belief publically. If you hold the belief that all sexes should be equal politically, economically, and socially, and publically state that you have this belief, then you are a feminist.
The Spectrum of Feminist Thinking
Not all feminists believe the same things to the same degree, which could be why there is understandable confusion around what feminism is. There is also confusion because “feminism” has continually evolved over time and decades.
There is not only one way to advocate for equality amongst the sexes. Advocacy can come by way of speeches, protests, legislation, court cases, writing, art, music, entertainment, fashion, education, conversation, funding, group organization, and so on.
Some feminists also believe they should focus their advocacy on one central concern. Here are some prominent schools of feminist thought worth considering that I’ve come across. Keep in mind that some of them are continuing to evolve to this day.
- Liberal Feminism
- Radical Feminism
- Marxist and Socialist Feminism
- Psychoanalytic and Gender Feminism
- Existential Feminism
- Postmodern Feminism
- Multicultural and Global Feminism
To get started exploring the schools of feminist thought listed above, read some or all of the following sources:
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Liberal Feminism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Feminist Political Philosophy
- Encyclopedia Brittanica Radical Femnism
- Voice Male Magazine Radical Feminism: A Gift to Men
- Oxford Bibliographies Socialist/Marxist Feminism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Psychoanalytic Feminism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Simone de Beauvoir
- literariness.org Postmodernism and Feminism
- Oxford Handbooks Online Feminist Multicultural Psychology: Evolution, Change, and Challenge
- Encyclopedia Brittanica Ecofeminism
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Feminist Environmental Philosophy
Notable Feminist Thinkers and Advocates
While taking detailed notes on the feminist schools of thought listed above as I complete this week’s writing prompt, it’s worth looking into notable feminists, as well. Here are a few.
- Mary Wollstonecraft
- Emmeline Pankhurst
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Malala Yousafzai
- Susan B. Anthony
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
- Sojourner Truth
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Ruth Bader Ginsberg
- Marlene Dietrich
- Patricia Arquette
- Gloria Steinem
- Maya Angelou
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Hillary Clinton
- Angela Davis
- bell hooks
- Andrea Dworkin
- Eddie Vedder
- John Legend
- Prince Harry
- Ryan Gosling
- Ian Somerhalder
- Emma Watson
- Betty Friedan
- Doris Lessing
- Audre Lorde
- The Dalai Lama
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt
- Will Smith
- Ashton Kutcher
- Michelle Obama
- Barack Obama
- Shonda Rhimes
- Virginia Woolf
- Alice Walker
- Viola Davis
- Yoko Ono
- Tarana Burke
- Jennifer Lawrence
- Mindy Kaling
- Laverne Cox
- Ellen (Elliot) Page
- Reese Witherspoon
- Carol J. Adams
- Françoise d’Eaubonne
This list of individuals is especially important to note because it captures the diversity of feminism, feminist thought, and feminism advocacy. There is not one way in particular to be a feminist. The common thread seems to be that you only need to believe that the sexes should be equal—politically, economically, and socially. And that you should state this publically while carrying out some type of action that embodies such a belief.
So far, I am personally drawn to feminist advocacy that coincides with education, and its evolution over time. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and believed equal education was necessary for the sexes to be equal. Likewise, Malala Yousafzai promotes equal education for girls and women. Gloria Steinem started Ms. Magazine to educate others about feminist concerns. Tarana Burke started the MeToo Movement to educate others on the pervasiveness of sexual violence throughout our societies.
What feminist school of thought or notable feminist intrigues you most? What are your thoughts on what feminism is? Leave a comment at the bottom of the page to join this dialogue.
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