Who Gets To Be a Feminist?

Let Me Tell You What the Word Means
What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 7 2010 10:04 AM

Who Gets To Be a Feminist?

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Amy Bloom.
Amy Bloom

On one hand, I feel about this the way my father felt about Jews. If you want to call yourself a Jew (God help you), who are we to object? Mazel tov. You're a Jew; here's an eggroll. Unfortunately, feminism requires a better standard.

Being a feminist does not mean "I'm a woman who has accomplished things in the non-domestic world." Being African-American and on the Supreme Court does not make Clarence Thomas a Civil Rights activist; it makes him a product of the Civil Rights Movement. Feminism, I'm pretty sure, means a commitment to equal opportunity, equal ability, and equal potential for all women. It doesn't mean (and I realize that reasonable women differ on the definition of feminism—that's why it's feminism and not algebra) that a possession of a womb brings with it a special spiritual gift, or that women are avatars of goodness, entitled to yell, "Misogynist!" whenever it is to their advantage.

I like my feminists witty, dignified, left-leaning and short on self-aggrandizement—but they don't always come that way. If Sarah Palin explicitly supports equal pay for equal work, subsidized day care, Title IX, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, she's a feminist. If she understands that she is a product of feminism and is prepared to pursue its goals, I can give her a pass on abortion because there are, apparently, honest-to-God feminists who believe that abortion is murder and even though I think that that's not true, I have to respect that (I guess.) But there is no such thing as free market/anti-legislation/I've-got-mine feminism.

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I admire Sandra Day O'Connor and Eleanor Roosevelt and their dedication to the cause of feminism. And I admire Sarah Palin's way with a soundbite. But I know and she knows that she's not a feminist; she's a Palinist.—Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom's most recent book is Where the God of Love Hangs Out, which will soon be out in paperback.

Nora Ephron.
Nora Ephron

I know that I'm supposed to write 500 words on this subject, but it seems much simpler: You can't call yourself a feminist if you don't believe in the right to abortion.— Nora Ephron

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Nora Ephron is a director and writer. Her new book is I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections.

Katha Pollitt.
Katha Pollitt

Feminism is a social justice movement dedicated to the social, political, economic, and cultural equality of women and men, and to the right of every woman to set her own course in life. True, these two principles—the collective and the individualist—don't always sit comfortably together: What if an individual woman wants to do something that harms other women, and who decides whether that is the case? I admit I get a little guilty thrill whenever a woman accomplishes anything out of the ordinary, even if it's something I think no one should do, like rob a bank or manage a hedge fund or run for vice president with atrocious politics and no qualifications to speak of. Still, if you see feminism as a word with actual content, and a movement that means more than You go, girl! Yay, women! then the question we are discussing here is rather strange: Can someone claim to belong to a social justice movement who actually supports social injustice? Can a woman (or a man) be a feminist and oppose the very things that have brought women whatever progress they have achieved, not just in the United States but all over the world? If you phrase the question like that, then the answer is clearly: not really.

"Like Clarence Thomas, Sarah Palin, and her Grizzly Mamas are the product of a powerful social movement which they want to stop in its tracks now that they themselves have reaped its benefits. Pull up the ladder, Jacqueline, I'm onboard! With the exception of Title IX, thanks to which she got to play basketball in high school, I'm not aware that Palin supports any legal or public policy goals that would promote equality for women. She opposes not just abortion but abortion rights—her choice must be every woman's choice. She's lukewarm on contraception and sex ed, and she's against anti-discrimination laws, equal pay legislation, affirmative action, and just about any other positive use of law or government to help women. I'm not aware that she has ever used her power to help low-income women, working mothers, single mothers, or victims of male violence, of which Alaska has plenty. As mayor of Wasilla, she even supported a measure making rape victims pay for their own rape kits. It is hard to find the feminism in any of this. The most positive piece of her message to women seems to be this: Marry a guy who will help with the child care and doesn't mind if you are more successful than he is. That is good advice, but it is not a political program.

"In the 1970s, feminists alienated a lot of women by being too censorious about clothes, makeup, and other personal choices; these days, feminism seems to mean supporting a woman's 'choice' to do just about anything, no matter how degrading or disempowering or socially harmful or foolish. Eventually, this kind of feminism bites its own tail: If choices cannot be discussed or (horrors!) criticized, there is no way to challenge, or even examine, their social context. Oh, you'll be entering a wet T-shirt contest as soon as the breast implants heal? How empowering. Doing your best to force other women to give birth against their will? Whatever floats your boat.

"I didn't realize, though, that choice feminism had gone so far that you can be a feminist while also, um, choosing to oppose the very movement you claim to embrace. If that is really the case, then feminism no longer means anything. As the saying goes, it's become so open-minded, its brains have fallen out.—Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt is a columnist at The Nation. Her most recent book is The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.

Anna Holmes.
Anna Holmes

feme solen. HISTORICAL [LAW] a woman without a husband, esp. one who is divorced.

<ORIGIN> early 16th cent.: from Anglo-Norman French feme soule "a woman alone."

fem•i•nineadj.1 having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, esp. delicacy and prettiness: a feminine frilled blouse.

<SPECIAL USAGE> of or relating to women; female: he enjoys feminine company.

2 A convenient, seemingly benign, stand-in descriptor for submissiveness to the patriarchy, i.e., the foundation of former SNL comedian Victoria Jackson's definition of Sarah Palin's feminist credentials: "… a feminine woman achieving goals with the blessing of her man, while she simultaneously supports his career endeavors and celebrates his masculinity."

fem•i•nismn. 1 the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

2 belief and pride in gender parity, specifically the right of women to control their own destinies, including bodily autonomy and reproductive health.

3 a social and political movement based on the radical notion that women are people and demonized by the pathologically vicious and evangelical American right wing.

4 a term often rejected by minority and working-class progressive women, whose concerns, efforts, and agitations toward gender equality have historically been ignored or dismissed by the progressive movement's overwhelmingly white, wealthy standard-bearers.

5 the acceptance that a "culture of life" demands respect for the lives and choices of the already born.

6 a vibrant social movement more than 100 years old and made up of individuals who, although they sometimes passionately differ on the details, believe in one overarching idea:

7 female (and, for that matter, male) liberation.

<ORIGIN> late 19th cent.: from French feminisme.

fem•i•nistn.1 a person who supports feminism. adj. Of, relating to, or supporting feminism: feminist literature.

2 anyone (female or male, liberal or conservative) who believes in and acts upon the concept of gender equality for all.

<ORIGIN> late 19th cent.: from French feministe, from Latin femina "woman."

<SPECIAL USAGE>

—a pejorative—commonly paired with the word Nazi—used to denigrate the morally indefensible concept of female liberation by those interested in maintaining a white, male power structure.

—a term recently (and cynically) appropriated by "conservative" politicians and pundits, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, most of whom have demonstrated no effort or interest on behalf of true gender equality and freedom (pay equity, reproductive and sexual education/health, bodily autonomy, professional opportunity, economic policy, etc.)

<SPECIAL USAGE>

—You?

—Me.

—Anna Holmes

Anna Holmes is a writer and editor and the founder of the Web site Jezebel.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @annaholmes. 

Amanda Marcotte.
Amanda Marcotte

I thought Lisa Jervis, co-founder of Bitch, overstated the case in a piece she wrote five years ago when she denounced the feminist obsession with women. She suggested that feminists should stop wasting their time celebrating women and get back to dismantling the construct of gender. But now that we have Sarah Palin running around claiming to be a feminist just because she happens to be an ambitious woman, I'm beginning to see that Jervis was exactly right. So, if I was given the power to say who is and isn't a feminist—and I'm just going to lay claim to that power right now—I'd go with Jervis' definition: Real feminists support a society in which biological gender 'doesn't determine social roles or expected behavior.' Sarah Palin is only onboard with that project when it suits her ambitions. She opposes the old-fashioned rule that women can't be political leaders. But as she rejects the rest of the feminist project, since at the end of the day feminism is about bringing an end to patriarchy. Considering that few things are more critical to the maintenance of the patriarchy than controlling women's reproduction, yes, I'm happy to say that opponents of legal abortion can't be feminists. Suggesting otherwise is like saying that owners of factory farms can be animal rights activists.—Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte writes about feminism, politics, and pop culture at Pandagon, Slate's "XX Factor," and RH Reality Check.

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