Who Gets To Be a Feminist?

That's the Wrong Question
What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 8 2010 1:57 PM

Who Gets To Be a Feminist?

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E.J. Graff.
E.J. Graff

Who gets to be a feminist? It's the wrong question. And debating it leads to the wrong answers.

Identity labels always mislead. They don't disclose the contents of the bottle; they proclaim that the bottle is powerful, meaningful, and important. Debates over who gets to wear those labels are tribal battles about who runs the group and who gets to patrol its borders, about who holds power. Declaring that someone is—or isn't—"really" white, black, Jewish, Christian, radical, conservative—or feminist—says nothing about the value of particular policies, ideas, or goals. Having seen such battles damage the causes they purport to uphold (Exhibit A: Susan Faludi's recent Harper's article "Feminism's Ritual Matricide), I have long tried to sidestep debates that mark territory or delineate tribes.

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Here's the debate I believe is genuinely worth having: What would full equality look like—and what do we have to do to get there? In this 90th anniversary year of American women's right to vote, we've obviously come a long way (to borrow the old ad slogan). As a group, we do better in school than our male counterparts; we even earn almost as many J.D.s and M.D.s, and more Ph.D.s, than men do (although that last one is the post-graduate degree that raises income the least).

And yet women are still excluded from many better-paying occupations, especially in such good middle-class jobs as trades or transportation. Women are still enduring sexual harassment—not bad jokes, but severe treatment that includes assault and stalking—to support their families. Even after years of entering into former "men's" professions (say, journalism, law, biology, engineering, government) in roughly the same numbers, women still don't climb to the same share of the more rewarding spots. The wage gap between women and men stopped closing in 1993; for almost two decades, women working full-time jobs have been making about 77 cents to a man's dollar. As a result, many more women live in poverty than do men. Women are still more at risk than men for physical or sexual coercion or assault. Both groups are still mocked or even attacked for behaviors that would be applauded in the other. Schools, jobs, and society at large still aren't set up with any recognition of the fact that the vast majority of children are growing up in families where all adults work: Every American working family still has to improvise its own ways to navigate each day's race to manage school, work, meals, and bedtime.

Worse, all of this has ceased to be news—especially to journalists. Admirably, the New York Times has launched a serious world gender beat, The Female Factor (prompted by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky). But according to the latest statistics from the Global Media Monitoring Project and other sources, fewer than one-fourth of news stories worldwide interview or portray women (even once!). When women do show up, it's mostly as victims, bystanders, family members, or celebrities.

So here in one of the refreshing bastions of serious female reporting and in-depth discussion about women's lives, let's not get hijacked by rhetorical tactics and peripheral debates over labels. Let's instead discuss women's equality, a quaint phrase that deserves to be resurrected. What still needs to be accomplished for women to be treated as fully human, equally able to guide our own lives and destinies and family lives—subject, of course, to the same limits of law, mortality, circumstances, and chance? We're not there yet. How do we get the rest of the way?—E.J. Graff

E.J. Graff is the associate director and senior researcher at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, where she directs its Gender & Justice Project.

Sara Haji.
Sara Haji

It's a bleak stage for discussion when SarahPAC is taken at its ingratiating, mom-awakening, faux-populist rhetoric instead of its regressive policies for women. But the upside is, the churning acknowledges that feminism is changing. If Sarah Palin isn't a feminist, it's less because she's pro-life and more because she insists on speaking for a female population that, by and large, does not share her set of experiences. She does not summarily and categorically understand American women, in their diversity, simply because she is one. That's just so first-wave.

Today's budding feminism recognizes transnational and intersecting identities and works easily outside of the usual structures that earlier feminists sought to tear down. Instead of slowly infiltrating the mainstream media, young feminists take up their cause on the Web; instead of rallying nationally, we work locally to create sustainable change alongside other activists—in day cares, gardens, community centers, classrooms, and clinics. We have enormous respect for the feminists who paved our way, but we know that our blogosphere makes Rebecca Walker look like Mary Wollstonecraft.

Palin, too, tweets and blogs (though she also has a mainstream forum in which her every word is made célèbre). But in treating her specific experiences as universally applicable, Palin speaks about a feminism that ultimately pertains only to a small cross-section of American women—women of a certain income, class, education, and race (and by extension, of certain opportunities). While Web-gen feminists disagree on religion, abortion, sex work, pornography, and methodology in general, we don't disagree that the movement and its goals should reflect the broadest possible swatch of women. Much of the transnational dialogue originates in the Global South, where women who have historically been excluded from the umbrella of Western feminism are acquiring voices and using new media to carve their own space.

For women who work in the Palestinian territories, this more nuanced feminism means working to end the occupation so that women's rights can be codified; so that personal-status laws in the West Bank and Gaza—which currently pull from Jordanian, Egyptian, and pre-secular Ottoman law—can reflect indigenous efforts to develop a constitution and a feasible legal framework. For Zainah Anwar, the Malaysian activist who founded Sisters in Islam, it means locating the equal treatment of women in Qur'anic text itself. Anwar tries not to associate herself too closely with Western women's groups and their ideals, for fear of undermining her movement in the eyes of the Malaysian public. At the same time, SIS is also using North African (Maghreb) models of regional cooperation to form coalitions with Indonesian, Filipino, and Singaporean women's activists whose experiences closely resemble those of Malaysian feminists.

Contrary to popular belief, feminism is far from dead. But it now encompasses the world, using technology to form autonomous affinity and identity groups that challenge historical, political, and cultural structures.—Sara Haji

Sara Haji has blogged at The Nation, the Texas Observer, Muslimah Media Watch, Notes From a Medinah, and AltMuslim. Follow her on Twitter at saraserenahaji.

Ann Althouse.
Ann Althouse 

"Who gets to be a feminist?" Who wants to know … and why? I'm a law professor, and when I get involved in defining terms, it's because I'm looking at a word in a legal text, and if something fits within that term, there's an effect. So, for example, in my Con-law class, we were talking about the meaning of property within the context of the Fifth Amendment, which forbids deprivations of property without due process. If it weren't for consequences, I wouldn't spend my time defining property. If you wanted to say property is anything that makes your heart go pitty-pat, I wouldn't argue with you, because I don't care.

So what am I supposed to care about here? You don't get any special rights or privileges for being a feminist, so what difference does it make? "Who gets to be a feminist?" Is it some high-school clique with mean girls deciding who gets in? Are there guardians at the entrance? The entrance of what? Nothing hinges on it. One woman says, "I am a feminist" and another says, "No, you're not." This is political polemic of a very dull sort.

There's one group that pushes for a narrow definition. Feminism requires radical dedication to toppling the phallocracy. Great. Say that. Be fiery and militant. Another group makes a litmus test out of abortion. OK. You have your issue, and you think it's helpful to insist that feminism is just another word for abortion. Or you can tromp in from the right and be Sarah Palin and say you're a feminist—and a grizzly bear … or whatever it is you want to be. Knock yourself out. Make steam come out of the ears of the feminism-is-abortion crowd.

It's rhetoric. Maybe you can stir up some action fighting over feminism, but I have a feeling that most people are, like me, bored by struggles over words when nothing happens as a result of somebody acquiring possession of the word, and nobody's going to get possession of the word anyway.

But, I'll play nice. Here are two definitions: 1. a feminist is anyone who believes in the equality of the sexes, and 2. a feminist is someone who centers her political activities on the interests of women and steadfastly puts those interests first. The trouble with No. 1 is that pretty much everyone is a feminist now. The trouble with No. 2 is that you get to kick out everyone who, say, muddied the issue of sexual harassment in order to help Bill Clinton out of a jam.

Definition No. 2 is good if you'd like to put people to the test. Plus, it's amusing when you have to kick yourself out, too. I know I would—not because I put party politics ahead of women (like the would-be feminists I'd enjoy giving the boot), but because equality and justice are more important than doggedly advancing the interests of your own kind. So, that means I've stumbled back to definition No. 1—and the end of the conversation.—Ann Althouse

Ann Althouse is a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her blog is Althouse.

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