At the So to Speak AWP panel in Chicago last March, which focused on the “feminist” label in publishing, the Q&A session, led by Arielle Greenberg, quickly became flooded with voices asking: “Can I be a ‘feminist?’ Do I count? Where is there a place for my kind of feminism? Why do I feel like I’m not allowed to use this label?” Writer-mothers, transgender writers, and male feminist writers especially all opined the lack of—or perceived lack of—space for them under the feminist umbrella.
The feminist movement, of course, has a troubled history with this topic. During the ever-important Second Wave of the 60’s and 70’s—the wave that many folks still think of when they hear the word “feminism”—lesbians (lesbians!) were often excluded and outcast from the movement. Even the legendary Betty Friedan, then-president of NOW, called lesbianism “the lavender menace.” Many African-American women, too, cried out against the ways the Second Wave movement left them out.
This isn’t to say that the Second Wave-rs were “bad” activists or that their work was not incredibly valuable. But it is important to note that discussions of who can and can’t be a feminist have always been around and are still very much around today, even in a Third Wave landscape that places a much higher value on diversity and anti-essentialism.
So who decides who is or isn’t a feminist? Shouldn’t there be a committee somewhere? A standardized test to take? An obstacle course?
The definition of what feminism is and what a feminist looks like, of course, is different for everyone. Have you ever visited the Wikipedia page on “feminism”? Carve yourself out a few hours and you may be able to skim through a chunk of the splinter groups, sub-movements, sub-labels, and niche identity categories.
Which brings us to the oft-repeated question: Is this fragmentation a strength of the movement, or a concern, or both?
I recently heard a (male) friend say something along the lines of: “Feminists could get a lot more done if they just had a united stance or strategy and agreement about everything.” Maybe this is true. Some days I think it might be. But other days—most days—I think that the wide range of attitudes and opinions within the movement is what strengthens it and makes it interesting. Kind of like how American democracy works, or should work, on a good day.
I know many men and women in my life who vehemently reject the label “feminist” while also solidly meeting my own personal definition of what a feminist is: strong, successful women who demand to be treated with equal respect in all areas of life; husbands who consider themselves completely equal partners and allies to their spouses; artists; activists; parents; and many more. Some of them reject the label because of its political connotations, others because they see their actions as plain old common sense, and not as any specific moral or socio-political belief system.
On the other hand, I have certainly met people who label themselves “feminist” but do not behave in ways that meet my own definition of feminist actions—and I’m sure that, to some feminists, I don’t meet their label of “feminist,” either.
I know Republican feminists, Democrat feminists, Republican anti-feminists, and Democrat anti-feminists. I know feminist stay-at-home moms. This all, again, according to my own concept of feminism, which focuses more on values such as equality, freedom, justice, fairness, and respect, and less on specific, prescribed ways of how to live one’s life.
Yes, words are loaded, and yes, the word “feminism” is both burdened and gifted by the many associations and connotations of its history. But even though my definition of “feminist” is different from that of some of my friends and family, or different from that of this generation, the one before me, or the one after, I don’t feel threatened by these alternate definitions, just as I don’t feel scared off by a word that, to me, stands for nothing more “radical” than equality for all people. Different definitions of feminism or its priorities, strategies, and philosophies do not bother me—but threats to equality certainly do.
My point is that because the definition means something different to everyone, and because there is no committee of people deciding who gets voted into the club and who doesn’t, all that discussions like this one can ever really focus on is what feminism means to each individual—and these discussions are extremely important. Because if we embrace both our similarities and our differences on what the movement, what the word, and what the lifestyle means to us all, we will only come out stronger, more informed, and more open-minded overall.
So picture a New York city subway car on a crowded Saturday afternoon. Picture all the different types of people on that car. Got it in your mind? That’s what I want my feminism to look (and sound) like.
In the comment box below, please share with us your thoughts on the feminist label. Is it a useful label, or total crap? Do you feel excluded or put off by the label, or by the movement itself? Could feminists get more done if they were less fragmented? What is your own definition of feminism?