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What does it mean to be a feminist? November 18, 2007

Posted by Winter in activism, feminist theory, media, misappropriation.
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I want to add a little more stick waving to vibracobra’s recent posts here and here objecting to journalists asking (rather unlikely) female celebrities if they’re feminists.

You might wonder why we’re getting so angry about this.  Why does it matter if journalists ask Geri Halliwell or Trinny and Susannah if they’re feminists? What harm does it do?

Well, we think it is harmful because we believe that feminism should be conceptualised in terms of political conviction first and personal identity second.

But it’s also harmful because it’s part of a media trend which seems to be eroding the relationship between feminist identity and feminist activism or, as I like to put it, between being a feminist and doing feminism. This trend, as illustrated in these articles, presents an understanding of feminism as little more than a label and often goes on to suggest that the label doesn’t mean much anyway.  When the female celebrity demurs and, quite correctly, expresses doubts about calling herself a feminist, the interviewer usually says something about feminism just meaning “equality,” whereupon the female celebrity says she might be a feminist, as long as it means she can do whatever she wants and doesn’t have to associate with lesbians or any women who don’t shave.  Now, I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that such attitudes cannot be called in any way shape or form “feminist” and to claim them as such is harmful.

It would be better to allow the woman space to express her anxieties about feminism and talk about them sensibly.  Maybe she can’t identify as a feminist because her job description makes such an identification impossible (e.g. Trinny & Susannah) and that, in itself, is something worth talking about rather than glossing it over with, “Oh, you probably are a feminist because you have a career and make lots of money and stuff.”  As vibracobra has pointed out, this attitude renders feminism meaningless.  It tells us that feminism doesn’t mean anything more than some vague statements about “equality,” and further, it doesn’t necessarily imply that anything has to change, or that being a feminist involves actually doing feminist things. If that becomes feminism we might as well throw the word in the bin right now because it isn’t going to liberate anyone.

This kind of thinking is damaging because it disconnects the label ‘feminist’ from the fight for women’s liberation which it is supposed to stand for.  It also implies that calling oneself a feminist is in itself enough of a radical act.  I’m not saying it’s not a political act to call oneself a feminist, but it should be considered the beginning, not the end.

Moreover, assuming that calling oneself a feminist is itself very radical and important can open the way to other problems. It can allow us to avoid thinking about the kinds of privilege that enable women to call themselves feminists in the first place. How many of us became feminists at university, or because we had middle-class parents with houses full of books, and mothers who knew about feminism and talked to us about it?

More seriously, it can allow us to ignore the very serious reasons why a lot of women do feel alienated and disconnected from feminism because it enables us to position them as “the unenlightened ones” when we really should be listening to what they’re saying.

Feminism shouldn’t ever be about feeling a bit superior to all those supposedly “unenlightened” non-feminist women; it should be about the liberation of all women and that means hard work and uncomfortable realisations, often including analysis of our own privilege and acknowledgment of the fact that a lot of women still have damn good reasons for not calling themselves feminists.  

It’s not time for cheerleading or back patting yet and we need to ask ourselves again, what is the relationship between feminist identity and feminist activism?

This is something we’re being confronted with in our group at the moment and it’s presenting some serious challenges. What does it mean that we have about 60 people on our various groups and mailing lists and 5 people coming to our Activism group?  What does it mean that we’ve just decided to cancel the protest we had planned for 24th November because we can’t get enough support from the group to make it effective? 

I definitely think we’ve lost something since the 1970s and I suspect that what we’ve lost is the second wave sense of collective responsibility and mutual support, the emphasis upon solidarity as a concept, even if that didn’t always work out in practice. And I am concerned that in middle-class circles feminism is gradually becoming something we consume, along with all the other things we consume in a consumer society.

What it means to be a feminist is still up for discussion, but it is important to resist representations of feminism as yet another trendy label or lifestyle choice and it is important to reiterate the relationship between feminist identity and feminist activism.