For some reason, it always hits a nerve when a female coeval says she is not a feminist.
“Why do we need feminism?/Aren’t we all equal now?/I have never experienced sexism, what’s the big deal?/I don’t identify with those bra burning feminists!/It’s for white affluent women, it’s not for me/The girls I know who are feminists are all lesbians/feminism has such a bad connotation, I don’t want to associate with that/etc, etc, etc.
And the litany goes on. There are a number of things wrong with all those statements above.
1. We still need feminism. There are a number of concerns and problems that do not yet have solutions. Many of these issues revolve around domestic violence. Faye Wattleton, a former president of Planned Parenthood and now co-founder and president of the think tank, Center for the Advancement of Women, reported in her lecture today at the Brooklyn Museum that the United States has the highest incidence of domestic violence of all developed nations. However, this week The Supreme Court reinstated a law which prohibited those convicted of domestic violence from owning guns http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/02/24/suspreme.court.gun.rights/ . The only remaining woman on the bench, Justice Ginsburg led the majority opinion, interestingly enough. Many revolve around our careers. For those who were paying attention, Pres. Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act within the first ten days of his presidency. This enabled women to sue their employer in the event they learn they are being paid less for equal work. For the record, I cried when I read this piece of news back in January. While this is a significant step, there is still much work to be done. Even though, I thought Clinton’s pandering to feminist sympathies towards the end of her career was a desperate attempt “to play the sexism card,” she did a lot to bring feminism and women’s issues back to the radar of mainstream media. Many issues contend with the right to choose. Pro-choice activists, advocates, and allies are continually criminalized as being “pro-abortion” and “pro-murder,” when in fact they are pro-choice. My favorite tag line which sums up the desire for personal autonomy is the bumper sticker I see around El Cerrito, Albany and Berkeley: “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.” I love this because I continually ask myself why must these pro-lifers seek to control what I do with my body. It really is quite simple, if you do not believe in abortion, do not have one. No one is running around imposing abortion on anyone. That was New York in the 1920s when Margaret Sanger was penning her initiative, the Negro Project (Medical Apartheid, Washington, Harriet A, 2006, pp. 195-6). That was the South in 1961 when Fannie Lou Hamer entered a hospital to treat a benign uterine fibroid tumor when instead she had, what is called a Mississippi Appendectomy now, her uterus removed (Washington, 2006, pp. 190). She was sterilized illegally. That being said, women’s health (Anyone remember John McCain’s air quotes around “health of the mother” and “pro-abortion movement” during the last presidential debate?) is still under-appreciated, understudied, and underdone. Adequate accessible contraception does not exist yet because birth control pills and emergency contraception (a la the morning-after pill) still requires a prescription. Many states require parental permission for a minor to obtain an abortion, thus infringing on the right to doctor-patient confidentiality. Privacy, anyone? Not to mention, the whole spectrum of female sexuality and lesbianism. Actually, this week’s New Yorker has a great article about a faction of the lesbian separatist movement during the 1960s and 1970s (thanks, Miss Levy for giving credit where it’s due about the borrowing of civil rights movement organization techniques and methods for the women’s lib movement): http://www.newyorker.com/online/2009/03/02/090302on_audio_levy .
2. We still need feminism because we are not yet equal in the eyes of the law and our fellow countryMEN. See above.
3. Feminism is about all of us. If none of those issues, which is not even close to comprehensive, speaks to you – what of the intersection of racism and sexism? Yes, white affluent women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were at the forefront passing the torch to others like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, but then there came a recognition that feminism is about all women. bell hooks, one of the more prominent black feminists speaks to this issue in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. In the preface (I just received it in the mail today! I hope that explains why am I on page xi), she states:
“Feminist thought and practice were fundamentally altered when radical women of color and white women allies began to rigorously challenge the notion that “gender” was the primary factor determining a women’s fate. . . because race and gender will determine that child’s fate. Looking at the interlocking nature of gender, race, and class was the perspective that changed the direction of feminist thought.”
In response to first wave and even second wave feminism, some writers and scholars created a separate group: womanism. Alice Walker spearheaded this concept and idea because she saw an inherent contradiction in the feminist movement as it was for its myopic focus. However, since those days mainstream feminism as embodied by the Ms. magazine type has done a much better job including the varying concerns and perspectives of different women. The movement has even become international in nature reaching out to Latin America instigating the creation of Los Encuentros, which are region-wide conferences for feminists and women’s rights activists. Feminism has taken root in parts of Africa, Asia and beyond. Much of the work Kiva and other micro-lending enterprises are taking is up is about empowering women to be entrepreneurs and break up the traditional chains of power. Rwanda has the highest proportion of female legislators in the world, 48.8%, as of Feb 28, 2007 (Women Political Leaders in Africa, Skaine, Rosemarie, 2008, pp. 157) It is about consciousness-raising. It is about agency of the individual. These things are taking root around the world. Aboriginal women are organizing. Women’s organizations and feminist groups are teaming up with indigenous groups, environmentalist groups, LGBTQ groups, environmentalists, labor groups, etc. to advance their cause and break hold of all forms of oppression.
4. Yes, feminism has a bad rap. The mainstream media thinks feminism is dead, well at least Time Magazine thought/thinks so: http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19980629,00.html Yes, there were lilith fairs, there is extreme promiscuity and moral degradation on television (thanks, Gossip Girl) and in pornography. Yes, women ran away and separated like in that New Yorker article. Yes, there was the third wave’s Girl Power movement which was obnoxious. And the Spice Girls. Yes, women in Point Reyes, Marin County lied down in the nude to spell out peace in protest of the Iraq invasion. Yes, Code Pink is flamboyant. And Women in Black are not. Yes, they gave feminism a “bad” name. But, also, there were/are the silent warriors fighting for our rights to be ignorant of our legacy and the fluency with which we live in our more progressive world. We have to reclaim feminism for ourselves.
And that is why I was so pleased to have stumbled onto a lecture with Faye Wattleton of The Black List at the Brooklyn Museum this afternoon. I had recently discussed feminism with a friend. She lamented the fact that feminism still carried the image of the bored suburban white wife’s cause. In that complaint was the acknowledgment that feminism, at one time, had not addressed the concerns of race and class. But, we went to this lecture today and ultimately, I think she came around. Every woman must discover feminism in her own way and find their own connection to the movement. My sister is doing that now. I even caught her reading The Feminine Mystique when she was staying with me after telling me she could care less because the feminists on her campus were “crazy.” One of my friend’s very long-term relationship with her male partner is about to dissolve over his lack of support for her feminist convictions. These sentiments are not the individual’s fault. The fault is our educational system which does not educate citizens about the importance of feminism and its achievements which are numerous. The fault lies with the mainstream media for demonizing feminists. Ultimately, the fault lies with us for becoming complacent.
Not everyone is lucky enough to go to hippie high school in Marin County (that’s my little pet name for my all girls’ Catholic independent high school) and have their social justice class focus on feminism. We had dinner parties, organized ‘take back the night’ events, and read A LOT about the international women’s movement which – half the time – operates without the knowledge of the other limbs. So, black women, feminism is for you. Feminism is for everyone. Read Angela Davis, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Patricia Hills Collins. Read Jennifer Baumgardner’s Manifesta. Read about Rigobera Menchu. Read about The Birthing Project. Subscribe to Bitch, Bust, and Ms. Donate to Planned Parenthood. Inform yourself, then go out and do something.
And like that, Black History Month is gone and Women’s History Month is here. Shouldn’t it be Women’s Herstory Month?