When one thinks of a “feminist” what first comes to mind? A raging lesbian that is tired of men all together, a heterosexual woman tired of the dominant male societal structure or a activist festering over pro-choice? What ideas come to mind when one hears of a stripper, white-collar professional, or leftwing liberal?
Ironically, just as there are different perceptions of what a feminist entails, there are different ideologies of feminism.
Growing up in a strong, successful community and family of African American women, determination, agency and independence were expected. In my family, there are female politicians, news anchors, preachers, singers, property owners and investors. But my relatives never discussed feminism or considered themselves feminists. Whenever I did hear about it, whether in school or on television, the relation was to lesbians and never to men. However, my imposed stereotype luckily changed.
This semester, I enrolled in a class called women and politics. I assumed the class would focus on contemporary politics, like Hillary Clinton’s expected run for the 2008 presidential election or Condoleezza Rice’s role as secretary of state. However, my professor decided to center the class on feminist theory – the past and present.
When I went to Temple’s bookstore to purchase course materials for my feminist theory course, I was cordially greeted by two male employees. Upon checkout and a little mundane conversation, the cashier asked me, “Oh sista, you’re one of those?” I didn’t know whether to feel empowered or disrespected. Ironically, at that point, I realized I did not actually know what feminism really meant or if it related to me.
As a result of taking this course, I have come to realize there is no fixed definition of feminism. Furthermore, in there being no fixed definition, I recognize that many feminist ideologies contradict each other. For instance, my class watched a video titled, “Live Nude Girls Unite.” This particular documentary centers on the first Strippers Union in San Francisco. Women who choose to display their bodies for money and described themselves as feminists, wanted fair treatment on the job. On the other hand, we studied Susan MacKinnon, a lawyer and activist against pornography. Mackinnon believed sex work could not be empowering due to the male dominance paradigm. In that, men define sexuality, create gender divisions and thus create the definition of sex.
Barbara Smith, a leading feminist writer, activist and Common Council woman in Albany, N.Y., defines feminism as the political theory and practice that struggles to free “all” women: women of color, working class women, poor women, Jewish women, women with disabilities, lesbians, old women – as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women.
Contrary to Smith, while I believe there is no fixed definition of feminism, I believe feminism is based on a collection of life experiences, how people react to their experiences in the public or private sphere, and choose to conduct their lives. Feminism cannot have a universal definition because it is based on an individual’s personal convictions, beliefs, preferences and problems.
Feminists are so much more than lesbians or bra-burners.
Diona Fay Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.