Defining… Feminism

This month I’m starting a ‘Defining… ‘ series, in which I explore and define terms and concepts that are central to my research. I’m hoping that others will find this useful when they, in desperation, turn to a google search for an important but elusive definition, as I have done so many times. I also hope that it will help me to explain and contextualise my research for others – a task I continue to find surprisingly difficult.

I’m going to start with feminism because I think it’s a term that’s in everyone’s vocabulary, yet in my experience, can be interpreted very differently from one person to the next.

A recent advertising campaign by UN Women used Google searches to show how women are perceived. To kick-start my effort to define feminism, I thought I’d try the same trick. The Google gods told me this:

feminism is 2

The first search term, ‘feminism is for everybody’, is the title of bell hooks’ (2000) book, in which she attempts to introduce feminism to a wider audience. The introduction to this publication was the first discussion point at Olga Castro and Katy Pilcher’s first ‘Feminist Café’ meeting last week at Aston University. It’s a sentiment I fully support. So far so good.

The overwhelmingly pejorative nature of many of the search terms, marking feminism as ‘wrong’, ‘bullshit’ and ‘dead’, unfortunately, didn’t surprise me. The problem is, for many, feminism is a dirty word. And not just for men – many women, too, are desperate to dissociate themselves from it (Katy Perry is a good A-list example). My own mother was a staunch feminist and used to take me to marches as a young child. Of course, as a rebellious teenager, I completely rejected feminism and wanted nothing to do with it. Fortunately, feminism and I kissed and made up but I think many women remain permanently estranged from the concept.

I think the semantic derogation of ‘feminism’, though, is one of many reasons we so desperately need it. It’s just another example of the age-old pattern of words associated with women going down the toilet quicker than you can shout ‘suffragette!’ Women are mistresses, hussies, they are bitches, mares, they are hysterical and they are feminist… eugh.

But the wonderful thing is that women are reclaiming feminism. Emma Watson’s recent speech at the UN headquarters, though not universally acclaimed by feminists, was an important step towards dispelling some of the myths that surround feminism. Women like Watson are refusing to let ‘feminism’ sink into the quagmire of gendered abuse terms and insults. And this is as sure a sign as any that feminism is very much alive and kicking.

I was a little baffled by Google’s third offering. Feminism is sexism? Quite the opposite… feminism is anti-sexism. This points to a fundamental confusion about what feminism ‘means’.

Which reminds me, I still haven’t explained what feminism is. Unfortunately, I have to confess that I don’t believe anyone can give a definitive answer to that question. Maybe that’s why some people (including the aforementioned Katy Perry) find it so confusing. Emma Watson has a good go at lending some clarity to the issue, stating unequivocally that feminism is ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities’. Her direct approach is no doubt helpful for many, but feminism doesn’t have just one meaning, and in truth her effort doesn’t capture what feminism means to me.

Feminists often affiliate themselves with different ‘branches’, who often adopt varied definitions of feminism. A feminist might identify themselves as radical, liberal, marxist, socialist or poststructuralist. I’m going to put my cards on the table and describe myself as a poststructuralist feminist. As such, the most important goal of feminism for me is ‘the opening up of all social ways of being to all people’ (Weedon, 1997: 18). This goal is reflected in my own research, which aims to open up of ways of being a mother; to contribute to the breaking down of gendered boundaries and stereotypes about who brings up children and how they do it. As a feminist poststructuralist, I’m particularly concerned with how women and men are defined by their gender and sexuality, and, importantly, the language that relates to it. For Weedon, whose book Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (1996) has been a significant influence in my work, feminism is also concerned with investigating how we might begin to redefine gendered terms for ourselves.

For me, feminism is not just an issue for women; rather, it is concerned with issues of gender (and sexuality) in relation to social life and, importantly, power. Watson’s invitation to men has caused a lot of controversy amongst feminists, but I have to say that I agree with her, bell hooks, and Google: feminism is for everybody.

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