Naming a Movement

I recently reread Manifesta by Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner. In it, the authors try to define third wave feminism in order to give it credit as a movement and inspire young women to continue their activism.

One of the things the women bring up is the fact that the American media perennially asks whether or not feminism is dead. This frames feminism in terms of a movement that is defunct. We are continually trying to defend it, instead of proactively working towards our goals. We don't receive credit or even attention for the things we are doing to continue the fight for equality between the sexes.

Now, I agree with the authors of Manifesta that a lot of the reason for this is the mainstream media's bias against feminism. I also wonder, though, if our own definitions of feminism as a term and a movement contribute to the idea that it has died.

When the first wave "ended," there was a lull between the liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the radicalism of the 1960s and '70s. Women were still doing things, of course; Alice Paul was fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment, Margaret Sanger was promoting reproductive rights, and so many other women were continuing to strive for equality.

At that point, though, the term "feminism" had not yet become popular. The stated purpose of the women's rights movement up to that point had been to gain legal rights for women. The women who worked towards this goal were called "suffragists" not "feminists." There was no concretely defined Movement for the Rights of Women to vilify, backlash against, or declare dead. It was just a group of activists doing their thang.

These days, we each are still working for our individual causes. Some work for pay equality, others for the end of violence against women, still more for freedom of gender expression. Men and women are working to promote sexual freedom and expression, while others are fighting to make pornography illegal for objectifying women. There are people everywhere trying to end sexual harassment, break through the glass ceiling, or be allowed to stay at home and take care of the kids without stigma. They are all called feminists.

We are so obsessed with this definition, with calling ourselves something. We want so badly to be a cohesive movement. We want to be a community. It's an understandable desire; lots of people working together for a common goal can accomplish more than a few working for different things. We can feel supported, surrounded by brothers and sisters. We feel like we're getting somewhere.

The problem, though, is that while we are all working towards a similar ultimate goal, feminists argue with each other all the time. Over almost everything. By trying to slap the same label on every person who wants equality between men and women, no matter what that looks like to them, we are limiting our ability to disagree. We are giving our opponents an easy way to attack us. Because being a feminist means so many things at once, it's easy for people who want to discredit those in the movement, to pick and choose unflattering parts of feminism to publicize. If a feminist anywhere does something unpopular or unreasonable, even if it's something most of us disagree with, we all suffer the consequences to our image.

We also don't allow ourselves time for a lull. So what if the movement is fragmented? So what if there is no Movement right now? We are still getting stuff done, just like the activists between 1920 and 1960. Why do we have to be called a wave? Maybe we should be saving that term (if we have to apply it at all) for the next time we all manage to rally around a specific cause, the next time we make a lot of progress in a short period of time. I think we should give ourselves time in between waves to just put our heads down and work.

I have my own issues with the word "feminist," which I can get into later, but I do accept the label for myself. It is the easiest way to describe what I do and what drives me. I care very deeply about equality between men and women, and at its very core that's what feminism stands for. I hope, though, that we can see greater acceptance of the diversity and complexity of what the word means to diverse and complex people. Perhaps that will mean embracing some other name for ourselves. Perhaps it means living without labels. I guess I'll have to wait and see.


Myca said...

My supersmart analysis: I think it's a tough thing.

I was talking the other day to the tigerbeatdown chica about her post "Dear Andrea Dworkin," and she expressed a similar frustration, where even though we share 90% of views in common with a fellow feminist (rape is bad, equal pay is good, nothing wrong with gay people, etc.), it's always the 10% (Pornography! Sex work! Blowjobs! Transfolk! False consciousness!) that we end up fighting over.

I do think that some of this has to do with egregious jerkiness (the whole "transwomen aren't really women" thing, frex), but I also think that there's a lot there about getting angrier at our ostensible allies who get things a little wrong than we do at our actual opponents, since we never expected them to get stuff right at all. If that makes sense, anyhow.


Paradox said...

I think that's a good point about expectations. Being with other feminists can feel like a safe oasis, a break from sometimes exhausting sexism, and I think the sense of betrayal of that safety is what causes all the hurt feelings. I do hope we can overcome that, though, because I think we can all learn a lot from each other.

On living, loving, learning, and fucking with the materials I've got at hand.

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