The use of the term “feminist” inhibits the goals of the movement for equality. In her article “Why I’m a Feminist,” Lauren Anderson describes some of the many negative stereotypes associated with “feminism” and “feminists” like “hairy-legged, bitchy, [and] lesbian” (Anderson 32). According to this stereotype, feminists are destructive, hateful, selfish and angry. These stereotypes are created and reinforced in and by our culture, and are very difficult to change. The semantics of a word are determined by its usage. Regardless if a dictionary or encyclopaedia defines feminism as the “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language qtd. at www.dictionary.com), popular use interprets feminism as a radical movement, full of militant extremists.
Some self-defined feminists choose to struggle against this popular definition, in a quest to open the eyes and ears of society to the important work of the women’s movements. They claim that the purpose of feminism is to open doors and break socially constructed barriers erected to maintain the patriarchal power structure and keep women out of the public sphere. They say nothing about hating men, only about an imbalance in the power structure of society. This challenge seems insurmountable. It is time to re-evaluate what the feminist movement stands for and find a less stigmatized vocabulary capable of describing the goals and purposes of the movement while at the same time maintaining an open and receptive audience in present-day society.
Feminism has grown in its mandate, to the point that the word “feminism” is insufficient to describe the broad scope of its concerns. No longer is feminism exclusively about the issues of white, middle class women of privilege. In its effort to escape its origins of representing an exclusive portion of the population, feminists have tried to recognize and give voice to the needs of other marginalized groups. By recognizing the diversity of women’s identities and experiences, feminism seeks to expand its scope and repair the damage of its historical narrow focus. In spite of the great progress towards equality accomplished by women during the first and second wave of feminism, many women, like Susan B. Anthony, have acted with “unexamined racist attitudes” (Rich 136-137). Feminism has ballooned to include experiences of discrimination in regards to race, ethnicity, age, class, sexuality, and ability and fueled the debate regarding the social construction of both gender and sex. Feminism is too narrow a term to encompass all these issues. The word “feminist” limits the scope of one’s concern to issues specific only to women’s oppression.
There is a danger in “ism’s”. Identifying with an “ism” or as an “ist” can prevent an individual from pursuing their own thoughts and drawing their own conclusions and plans for action. When a group reputation develops, members of the group are automatically accorded this reputation and are no longer assessed as individuals. In the case of feminism, this leads back to the problem of language and stereotypes. It is very difficult for some people to accept that not all feminists are alike, like Anderson herself realizes (32). Identifying as an “ist” also creates in-group and out-group status. No longer is individual behaviour assessed, instead the question is asked whether an individul is “one of us or one of them?” When this happens the focus is no longer on issues of oppression and dominance but on belonging and rank.
People are holistic individuals with identities composed of multiplicitous determinants like age, class, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, ability, etc. When feminism is defined in terms of women’s oppression, it is difficult to include all these other factors, which affect an individual. It is impossible and unproductive to rank oppression and this is what the concept of feminism does. Maintaining a focus on gender issues divide an individual’s struggle so that at one moment she fights against gender discrimination casting aside her race and sexuality while at another moment she may be challenging sexual discrimination, but ignoring issues of class or age. There should be no hierarchy of oppression, no saying that gender discrimination supersedes racial or sexual discrimination. All people are entitled to equality as a basic personal freedom. Dividing the issues to address them from separate movements fragments people’s time, energy and physical resources. It is unfair to say that a woman who has white skin and lives in poverty with her children is more or less oppressed than a man with brown skin, a wheelchair and a same sex partner. Both experience prejudice and privilege and both have valid concerns in need of voice and action. Asking either to identify which piece of their identity causes them the most difficulty is unjust because societal bias needs to be addressed collectively, and the integrity of individual identities maintained. It is only through the collective address of all forms of discrimination that attitudes in society can begin to shift.
Although the field of women’s studies acknowledges and speaks to the diversity of individual experience, the word feminism by its root excludes other issues. Women suffer discrimination based on their sex and many activists fight or have fought for suffrage, the right to education, paid work, and control over reproduction and health. Because there are many issues that women continue to face, like childcare, the glass ceiling, the pink collar ghetto, gendered division of housework, violence, sexual harassment, and so on, there continues to be a need for activism. I support this but not to the exclusion of other issues. Because I do not want to participate in the ranking of oppression I reject the label “feminist”. By concentrating on practice rather than theory, the experiences and needs of real people: their “flesh, blood, violence, sexuality, [and] anger” (Rich 155) will be central to the movement for equality.