Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Feminism But Were Afraid to Ask
It’s a natural, normal part of life. But people hesitate to talk openly about their needs, their desires, and their concerns because they are so fearful of what others might think. But we all have urges, and we all have questions, and the more we can talk about them, the happier and more fulfilled we all will be. It should be a joyful, tender, and esteem-building part of life, not a source of confusion or shame. Yet it’s hard to get a handle on it, because although there’s a lot of information out there, much of it is judgmental, misinformed, or quite simply false. I’m speaking, of course, about feminism.
Although we can all agree on the most basic dictionary definition of feminism (the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes), it is rarely ever that simple or straightforward. Despite 150 years of activism in pursuit of women’s rights, and nearly 40 years of modern feminism, “feminism” is still considered by many to be a dirty word. In the mainstream media, when feminism is discussed at all, it’s most often talked about in negative or pessimistic terms: Time’s “Is Feminism Dead?” cover stories; the recent series of New York Times articles detailing how feminism has “failed” because upper-middle-class white women are still struggling with the work/family dilemma; any number of hand-wringing articles about why young women aren’t embracing the label; and so forth. Movie and tv starlets who portray assertive, confident, feminist-leaning characters routinely reject the word—Sarah Michelle Gellar, Drew Barrymore, I’m lookin’ at you—as do female musicians whose work is infused with gender play (Polly Jean Harvey, Patti Smith, Bjork). It’s not that these women aren’t into equality: It’s because they, like many people, are afraid of what the word implies to the rest of the world. Like the current slanderous usage of “liberal,” “feminist” has long been wielded as an epithet—hence many women’s discomfort in adopting it.
You wouldn’t know it from the blanket terms used to talk about feminism, but the movement’s rich history (and current practice) encompasses a slew of ideologies, offshoots, and internal disagreements: radical feminism, cultural feminism, liberal feminism, antiporn feminism, pro-sex feminism, third-wave feminism, womanism—but what does it all mean? A brief primer on the etiology of feminism is sorely needed. The following is hardly exhaustive, and only barely objective, and I must mention that many of the nuances and linguistic turns are still up for debate by and among feminists. So leave your preconceptions behind and join me in this exciting exploration of one of life’s most basic urges: feminism.
LIBERAL FEMINISM, A.K.A. JUST PLAIN FEMINISM
Unless you’re reading academic treatises about the history or political philosophies of feminism, you almost never hear the term “liberal feminism”—despite the fact that it’s the most accurate descriptor for almost all of the mainstream institutional and legislative feminism at work in the United States today. Want to level the playing field? Break the glass ceiling? Make room for women at the table of power? Then you’re espousing liberal feminism. Campaigns for legislative-based gender equity—from the ERA to Title IX to Roe v. Wade to the Violence Against Women Act to landmark sexual-harassment suits like the one detailed in the recent film North Country—all arise out of liberal feminism.
The “liberal” part refers not to today’s muddled characterizations of Democrats, progressives, or granolas in general but rather to the 300-year-old political philosophy detailing the natural rights of “man”: inalienable rights to government, property, the development of powers, and gratification of desire—in other words, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the right to vote and to shop.
Today, liberal feminism is at work in the countless local, state, and federal bills that attempt to codify the seemingly no-duh stance that gender should not be a factor in education, employment, housing, or anything else.
Derogatory terms: Well, there’s “victim feminism,” which is often wielded by the cabal of notorious antifeminist “feminists” (e.g., Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, Daphne Patai) who argue that if women really want equal rights, they shouldn’t ask for special treatment. And then there’s “feminazi”—a choice turn of phrase coined by that bastion of reason Rush Limbaugh that conjures the image of fascist gender terrorists who seek to control and police all aspects of men’s lives.
The centuries-long fight for women’s right to vote was not just about ballot-casting, but about securing women’s right to participate as full citizens: to hold property, keep their own wages, have guardianship of their children, and, yes, vote. While these rights are all direct outgrowths of classic liberalism, it’s worth noting that when, in the mid-1800s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that suffrage must be added to the platform of the nascent women’s rights campaign, she was considered by many of her supporters—let alone her detractors—to be ridiculous, if not dangerously radical. And subsequent suffrage campaigners like Alice Paul truly were militant activists, engaging in acts of civil disobedience to the disdain of more conservative suffragists like Carrie Chapman Catt, whose tactics centered more on discreet but steady lobbying. (This time is also known retrospectively as the first wave of feminism.)
Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
The liberal feminist holy grail. In one stroke, it declares: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” First drafted and proposed by Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party in 1923, the ERA was introduced in every session of Congress until it finally passed in 1972, thanks to the nationwide energy generated by second-wave feminism,Born out of women’s frustrations at the sexism of their male comrades in the antiwar, student left, and civil rights movements in the late ’60s, the women’s liberation movement (which came to be known as second-wave feminism) encompassed a range of strategies, from NOW-style liberal feminism to smash-the-patriarchy radical feminism. sending it to the states for ratification. In one year, 22 of the required 38 states had ratified it, but then the campaign slowed down. Despite an extension—and thanks to the admittedly impressive (if unhinged) efforts of Phyllis Schlaﬂy, whose STOP ERA campaign played on public fears of women getting drafted and unisex bathrooms—it fizzled out. The ERA, or a differently named version of it, has been introduced—unsuccessfully—in every subsequent Congress. So ladies, the next time you hear someone say, “Didn’t all that feminist stuff get solved in the ’80s?” remind them that, in the eyes of the U.S. Constitution, women are still not equal to men.
National Organization for Women (NOW)
The liberal feminist organization of record was established in 1966 by Betty Friedan, among others, to “take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” Its mission statement today has evolved into a less classically liberal position: “NOW is dedicated to making legal, political, social and economic change in our society in order to achieve our goal, which is to eliminate sexism and end all oppression.”
Womanism; black feminism
Black women like Cellestine Ware, Pauli Murray, and Shirley Chisholm, to name just a few, were an integral part of the early women’s liberation movement, especially the branches that arose out of women’s experiences in the civil rights movement. But early efforts to characterize a universal female experience were largely informed by a white American middle-class perspective, and were thus problematic. The National Black Feminist Organization, created in 1973, is one of the groups that were established to broaden the black liberation struggle to include women’s concerns and to stake black women’s claim to the women’s liberation movement. Concerned that feminists were overly singular in their focus on gender as a unifying caste, black feminist theorists and activists (like Michelle Wallace, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and bell hooks) embarked on the task of formulating an approach to female liberation that took into account the double jeopardy of race and gender. In her 1983 book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker coined the term “womanism” to describe black feminism.
Black feminists have been joined by Chicana feminists like Gloria Anzuldúa and Cherríe Moraga and other women of color to broaden the scope of feminism beyond a white middle-class perspective and to explore the intersections of ethnicity, race, class, and gender—exemplified by the anthologies This Bridge Called My Back (1981), This Bridge We Call Home (2002), and Colonize This! (2002).
This is a sly attempt by antifeminist “feminists”—such as Christina Hoff Sommers, author of Who Stole Feminism? (1994), and the freaky neocon think tank called the Independent Women’s Forum—to appeal to the sentient public that by and large agrees with concepts like equal pay for equal work without actually acknowledging that sexism still exists. (Who can argue with equity?) But as wielded by Hoff Sommers, the IWF, and others, it’s really just another word for antifeminism, unchecked capitalism, corporate welfare, and neoconservatism.
I hate to break it to you, but contrary to popular belief, it takes more than a bad attitude, hairy armpits, or lack of a sense of humor to be a radical feminist. Read on...
Part 1: Definition
Radical feminism arose in the late 1960s as a political movement that identified the oppression of women, as a sex-based class or caste, as the most pernicious oppression of them all. The “radical” part came from its proponents’ background in the student left, civil rights, and antiwar movements, and was coupled with “feminist” to formulate a radical approach to women’s liberation. Radical feminists wanted not for women to share power with men but to abolish the notion of power itself—starting with the sex roles that establish power relations between genders. They led direct actions like the 1968 protest against the Miss America pageant and a sit-in at Ladies’ Home Journal; held speakouts about once-unmentionable topics like abortion and rape; tackled the myth of the vaginal orgasm; questioned the nuclear family; and encouraged women to point out oppression wherever they saw it.Classic texts of radical feminism include, to name just a few, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Ti-Grace Atkinson’s Amazon Odyssey, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Cellestine Ware’s Woman Power, Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, and the anthologies Sisterhood Is Powerful (edited by Robin Morgan), Radical Feminism (edited by Anne Koedt and Ellen Levine), and especially the manifestos, diatribes, and position papers collected in the zine-like Notes from the First Year and Notes from the Second Year, which are available on microfilm.
In groups like New York Radical Women, Cell 16, Redstockings, The Feminists, and W.I.T.C.H., radical feminists declared the personal to be political and pioneered the now-classic feminist strategy of consciousness-raising: using the sharing of personal experience as the first step toward political consciousness. (Some radical feminists, in looking at the overwhelming reach of patriarchy, advocated female separatism as an antidote—helping create the enduring myth that feminists are man-haters.)
Radical feminism in all its glory was a short-lived phenomenon (lasting from roughly 1968 to 1972), but its inﬂuence is immeasurable: Radical feminists spread the idea of women’s liberation across the U.S., reframed the language of the feminist debate, and pushed liberal feminism to be more radical.
Part 2: Confusion
Today, the term “radical feminism” is wielded equally—and equally incorrectly—by outraged conservatives and self-proclaimed feminists alike. What other term would be used to describe both Bush toadie/erstwhile Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and lifelong activist Andrea Dworkin? But it’s true: According to the radically antifeminist Concerned Women for America, Miers once gave a speech that “indicate[s] a radical feminist worldview”—by which the ladies of CWA seem to mean such “sex-baiting comments” as “We all know that Congress and of course the Senate are vastly male-dominated.... You can muse about what the reason for this is and I have to conclude that a large factor is the control of financial resources.” (I know: How radical!)
Other common recipients of the “radical feminist” epithet include the oh-so-extremist Senators and Congresspeople who support the Violence Against Women Act (which states, simply enough, that domestic and sexual violence hurt women and children, and perpetrators should be punished), UNICEF (for suggesting that the well-being of children is integrally linked to the well-being of their mothers), that man-hating gender terrorist Hillary Clinton, and, of course, pro-choice activists. This usage of “radical” is a deliberate attempt to discredit otherwise modest expressions of concern for women’s most basic civil rights.
But it isn’t just far-right wackos who miswield the term: More moderate folks who aren’t well versed in feminist history or theory tend to associate any outspoken expression of feminist leanings as “radical,” so that any instance of speaking up, even softly, becomes associated with the word. Valerie Solanas, the author of the satiric 1967 S.C.U.M. Manifesto that advocated destroying “the male sex” (along with capitalism) is frequently labeled a radical feminist, despite the fact that she was never a part of any organized feminist group, and her public feminist efforts were limited to the manifesto. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the bubblegum-pink “radical feminist” t-shirt sold by the Feminist Majority Foundation, which, while hardly the most egregious offense, still largely misses the point: Radical feminism has a rich history and complex etiology of its own that goes beyond Grrrr! I’m a feisty femme(inist) and you better not mess with me!
Which brings us to Andrea Dworkin, perhaps the best-known radical in feminism’s back pages. In the public mind, Dworkin was radical because she was extreme, and there’s no denying that she made incendiary claims and proposals. But she was also willing to push the idea of gender oppression to its limit, and make sweeping pronouncements that bulldozed a path for more tempered discussion. Her unwavering antiporn stance is also closely allied, within both the feminist movement and the public at large, with the idea of radical feminism, although that in itself is a bone of contention among feminists. (Some contemporary feminists—including the publishers of the storied feminist newsjournal Off Our Backs and the webzine Feminista!—maintain a strict definition of radical feminism as antiporn. Others, however—like Judith Levine, Susie Bright, and Ellen Willis—combine a radical feminist outlook with a sex-radical perspective, although they are more likely to self-identify as sex radicals and feminists, or simply as feminists, than as radical feminists.)
Derogatory terms: bra-burners,This seems like a good place to point out that no bras were ever actually burned. At the 1968 No More Miss America protest in Atlantic City organized by New York Radical Women, feminists hoped to burn oppressive instruments of femininity (girdles, high heels, curlers, etc.) in a “freedom trashcan,” but they couldn’t get a fire permit. They did, however, crown a live sheep Miss America. Still, the titillating “feminists = bra burners” equation has been impressively enduring. libbers, hairy-legged man-haters, feminazis, “radical feminists.”
Are porn, prostitution, and sex work always and inherently bad for women? For more than two decades, this debate has raged among feminists of all stripes.
Often conﬂated with radical feminism, antiporn feminism grew out of radical feminism in the late ’70s and early ’80s—as did its counterpart, pro-sex feminism. The feminist porn wars of the ’80s are largely forgotten to the general public by now, but at the time they were heated, divisive, and intensely personal. In 1982, Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women held a conference called “Towards a Politics of Sexuality,” which was picketed by antiporn feminists for including explorations of s&m and overall pro-sex viewpoints along with discussions of race and sexuality as well as sexual history (many of which were published in the 1983 anthology Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality).
Leading the charge on the anti side were Women Against Pornography (a loosely organized group whose supporters at one point or another included Andrea Dworkin, attorney/legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon, Susan Brownmiller, and Gloria Steinem) who rallied behind Robin Morgan’s famous declaration that “porn is the theory, rape is the practice,” and argued that the misogynist images in pornography were harmful to women and girls. WAP picketed strip clubs and adult video stores in Times Square, while Dworkin and MacKinnon wrote and campaigned for legislation positing that pornography is a violation of women’s civil rights (none of which has ever been adopted). They were countered by anticensorship feminists like Ellen Willis, Nadine Strossen, and Carole Vance, who argued that eliminating pornography wouldn’t eliminate the rape and battery of women, and that policing sexual desire and prohibiting free expression weren’t good for anyone. (See also: pro-sex feminism.)
Although porn and sexual imagery are even more pervasive in popular culture than they were in the ’80s, WAP’s legacy can be seen throughout mainstream culture, most clearly in the popular myth that all feminists are against pornography, and even against sex itself.
To hear Pat Roberston tell it, “lesbian feminism” is redundant (remember: “Feminism encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians”), but it’s a lot more complicated than that. In the early ’70s, some feminists asserted that lesbianism was the natural extension of feminism, and that until the patriarchy was overthrown, sleeping with men was tantamount to treason. Other groups, like Ti-Grace Atkinson’s The Feminists, instituted membership quotas: Only one-third of members could be married to or living with men. Around the same time, in response to NOW’s unfortunate ﬂirtation with homophobia (leaders were concerned about the potential pr fallout from an alleged “lavender menace” within NOW’s ranks), lesbian feminists—like Rita Mae Brown, Jill Johnston, Charlotte Bunch, Audre Lorde, and groups like Radicalesbians and the Lavender Menace—not only encouraged activism on behalf of gay women but also developed a body of theory and writings on the interconnections between feminism and female homosexuality. Adrienne Rich’s landmark 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” helped give shape both to lesbian feminism and to the strain of cultural feminism aligned with women-born-women-only spaces like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, with the rise of queer theory and identity (articulated by folks like Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who argued that sex and gender are socially constructed, not inborn), a newer breed of lesbian feminism (now generally dubbed queer feminism) emerged. This more ﬂuid approach to sexual orientation involves more questioning of gender itself, from the binary gender system to the essentialist feminist notions of female behavior, and has also yielded groundbreaking theoretical work on female masculinity by scholars like Judith Halberstam, Joan Nestle, and Kate Bornstein.
CULTURAL FEMINISM, a.k.a. ESSENTIALIST FEMINISM, A.K.A. DIFFERENCE FEMINISM
A commonly held objection to the term “feminism” is that, linguistically, it seems to elevate women over men—a point of view that is reinforced by the cultural/essentialist strains of feminism positing that women are naturally, biologically different (and often better) than men.
This pro-woman branch of feminism grew out of ’70s-era radical feminism, much to the frustration of many radicals, who argued not for the elevation of femalekind but for the obliteration of all socially determined gender roles. The retreat into cultural feminism is understandable, especially for women who had been on the front lines of feminism for years, but its conﬂation with radical feminism has unfortunately obscured the histories of both branches. Today, there’s a wide range of expressions of cultural feminism, from the gynocentric spirituality of Mary Daly to Women Who Run with the Wolves–style New Ageism to the women-as-peacemakers exhortations of Code Pink.
Difference (or essentialist) feminism is the most common contemporary application of cultural feminism, in its scientific grounding of differences between men and women, such as those identified by Carol Gilligan in her classic text, In a Different Voice. Difference feminism holds that women are naturally more maternal and nurturing, hence better parents and more likely to be peacemakers; more moral, hence better social gatekeepers and more ethical politicians or leaders; better communicators; less violent; less competitive; and just generally Venusian.
Derogatory terms: Antifeminist crusader Christina Hoff Sommers likes the confusing moniker “gender feminism.”
When the media takes a moment off from ponderously declaring feminism dead or irrelevant to have a look around at contemporary feminists, all it seems to find are third-wavers: If you’re under 40 and you’re a feminist, then you’re a third-wave feminist—regardless of your politics.
While the first wave of feminism (the campaign for women’s suffrage) spanned some 150 years, the second wave was allotted less than a quarter-century before being declared “over” by the mainstream media, most notably by Time’s 1989 cover story (careful readers will note that this one was a full nine years before their even more infamous 1998 “Is Feminism Dead?” cover). Thus, in 1989, when NOW president Patricia Ireland declared that, in response to increasing federal and state restrictions on abortion, a “third wave is coming,” she was acknowledging both the effect of the decade-long backlash (soon to be limned by Susan Faludi in her 1991 book of the same name) in dampening the public face of feminism and the growing activism by young, college-age women. In 1992, Rebecca Walker and Shannon Liss formed the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation (which became the Third Wave Foundation) to mobilize young people—especially young women—to become politically active; its commitment to a multiracial, multigender, and multiclass organizing effort is a hallmark of the best of third-wave activism.
The third-wave moniker has been applied to folks with a huge range of political beliefs, from the in-your-face, punk-rock tactics of riot grrrls to Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth/Fire with Fire power feminismRemember power feminism? So dubbed by Wolf in 1994, it was a reaction to the backlash-generated idea that feminists were antisex man-haters who saw all women as victims; really it was nothing more than we-want-a-seat-at-the-corporate-table liberal feminism in a new dress. to Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’s feminism-is-for-everybody activism to Bust’s (and Bitch’s) media-savvy 18-to-34-year-old demographic. From its first utterance, the notion of a third wave has generated controversy and concern that both the media and young women were (and are), in their own ways, ﬂattening the powerful complexities and nuances of second-wave feminism into a man-hating, anti-lipstick stereotype, and setting up a generational antagonism.Not all feminists embrace the wave metaphor—none of us here at Bitch is particularly thrilled by it. By dividing feminists by a vague generational marker, the wave concept obscures all the other differences and challenging dialogue between and among feminists, not to mention the similarities and shared beliefs across generations—such as a commitment to ending violence against women, preserving and expanding reproductive rights, and working to dismantle gender hierarchies in all forms. A conspiracy theorist might even argue that the wave idea is a devious tool by which to foment discord between generations of feminists, not that I’d go that far.
Today, “third-wave feminism” is often used to describe a kind of companionable, man-friendly, pro-sex, pro–femininity-if-you-want-it feminism that reﬂects the successes of the second wave’s struggle for equal footing. Although third-wave feminists are engaged in a wide variety of grassroots political organizing (from voter-registration drives to campaigns to save abortion rights), much of the ink spilled on the third wave from both the mainstream press and feminist anthologies paints a picture of a generation that is more interested in self-determination and individual decisions than in understanding the political impact of them.
Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards coined this term in their 2000 book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future to describe the pro-femininity line of young feminists, most notably expressed by Bust. The reclamation of makeup and other girly accoutrements, and the validation of traditionally female activities like cooking, crafting, and talking about sex, they concluded, is a valid way to express the desire for equality—valuing the inherently female aspects of life, rather than trying to erase them. Unfortunately, the tenets of girlie feminism—that women’s work is valuable; that crafts are a powerful link to female history; that sexual experimentation is a potent means of feminist expression—have been easily co-opted by market forces and, in many cases, diluted by the resulting slew of consumer products.
The pro-sex line of feminism was born out of the ’80s porn wars, in reaction to both the feminist antiporn crusades and the sexual repression of the early Reagan years, and owes its name to a Village Voice article by Ellen Willis titled “Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?” What began as an exploration of the power politics of sexuality by women like Willis, Gayle Rubin, and Betty Dodson evolved during the ’90s into an explicit sex-positive approach to feminism. (In a distinct nod to the complicated identity of radical feminism, some sex-positive feminists also use the term “sex radical” to describe themselves.) Proponents run the gamut from theorists like bell hooks and Patrick Califia to erotica-and-criticism writers like Susie Bright and Rachel Kramer Bussel to performance artists like Annie Sprinkle.
Derogatory terms: “Do-me feminism,” coined by Esquire in 1994, in startled response to the supposed emergence of photogenic, unabashedly sexual feminists like Susie Bright, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and Naomi Wolf; sexually suggestive female musicians like Liz Phair and Courtney Love; and professional sex educators like Tristan Taormino and Nina Hartley. Also: “Lipstick feminism.”
I’M NOT A FEMINIST BUT... FEMINISM
I’m not a feminist, but I support a woman’s right to have an abortion. I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal pay for equal work. I’m not a feminist, but I organized a campaign against sexual harassment at my school. And so it goes, the litany of statements in support of feminist issues, accompanied by the stark disclaimer. A major project of contemporary feminism is encouraging “I’m not...but” feminists to embrace the label whole-heartedly, while also recognizing that in many ways the word is less important than the actions or ethos.
Current readers of the New York Times might not be surprised to learn that as early as 1981 the paper of record was already signaling the death knell of feminism: “Voices from the Post-Feminist Generation” (October 1981) reads a whole lot like “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood” (September 2005). Postfeminism is the notion that the feminist movement has outlived its usefulness, because, after all, we have a few female Senators, it’s illegal to discriminate against women in job hiring, there’s a women’s pro basketball league, and record numbers of women are attending college.Of course, if you want to get all Lacanian about it, postfeminism also derives from the postmodern theories of destabilizing identities, deconstruction, and intertextuality. This primer, however, is long enough already. Put down your torches, gals, ’cause the struggle is over!
While such sentiments do point to feminism’s far-reaching success, they also tend to re-personalize the political by assigning any continuing gender-related struggles to individual circumstances. And that, my friends, isn’t good for anybody. The truth is, painting ours as a postfeminist world gets everyone in power off the hook; it pretends that everything is peachy and suggests that if, for you, it isn’t, then the problem lies with you and your personal choices, not with any larger systems of, oh, let’s say patriarchy or capitalism or racism or classism.
Despite the fact that more people than ever embrace feminist causes, the word itself still suffers from image problems. Because feminism suggests that everything isn’t hunky-dory, it forces people to acknowledge the problems that plague us. But rather than positioning all women as helpless victims, as many antifeminists claim, feminism offers women a sense of agency, history, and solidarity. It provides a structural framework for making sense of thorny personal issues, and it offers a shared commitment to resolve these issues. Instructive bumper-sticker slogan: “I’ll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy.”
I’M A FEMINIST AND...
If you’re reading Bitch, you are most likely already down with the F-word. In fact, you’ve probably been muttering to yourself, “Well, what about socialist feminism/anarchofeminism/third-world feminism?” All good points, and it only proves that feminism is, as bell hooks famously put, for everybody, whether or not you need to append an adjective to make it feel like it belongs to you. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which labels you choose or reject. What matters is your commitment to challenging the notion that a person’s gender should, by law or by rote, be an obstacle to civil and personal liberties. It’s important to have a sense of feminism’s complex history, but it’s also crucial to know—and help others understand—that feminism isn’t something that happened to your mother or grandmother and is now over. It’s living, breathing, and evolving.
So, how can you talk to your friends, family, and other concerned people about feminism? First of all, remember that many people do have these misconceptions, or have never received any adequate education on the topic. Start with the facts: Feminism is the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Hard to argue with, right? Then you can slowly introduce more complex issues, as questions arise. Be patient: Not everyone takes to feminism right away. Some people, like the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd or the always-incendiary Camille Paglia, will insist on referring to “the feminists” as if they are one big indistinguishable lump. Others will insist on modifying their own identification as feminist with a sentence like “But I don’t hate men or anything.” But just keep talking, and encourage others you know to do the same. And in time, you’ll make feminism a normal, everyday part of your life and the lives of those around you.
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