Reclaiming “feminist”

It is no secret to those who know me that I hold the title Feminist as something very important to my identity.  When asked about who I am or what my cultural background is, feminist is usually one of the first words that spring forth.  So, I hope you can understand why I have so much ire about people who clearly do not hold feminist values, or for that matter even understand what feminist values are, claiming to be a feminist.  It is a slap in the face.  It is an attack on who I am and much of what is important to me.  It, quite frankly, is an assault on my being.

I had the experience recently of coming across someone out here in cyber-land who claimed to be a feminist.  He stated this right before he proceeded to trivialize the issues of reproductive choice currently facing women in our country.  This bothered me.  It reached into my very being and pulled upward a visceral, angry feeling of outrage.  How could someone who so clearly did not care about women’s choices and reproductive rights call himself a feminist?  And then defend that title when called upon it by me?

So, this got me thinking.  What does it mean to be a feminist and who can legitimately call themselves one?  The above mentioned ‘gentleman’ (cough, cough) essentially went on to make the claim that because there are different interpretations of feminism, he could call himself one if he wanted to and that shouldn’t be disputed.  While he certainly was correct that multiple sub-groups of feminism do exist, does that really mean that anyone can be a feminist if they want to be, regardless of their beliefs and values?  Aren’t there certain tenets that should hold true across different dimensions of feminism, regardless of the other differences that exist?

I mulled this over and the more I considered these issues, the more in touch with my frustration over this issue I got.  So, before I continue further, in a nutshell, here are my conclusions:

1)      Feminism does include many different sub-groups of feminist thought and practice with unique traits entirely their own.

2)      In order to be a defined group, however, there needs to be common group characteristics and/or ideas that thread through all sub-groups.

3)      Therefore, all sub-groups of feminism certainly adhere to overarching belief systems that ultimately classify themselves as feminist (most of which boil down very simplistically to the ability of women to live free from gender-based oppression).

4)      Hence, in order to legitimately be a feminist, you would need to adhere to an overarching belief system about the right of women to live free from gender-based oppression.

Makes sense, right?  So, why is it then that so many people these days call themselves feminist and dispute any challenges to their right to do so (Sarah Palin, anyone???)?  In my view, it is pretty clear that the co-optation of the word feminism is a calculated tactic to confuse and muddle the meaning of the word, thus, neutralizing its power.  If no one really knows what it means and, further, it can be made to mean anything you want it to be, then what power does it really have anymore?  We’ve seen this with language throughout many social movements, though I have personally often viewed it from the opposing perspective.  Meaning that it often plays out this way:  the oppressed group reclaims a word used by the dominant, oppressive group in order to nullify its power to harm.  So, fancy my surprise when I really put more thought into this issue and concluded that this phenomenon is exactly what has been happening for several years now in regards to feminism!

Now, I’m not totally clueless.  On some level, I always knew this was happening; but I hadn’t given it as much intensive thought as this until now.  I have always known that attempts to discredit feminists are rampant and that anti-feminists have long sought to dismantle the legitimacy of feminist values.  However, this suddenly really hit home for me.  It wasn’t just feminism in general that was being attacked; it was my identity.  If I identified as a feminist and any random misogynist who wanted to could also identify as a feminist, what did that mean about me?  What has happened to who I am and what I hold as core parts of my being?  And, what happens when others take these people at their word?  When they see them as feminist because they simply say they are?  This idea is troubling to me, to say the least.

It’s also quite fascinating.  I mean, other groups exist without this sort of distortion by those outside the group.  For example, I’m also an atheist.  Yet, I don’t often encounter people saying, “Let me start by saying I am an atheist, but God says . . . . .”  Because clearly having a faith in a God would negate the beliefs and values held as core tenets of atheism.  In my mind, it is a very similar predicament.  If you do not believe in the right of women to live without oppression, without restrictions on personal choice and without being denied equitable access to the same rights and privileges of men, than you are not a feminist.  Period.  End of story.  It all seems very simple to me, though clearly not so simple to many others.  So, I’m writing this piece for International Women’s Day, in particular, in order to reclaim not just the word itself, but also the true spirit and meaning of feminist.  I debated over whether or not to just let this battle go, but ultimately, language is too powerful.  When someone threatens to take away my very identify through contorting and disfiguring the very language that explains it, I can’t let it go.  It may seem small in the scheme of things.  We’re fighting some pretty big battles right now not only in Washington D.C., but in our hometowns, and I can understand why some may not see this point as crucial to the overall issues.  However, the way I see it, if somebody feels it is okay to re-define and essentially take away my identity, then I don’t want to wait around and see what they will try to take away next.

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