Many years ago a friend told me what he thought of feminism. “It’s totally contradictory, because to claim that women deserve more rights than men is equally damaging. Also, the very existence of feminism itself highlights the differences between genders that feminists are claiming don’t exist.” I didn’t really have an opinion on the matter at the time, so I kept relatively quiet. I now know that each of those points (and both taken together) highlights what feminism is for me today. I was somewhat inspired by the students of an undergraduate class, Rhetoric and Civility, who were asked to define the term “civility,” in that some of their definitions were many sentences, enveloping many ideas. I realized that, in attempting to define feminism (like attempting to define civility), it’s probably not productive to strive for consolidation (succinctness, but not consolidation). Dictionary definitions are limiting, anyway.
First: “It’s totally contradictory, because to claim that women deserve more rights than men is equally damaging.” This is the essential claim that anti-affirmative action arguments rely on—so-called reverse discrimination. While anti-affirmative action is also a theoretical claim that attempts to demarcate the legitimacy of requests for equality (or equity, or whatever one deserves), the quote more represents the hands-on piece of my definition of feminism. It addresses the political side, the moment in which we turn action into thought through legislation or activism (Loeb, 1999). This is what I have previously referred to as “doing” feminism (or, at least, represents a piece of it). To do feminism requires a willingness not simply to exist within our own worlds (our minds or our academies), but to also reach out into the community in any number of ways. Spreading material results, perhaps, will work towards a larger belief that feminism (and social justice generally) can work and should work.
Second: “Also, the very existence of feminism itself highlights the differences between genders that feminists are claiming don’t exist.” This argument very succinctly epitomizes that tired charade that media and other forms of popular discourse go through in order to dismiss ideas that ruffle hegemony’s feathers. It can either be the systematic silencing of ideas on a large scale (Spender, 1983) or specific factions of feminism being silenced for challenging mainstream feminism (Collins, 2009) or supposedly damaging shifts in focus away from other social movements (hooks, 1984; Flores, 1996). The second piece of my definition, then, has to do with hegemony as it manifests forms of patriarchy and recognizes the necessity of existing within our own heads. This is the “being” feminist part of it. It’s necessary to be aware of the resistance to structural change in general in managing both being feminist and doing feminism (see also, about antifeminism and backlash, Faludi, 1991). My commitment to feminism in my personal life will be to call out these tired arguments. I now have, and will continue to acquire, tools other than the master’s with which to systematically dismantle thinking that’s fundamentally flawed. They are tools used for debunking myths as well as inviting new ways of thinking.
These concepts—doing feminism and being feminist—operate often in tandem. That said, the last piece of my definition is to avoid the temptation to be feminist without actively doing feminism in specific ways. And writing for the academy only counts a little. I may have isolated them for purposes of clarity, but we cannot so easily group them as such in real life. To pass legislation, we must take our theoretical commitments to the streets. Without these theoretical commitments, what are we working for? What motivates us? It’s clear that we’re unlikely to do feminism without at least secretly being feminist. But to be feminist openly and not to call out the privileged attitudes of those around us, especially those who consider themselves to be progressive (see Blair, Brown & Baxter, 1994; Flores, 1996; hooks, 1984; Collins, 2009, p.154-5), is to abandon our own musings and commitments. As with any feather ruffling, others might brand us as mildly annoying or trivial. They might make fun of our somehow ironic self-righteousness (and we theirs).
Therefore, the tension that’s inevitable between us forces the conclusion that, as a substantial part of this last piece, we invite (Foss & Griffin, 1995). Rather than exclusively using persuasion, which we know has been conceived of as violent (Gearhart, 1979) and certainly has the potential to be, we must invite people to listen to our tapes. We may suggest (for certainly we have an agenda), but as I’ve previously suggested, forcing them to listen can be counterproductive, and may well adhere to principles we critique. Being feminist in our minds and doing feminism with our bodies and ideas, coupled with the commitment to invitational rhetoric, constitute the cornerstone of what my feminist thinking has come to be. Going forward, I’ll have to continually remind myself (although I’m not sure it will be difficult) that doing feminism completes the soul and, perhaps more importantly, writing for the academy counts only a little.
Blair, C., Brown, J. R., & Baxter, L. A. (1994). Disciplining the feminine. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 80(4), 383-409.
Collins, P. H. (2009). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (Routledge Classics ed.). New York: Routledge.
Faludi, S. (1991). Backlash: The undeclared war against American women. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Flores, L. (1996). Creating discursive space through a rhetoric of difference: Chicana feminists craft a homeland. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 82(2), 142-156.
Foss, S. K., & Griffin, C. L. (1995). Beyond persuasion: A proposal for an invitational rhetoric. Communication monographs, 62(1), 2-18.
Gearhart, S. M. (1979). The womanization of rhetoric. Women’s Studies International Quarterly, 2(2), 195-201.
hooks, b. (1984). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Loeb, P. R. (1999). Soul of a citizen. Living with conviction in a cynical time. New York: St. Martin’s Griffen.
Spender, D. (1983). Women of ideas and what men have done to them: From Aphra Behn to Adrienne Rich. New York: Routledge. Jeremy Grossman is a musician, hobby woodworker, male feminist graduate student. He and his partner Jaime live a minimalist lifestyle in Fort Collins, CO, but are relocating shortly to Athens, GA. His roots are in CO, taproots that go very deep, in fact, and has anchored a piece of himself to the Land of Sunshine despite the impossibility of assuring that he’ll ever return for good. He and Jaime garden, with the help of their faithful yellow lab Zep, and are looking forward to a climate that doesn’t frequently laugh at efforts to sustain fruitful vegetables, before thwarting those efforts. In keeping with the minimalist lifestyle, his primary form of transportation is either a bicycle or, despite strange looks and a lack of understanding, his feet. His feminism, like so many others, makes him a bit of a downer at parties, but pervades the space several feet around him at any given time. It ensures others’ right to speak, to be heard, and to be valued.