Saturday, March 13, 2010

What is feminism?

"Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression."

-bell hooks, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center

When people ask me what feminism is, I often use this definition.

Naturally it brings up additional questions, such as "What is sexism?","What is the difference between sexism and sexist exploition? How is oppression defined?" I think that is good. When people have definitions that force them to think critically and ask questions, they seek out more information, which encourages them to interrogate their own assumptions, do research and have conversations.

I also like that this quote defines feminism as a movement rather than a lifestyle. It clarifies that some kind of action must be taken in order to be a feminist. Feminism is not as simple as claiming an identity or set of values or life-style choices. Feminism is about taking part in a political movement with a clear aim.

When people ask me what it means to be a feminist (usually guys ask this) I re-frame the question by talking about what feminism is, because "being a feminist" implies individuality and feminism implies participating in a group. Anytime the focus is on "being" it sounds passive and feminism is not passive. It is rooted in action, or as bell hooks says, movement.

I want to acknowledge that claiming a political identity can be a strategic action, but if we are being strategic then we should focus on what it is that we want to happen. A political identity is not an end-in-itself, it is a basis for solidarity.

When people ask me to define riot grrl I try to discuss the actions and strategies that were utilized and frame my answer in a way that restates our goal, which was to challenge patriarchal gender constructions by creating a decentralized, participatory, feminist culture of resistance.

In other words, the goal was to change the world.

But really, bell hooks says it best:

"Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression."

riot grrl was a small part of that larger movement.


  1. Its disappointing that the word "feminism" itself has now been corrupted and often comes with a handful of imaginary stigmas attached to it.
    Because of this misinterpretation people usually feel hostile and uncomfortable towards the discussion of feminist ideas and theories and are unwilling to learn.
    I live in a small town with little growing room, any movement is virtually impossible when feeling so cramped.

  2. Hi Lauren.

    I think the word "feminism" has always had that connotation--the same as communism or anarchism. When people want to radically change the world, they are threatening the social order, so there is a lot of resistance.

    bell hooks said (and I paraphrase) you can't expect to change things and also have approval. This quote has made me feel better at times.

    I think there are always things you can do to work towards change, no matter where you are. I think it's a myth that you have to live in a city in order to be a feminist. When I was a child I lived in a small logging town. My mom and her friends started a women-only book club and organized an informal network of support for childcare. This was feminist in my view, though they didn't call themselves "feminists". Sometimes the actions don't need to use the name.

    Still, I think calling yourself a feminist is good, because it connects you with a history and a larger movement.

    Your question is good:

    How can someone who is isolated be a part of a feminist movement when even using the word feminist is alienating to people?

    Thank you.

  3. In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks talks about the problem of "lifestyle feminism", saying it "has made feminism more accessible" because now "women can be feminists without fundamentally challenging and changing themselves or the culture".

    Using the example of abortion, she claims that you can't be anti-choice and a feminist if reproductive justice is defined as a part of feminist struggle.

    This is relevant if you think of the '08 presidential election, where people were calling both Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton feminists.

    Thinking about Lauren's question this morning, I think this is relevant. We don't necessarily want "feminism" to become more palatable if that means giving up on a radical social change agenda. But we do want feminism to become a popular movement.

    So that brings up some key tensions.