Contributor: Freÿa Black
But what is feminism and what does feminism mean now, in Australia, in 2018? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to the woman standing next to you at the bus stop? What does it mean to her partner? Or her daughter? And what about women at the Nauru Detention Centre? What does feminism mean to them? Or a woman caught in a violent relationship? Does it mean anything?
Feminism means different things to different people in different places – both geographically and culturally. As women, we all face different challenges and like most things there is no one-size-fits-all paradigm when it comes to Feminism.
In 1989 American civil rights activist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term Intersectionality – this word might be familiar to you. It’s not new but it’s buzzing about within print media, online news and social media. So what exactly is intersectionality?
Try this textbook definition according to Crenshaw to begin with:
The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.*1
Originally Crenshaw used the term to explore the marginalisation of Women of colour in American society, however, the term is now being applied to all categories of feminism and oppression. The definition of the original term is now being somewhat removed and foreign, even to Crenshaw
So in other words what Feminism means to me may (and most likely does) greatly differ from every other woman – it doesn’t negate my position in the scheme of things but my experience is something other than another woman’s, whether it be referring to race, ethnic or cultural background, belief system, sexuality or class.
The term “Check your privilege” is prevalent in online discussions and relates to the varying degrees of advantage. For the record my privilege is that of a fairly middle class, educated white woman living in an urban environment. I cannot speak for anyone else’s Feminism but my own and so how I report upon feminism as a broader subject must be done so with sensitivity to others in different positions. I will endeavour to do so.
And so to begin I’ll say F is for Feminism but also female, Féminitude – French for ‘cultural feminism’, First Wave, Female Eunuch (Germaine Greer) and Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan- also F) and Freedom!
A Woman who recognises herself, and is recognised by others, as a Feminist. That awareness depends on a Woman having experienced consciousness-raising, a knowledge of Women’s oppression, and a recognition of Women’s differences and communalities …
…There is not, nor could there be, a single definition of feminist since feminists have many differing affinities…
…But all Feminists share a commitment to, and enjoyment of, a woman-centred perspective.*2
So in a nutshell this takes into account both the required awareness of oppression and that each woman’s own experience and background is unique but it is that very uniqueness which connects us. So according to this definition Feminism is Intersectionality because under such a broad term Feminism strives for inclusivity of all female identifying persons. Humm’s Dictionary is a comprehensive guide (at the time of publishing in1989) of both the terminology and history of feminist theory. The goal of this tome is to demonstrate how feminist theory “…challenges, and is shaped by the academy and society and aims to explore the future of feminism”. Even though it’s 29 years young the terminology is still very relevant and provides the reader with a starting point in Feminist Theory. The Dictionary is an outstanding resource for quick ‘go to’ definitions and terminology. Pick a letter, any letter and see where it will take you.
Okay so if F is for feminism what is E for?
Equality? Empowerment? Emancipation? Experience? Erotic Passion? Or maybe it’s Ecofeminism?
In Ecofeminism (Spinifex, 1993) Maria Mies, Professor of Sociology and Social Activist Vandana Shiva (both Feminists) collaborate in an in-depth analysis and discussion of patriarchal oppression and its relationship to environmental destruction whilst also constructing their own eco-feminist methodologies.
These two Women come from two very different worlds – one from India, an ecologist and of the perspective of the exploited people – the other a feminist and scientist, living in the belly of the capitalist beast – sharing a common concern emerging from global politics, seeking to understand the fundamental necessities needed for survival – and Women, yes
Women! are closer to this than men! This is an incredible book and well worth reading and re-reading!
M- Matriarchy, Misogyny, Mansplaining, Men?
Oh the list could go on indefinitely. And it will because Feminism has two M’s. But let’s start with a few buzz words. Joan Smith didn’t mess around with ambiguity when she named her classic 1989 work Misogynies. You know what you’re getting yourself into.
A brief anecdote that occurs in the chapter M’Learned Friends details the statement made by a male Judge to a courtroom during a rape and battery case.
Women, he said, are entitled to dress attractively, even provocatively if you like, be friendly with casual acquaintances and still say no at the end of the evening without being brutally assaulted.
The woman of this story had gone out one evening on a date with man, had invited him back to her flat afterwards for a nightcap but as the evening wore on she decided that she didn’t wish to go any further than that. Effectively she had said no to sexual intercourse, the man didn’t like it and responded in kind by violently assaulting her. The judge’s statement is one we would hope to hear from not just members of our judiciary system but from all men. There are many examples – both current and historical relating to leniency on the part of the perpetrator – either the offender was acquitted due to a lack of evidence, they received a shockingly short sentence for a brutal crime or women often withdrew or never made a formal charge. *3 This book isn’t recent, unfortunately, the content is still very relevant – and perhaps refreshingly it is written in a language that is accessible.
A great deal of Feminist literature, especially that which relates to white Woman feminism, presents itself in a form that isolates and excludes other groups of women. This exclusivity is a downside of academia, but within the Feminist Theory collection there exists a plethora of works that strive to be read and enjoyed by just about anyone simply by being accessible. Feminist Theory should be accessible, at times enjoyable and most importantly provide informative.
Information…? So that would bring us to I…
I- Intersectionality, Inequality, Identity, Ideology, Information!
Originally I thought intersectionality or inequality would the basis for this section but perhaps more importantly it should be information because without it we are ignorant and through information we can integrate these other terms. See what I did there? So I’ll highlight another book within the collection which is a little closer to home: Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Thought, a collection of essays by Australian Women writers which offers refreshing perspectives on the context of Australian Feminism and its journey from the 1970s to the now.
In her essay: A Contemporary View of Aboriginal Women’s Relationship to the White Woman’s Movement, Jackie Huggins outlines the experience of Indigenous Women. She points out that Indigenous Women are discriminated against largely due to race rather than gender, and due to a lack of acknowledgement on the part of white feminism this issue remains unresolved. Huggins highlights that academia, language and western theory are constructs into which Indigenous Women do not fit and are used by an oppressive society in which to isolate and manipulate how Indigenous Women should ‘behave, think, learn, speak, write etc’ – white feminism and Women’s studies being guilty of all of the above.
An apt example of this being when the emerging Women’s Liberation Movement met with the Aboriginal Movement.
In their enthusiasm to be anti-racist, white women simply invited Aboriginal women to join their movement, with little apparent recognition of the full horror of racism in Australia, nor of how it continued to damage Aboriginal men as well as women.*4
This being a continuation of the same destructive cycle used previously by welfare administrations to separate Indigenous Women and effectively use them against their communities. Huggins believes in order to achieve a clearer path in the complexity of issues surrounding the relationship between white Women and Indigenous Women there needs to be a constant acknowledgement of differences and to respect those differences for what they are and not what they appear to be.
This is intersectionality not working – while white Feminists continue to ignore issues that are unique to Indigenous Women and other Women of Colour, the cycle of racial discrimination is perpetuated.
We’re living in The Now. In an existence of new possibilities. Rene Denfeld challenges new feminism in The New Victorians; arguing that the extremist views of current feminism is undermining the achievements of the Women’s movement of the 1970s by employing a moral rigidity that has little to do with the lives of everyday Women. Denfeld examines the old leaders of feminism, and their currency today, separatist feminism and how feminism is
more than just equality for men and women. The book is forwarded by renowned Australian author and feminist activist, Beatrice Faust, who is an integral member of the 1970s Women’s movement. Faust briefly draws parallels between American society and Australia, pointing out the differences in each countries values but cautions that Australian readers should exercise a degree of “empathetic caution”.
For the purposes of this article I’ve tried to focus on feminism in Australia however for a well-rounded education in feminist theory it is important to step outside of your own personal background in order to fully comprehend the course feminism has taken not just in Australia but worldwide. The Now is a global community and we are only 6 degrees from Kevin Bacon at any one time.
I- I Don’t Need Feminism Because….
Clementine Ford encourages us to raise our voices, raise our courage and raise the flag in her manifesto Fight like a Girl. You may have read or at least heard some of Ford’s opinions in the media. She is not a woman of subtle letters and her particular brand of feminism is a direct reflection of this. Unafraid to express herself, Ford invites us to see behind her tough feminist public persona to the vulnerable Girl child dealing with an eating disorder and a negative body image.
Ford takes us on a journey through her own journey to feminist consciousness, admitting that earlier on she was not a feminist, and didn’t need feminism. But when faced with the reality that all Women, even the ones who don’t need feminism, face in contemporary society her opinion reevaluated itself.
In 2014 there was an online movement that went in the form of a meme I don’t need feminism because… these words were usually written on a placard and held by a young white woman and detailed all the reasons why she believed feminism was not something she required- Because I love men, or I’m not a man hater or It’s 2014! In chapter 11 entitled Dicktionary, Ford proclaims that Feminism is a dirty word. But not because of the way feminists look, the things they say or the way they say them but that it is actually the horror society feels when the concept of gender equality is brought into the conversation.
Horror. Really. Ford goes on to discuss other terms that are applied to anyone proclaiming feminism. Feminazi is my favourite. Like Ford, I too proclaim that the feminist movement did not invade Poland and did not attempt to establish a fascist empire across all of Europe. Check you facts!
S- Sex, Sexuality, Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir
Like M the letter S begins so many words pertaining to womanhood and feminism.
So let’s be honest about sex and our sexuality with Sexual Honesty a public discussion edited and compiled by Shere Hite in 1977.
80,000 questionnaires were sent out in 1972 and over 2,000 were returned. It was a study to understand Women’s real sexual preferences to publish them to in the hope that it would open up a dialogue about sex, help other Women and improve their sex lives. It’s fascinating. The book is made up of three different versions of the original questionnaire which detail the original questions and follow with the anonymous answers from the 2,000 Women who replied.
Question 49. In the best of all possible worlds, what would sexuality be like?
Now let me think about that…?
M- Mythology, Male Gaze- Laura Mulvey, Motherhood, Male Feminism, Me
So how does all this relate to me? And by me I mean you, and me and them.
Chris Beasley negotiates this minefield of feminism by asking ‘What is Feminism Anyway?’ Beasley is a writer and academic at the University of South Australia in Adelaide and seeks to answer this potent question in a purely factual manner. Facts are good. Ask a question, receive an answer, gain knowledge. Beasley contends that the word feminism can be limiting in a contemporary context and that by trying to make feminism an umbrella term under which all Women can stand we are ignoring the vast differences between us – therefore one vague definition of pan-feminism cannot hope to unite Women, stand for all Women or even define all Women.
There’s a great scene in an English film (About a Boy if you’re interested- not written or directed by a Woman – sorry) in which a group of single parents get together to support each other. They call the group SPAT, Single Parents Alone Together, now perchance you can see where I’m going with this but perhaps we really do need to acknowledge our differences, really acknowledge them and recognise that we are all operating on and at different levels.
Single Feminists Alone together – SFAT! Is it catchy? S*F*A*T? I’m not sure – perhaps I’ll keep working on it. Or tell us some of your ideas. The Feminist Theory collection at The Women’s Library is vast and I guarantee there is something for everyone, for every brand of feminism you subscribe to. This is only a small serve of what is on offer within the library’s collection, presented in an amusing acrostic essay. It is not my intention to preach or favour any one particular view but to highlight several key texts, which demonstrate contrasting, opposing and diverse views so that I can present to you an array of information … because a well rounded-
Feminist Education Must Include Numerous Ideologies, Sources and Methodologies.
See what I did there?
*1 Vidal, Ava, ‘Intersectional feminism’. What the hell is it? (And why you should care), The Telegraph, January 15 2014 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10572435/Intersectional-feminism.-What-the-hell-is-it-And-why-you-should-care.html
*2 Maggie Humm, The Dictionary of Feminist Theory, (Ohio State University Press, 1995) 20.
* 3 Farah Farouque- https://www.smh.com.au/national/files-reveal-failed-sex-assault-cases-20110927-1kvgx.html
*4 Norma Burns, Ailsa, Grieve, eds. Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Thought, (Australia, Oxford University Press,1994) 57.