How many times have you heard someone say, `I'm not a feminist, but . . . ." Fill in the blank: I agree that men and women should earn equal pay . . . I believe that sexism still exists . . . I agree that women should have access to birth control, regardless of age or marital status, and so on and so forth. I've heard it often enough to conclude that these days women in all walks of life may be engaged in the practice of feminism, but many won't call themselves feminists. Why is that and does it matter?
According to Susan Faludi, author of Backlash, the fear and loathing of feminism has been a "perpetual viral condition" in our society. Its symptoms subside and then resurface periodically. The flare-ups, just like the one we seem to be experiencing now, always seem to be triggered by the perception that women have made some inroads in the pursuit of equal rights.
Some say feminism is outdated. Others say it just doesn't work for everyone. Some say we've become too political, too organizational, too theoretical--that we've lost our grassroots functioning. Others would prefer picking and choosing their causes within the women's movement.
The truth is that feminism has been wrought with controversy and schisms since its inception. For me one of the best things about feminism has always been its elbow room for dissension and its embrace of open communication. We don't all look alike. Why should we all think alike? The bad thing, however, is that every time we disagree on something, someone says, "Look at those women. They just can't get along."
In my generation, known as the "second wave," we came to feminism as adults, perhaps through a personal experience that converted us, or via a long, organic process. We listened to each other's stories -- often very different, but usually with shared themes -- and experienced a kind of rebirth. Young women of today, on the other hand, were born into a feminism with many different, and often seemingly contradictory, images. Some learned from the media. Others learned from teachers, books, mothers and sisters. Some of them identify themselves as the "third wavers."
The second wave worked to pass, enforce and restore legislation to prohibit sex discrimination on the job and in schools. They worked fiercely so that we women could have free control over our bodies and access to full reproductive care. The hard lesson is this: the work is not over. Older and younger generations of feminists are in the trenches together these days fighting to remove the threats to these basic freedoms. And many are joined in an effort to support women candidates for public office so we can increase the numbers of women in decision-making positions.
But even among these two groups that share a commitment to social change, there is plenty of tension. Why is that? I don't profess to know all the reasons, but judging from the conversations I've been a part of, it seems to me that much of the controversy lies in the perception of an identity. In the earlier days of the movement, before it was so large (yes, folks, contrary to what you hear, feminism still beckons and burgeons) and so diverse, the notion that there was a correct way to be or look like a feminist was much less common. Nevertheless, a narrow stereotype developed over the years. It was fueled by racism, homophobia and classism inside and outside of the movement that garnered favor by the press and the political right. Unfortunately it also gains strength from people who consider themselves feminists.
It is no surprise to me that so many of the younger women, born into these schisms and stereotypes, shunned the feminist label that we wear as the pride of our identity. Some, like the second wavers, are choosing to recast the concepts and broaden the boundaries. I think that's a good thing. Many of my friends who, like me, have always rejected the notion of a shared definition of feminism, recognize that these women are offering us more choices. Choice has always been the power of feminism.
But there are other women who just don't want to be part of a political movement. They don't want to be considered revolutionary, or God forbid, man-haters. (That's another interesting point: Feminists have been alternately accused of hating men and of wanting to be just like them.) Well, in terms of the changes needed to create a society where women can live a full, self-determined life, we may need to be revolutionary. As to man-hating, I quite honestly don't know any feminists who sit around engaged in idle male bashing. Most of us are too busy doing more important things. Neither do we wish we were men. On the contrary, we celebrate our womanhood.
So while I've never been exactly sure of how to construct modern feminism, I am fairly certain about what it means to me. For me, personally, feminism has been the proactive opposition to patriarchy and oppression. It is my belief in and fight for women's full participation in society, our equal access to the same rights, privileges, pay and status that men have historically enjoyed. There is much more. But anything less is just not acceptable to me.
Maybe to the extent that institutions accommodate women's roles, to the extent that feminism challenges discrimination and the exclusion of women, it's relatively easy for most women (and men) to embrace. Just don't call them all feminists. It's okay to call me one, though.
Ali P. Crown is director of the Women's Center.