So What Does ‘Feminism’ Mean, Anyway?

By Katie Schenkkan March 14, 2012 06:00 AM
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So What Does ‘Feminism’ Mean, Anyway?

Are you a feminist?

When I was a freshman in college, I was picking up my mail when an upperclassman approached me and asked if I would take a short survey. I was to answer each question as quickly as possible, going with my first, instinctive response. The first question was, “Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?” I immediately thought, “No,” then hedged; wasn’t I? But no, surely not, I didn’t hate men or burn my bras in protest. The next questions were, “Do you believe that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work?” Well, yes. “Do you believe that women and men should have equal access to quality education?” Um, of course. “Do you believe that women are inherently less smart than men?” What?? No! The last question was, “After answering these questions, do you consider yourself to be a feminist?” I sheepishly circled “Yes” and handed the paper back to the girl, who had watched me fill it out. She thanked me and explained that it was for a Sociology class, but thankfully didn’t comment on the rising color in my cheeks.

I walked away from that brief encounter feeling more than a little foolish, and quite confused. Weren’t feminists those women who rioted during the ‘60s and marched on Washington, waving banners that slammed men and decried women who cared about fashion and makeup? I realized I had never actually discussed feminism as a movement before, either in or outside of school. All of those statements on that survey seemed to have obvious answers, but the word ‘feminist’ seemed to imply something dirty, shameful, hateful.

Fast-forward to three years later.

In a History/Women’s Studies class, I was introduced to women whose names had never before passed through my ears… Or if they had, I wasn’t listening. My brilliant (and rather badass) professor introduced me to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Rosa Parks, among others. These women were not man-haters; they fought for voting rights, political rights, reproductive rights, and racial equality. Some of the feminists we studied did indeed throw heels, hair curlers, bras and corsets into a trash can during a 1967 protest against the Miss America pageant, calling these items symbols of forced femininity (although, contrary to popular belief, they didn’t actually burn them. Photos of the protest ran in newspapers, which explained what the women’s intentions had been, however, and this gave rise to the concept of ‘bra-burning’, which became a symbol of the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s). Others used less public, though no less radical, means of fighting for women’s rights.

So let me give you a brief introduction to a few of these women.

Margaret Sanger, meet the women of 2012. Oh no, the pleasure is ours. Sanger (1879-1966) is best known for her work for women’s reproductive rights. If you can imagine it, it was once illegal even to publish information about birth control (let alone provide it!) but as early as 1914, Sanger published pamphlets about birth control options and in 1916, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, in Brooklyn. She founded the Birth Control Federation of America, which in 1942 became… Guess what? Planned Parenthood!

Shirley Chisholm, how nice to meet you! Chisholm, daughter of immigrants from Guyana and Barbados, was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress in 1968. A few years later, she was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, and won 152 delegates before withdrawing from the race.

So pleased to make your acquaintance, Betty Friedan! Friedan is the author of The Feminine Mystique, a bestselling and controversial book published in 1963, in which she described ‘the problem that has no name’: that is, a feeling of worthlessness and helplessness experienced by the woman whose only role was of wife and mother. Relying on their husbands for everything, she argued, had led to the sort of malaise we saw clearly in Sam Mendes’s haunting and brilliant film, Revolutionary Road (2008), starring Kate Winslet.

In the end, we all have to figure out what being a feminist means to each of us, because like so many words bandied about by politicians and professors and people on the subway, it means something very different to different people.

Here’s how I see it:

If you are a man or woman who believes that men and women should be treated equally in every way, you are a feminist.

If you see and fight against sexism in its many incarnations, you are a feminist.

If you wear a bra, if you don’t, if you shave your legs, if you don’t, if you love men, if you love women, if you love both… Doesn’t matter. Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive, nor are feminism and masculinity. The most important thing is to keep talking about it! So go talk to your mom, dad, grandparents, friends, significant other, and find out what it means to them. Let’s not become complacent; there is still plenty of work to do.