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Feminism Revisited

Mills College Weekly

In one of the last meetings of the Women in American History
class, the professor posed as questions for discussion, what did we
think of feminism and did we consider ourselves feminists. To the
latter question, perhaps five women out of 30 raised their hands.
Others remarked on the negative image of feminism, such as the
“feminazi,” the strident, angry, man-bashing woman that they did
not want to be identified with; and that since feminism meant
different things to different people, they did not want anything to
do with the term. One woman remarked that she was in a field that
was male-dominated, as her mother had been (and therefore did not
need to be a feminist); another said that she honored her mother
for “staying at home and raising the kids,” which she thought
feminism denigrated.

I was one of the women who raised her hand. I have considered
myself a feminist all my life. But I did not speak up in class,
because I realized that I could not give a one-line explanation of
why that is, or what it means to me. So now I am trying to
articulate not only why I consider myself a feminist, but why I
think feminism is still needed as a vital part of any social
justice perspective or effort.

First I was to speak to problems I see with some of the remarks
we made. Yes, feminism has not been a homogenous movement; since
the 1840s women have disagreed as to goals, race and class policies
and inclusion, tactics and strategies; we talked about that for a
good part of the semester. We have noticed that, again and again,
it has been the most conservative (least disruptive to the status
quo) type of feminism that has been successful in achieving its
goals – feminism that separated itself from racial politics in the
nineteenth century, feminism that organized for women suffrage in
the early twentieth century and separated itself from working class
issues; feminism in the 1960s and following that gave the spotlight
to middle-class white women entering professions, breaking the
‘glass ceiling’ and turning away from solidarity with poor women
and women of color.

Nevertheless, that brand of feminism won for us the vote –
highly valued by many of the women in the class – and the ability
to enter into such professions as economics, physics and
professional sports. We would not be in a ‘Women in American
History’ class if it weren’t for feminism! Even those limited gains
were fought for, for nearly a century in both instances, and were
hard-won. It is evidently almost impossible for a woman in her
twenties to imagine simply being denied entry to a desired
profession, but that happened to my mother – their grandmothers’
generation. The simple insistence that women are people, capable of
political and social action in the public sphere, was not made by
women being ‘nice’ and staying within the given rules. Reproductive
rights were fought for. So feminists have been decried as hags,
witches, frustrated harridans, unwomanly freaks and man-haters for
one hundred and fifty years. Should we buy that image, promulgated
by the likes of Phyllis Schaffly, right-wing talk-show hosts, and
George Bush? Who used the term ‘feminazi’ anyway? Would you accept
their judgment if they called you a baby-murderer for being
pro-choice? Then why on earth listen to what they have to say about

I call myself a feminist in 2004 because I believe that the
values and practices traditionally delegated to women, and held in
contempt by men and even by our society, even while they give them
lip service – the care of the weak, the sick, the old and the
young, the endless work of keeping people alive, fed, clean
healthy, socialized – must be privileged in our society, in a place
of what is privileged now, which is individual wealth, power,
force. That privileging will transform every endeavor, whether in a
profession or in a home. The statement “women’s rights are human
rights” is a revolutionary claim. It will require profound social
change to be put into practice – not merely the removal of the
class ceiling for a few, but the achievement of livelihood,
dignity, community, and the requirements of life such as food,
shelter, clean water for all.

If you value human rights; if you value social justice; if you
value the inclusion of all people in the human race, then you, my
sister, are a feminist, and don’t let anyone tell you