The word feminism is sometimes treated as a dirty word. When people claim to be feminists, they are often met with a roll of the eyes, and sometimes altogether dismissed. This is in part due to a misunderstanding of what the word feminism actually means.
What does feminism mean?
There is no single definition of the term feminism and there is not a single way to be a feminist.
Almost 20 years ago, bell hooks, American author and social activist, defined feminism as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression with an understanding that there must be an end to the wider systemic causes and consequences of sexism.
If the term “feminism” is used to understand and address systemic, institutionalized gendered injustice, then the way feminism looks will be largely based on an individual’s identity and positionality to power.
Nothing wrong here. Why do we hate the word so much?
Throughout history, the word feminism has been given a negative connotation – even among women. From the suffragist movement, depictions of feminism were of women who hate men (and therefore must be lesbians – an appeal to homophobia), hate girly things, and look down on home labor (Georgetown Law Library, A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States). Unfortunately, these portrayals have not changed. Feminism continues to be seen as a negation of what it means to be a woman both on a personal level and as an implication for society’s power structures.
So, if we change the ways we talk about feminism, then all women will be on board and we’ll fight the power, right?
It’s a bit more complicated.
Feminist movements have primarily been dominated by white, cis-gender, heterosexual women issues which in turn leave out people who don’t fit these characteristics, specifically feminists of color. As far back as the abolitionist movement, women were being asked to embrace sisterhood, ignoring the ways in which distinctive socio-political positionalities affected experiences of oppression.
Frictions between mainstream feminists and feminists of color still play out in very similar ways. In an article covering the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, it was said that while tens of thousands of people marched at nation’s capital to press for protection of women’s rights, including reproductive health care, LGBT issues and equal pay, racial tensions ran high.
Historically, when women with intersecting marginalized identities rejected absorption into the mainstream feminist movement, they were decried as separatist and as a hindrance to progress. Similarly, discussions of race at the 2017 Women’s March were criticized by those who wanted participants to be women first with the implication that experiences related to other identities are not part of neatly standardized women’s issues.
Ok, how do we get all women to be feminists?
We might not need to. Sexism affects so many facets of society that it’s going to take people working on different fronts to counteract injustice. Women, especially those with intersecting oppressed identities, will challenge systems of injustice, but the prime motivator for this may not be feminism in and of itself, but rather an immediate need for self-preservation, or even survival.
Wait – survival? Isn’t that a bit extreme?
No. For many women, even the home is a place where her life is at risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly half of female homicide victims are killed by a current or former male intimate partner, usually after an argument. Furthermore, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey report, 42 percent of all respondents reported experiencing some form of intimate partner violence involving physical harm or threat of physical harm over their lifetime. These rates tended to be higher for trans women of color. In fact, 57 percent of these intimate partner violence reports were from American Indian women.
Are the women to blame for the way in which they navigate their intimate relationships-even when that means prolonging the breakup? A feminist approach that considers how society has normalized violence against women might say no, the woman is not to blame, but rather the systems that accept and perpetuate the violence.
And while women are surviving these circumstances, they are also finding ways to be resilient.
Hold on, what is resilience?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. For social justice movements, the term has also come to reflect attention to resilience through individuals and group actions. People are engaging in politics, activism and the arts to improve their personal situations, but also move society as a whole.
On a national level, women have looked to political office as a method to create changes in policy, during a time when social and political climate seems to be shifting toward repressive policies. According to NPR, more than twice as many women are running for Congress in 2018 as they did in 2016 elections. According to Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, the current presidential administration continues to fuel women to stay engaged and organize for change in political office. In the 2017 special elections, Utah saw a similar trend in doubling of women who ran for office as those who did in 2016, and indeed 12 of the 65 cities along the Wasatch Front will have women mayors – first ever occurrences for four of these cities.
Consider the right to choose an abortion. While for many feminists, the ability to have an abortion is about control of their bodies, an undocumented woman who is awaiting a decision on her legal residency status – and pregnant – might view the same choice with a different lens. Such was the case for Alejandra Pablos, a Mexican woman raised in the U.S.
In ColorLines, Pablos describes how conflicted she felt when she learned that she was pregnant. While she was initially excited to become a mother, she realized that her status as an undocumented person living in this country could mean that she might be separated from her child. Ultimately, her status as an undocumented woman weighed heavily on her decision to have an abortion.
Pablos continues to deal with the uncertainty of her legal U.S. residency, but she has moved beyond accepting the stigmas that come with being undocumented and with having an abortion. She is now a graduate student, an activist and organizer who works with communities that are underserved and underrepresented. She is pushing for systemic changes that will benefit society as a whole.
Others have also taken to more creative outlets such as poetry and visual art as ways to help them survive as individuals but also as a way to shift the collective understanding of feminism. The late ’80s saw a flourish of creative writers and visual artists who used mediums to connect the apparent contradictions between mainstream feminist theory and the actual lived experiences of marginalized women (Anzaldua and Moraga, 1981, Bridge called my back).
The University of Utah’s 2018 Women’s Week feature guest, Jessica Sabogal, is one such artist who is inspired by literary works written by poets, authors, and women of color. She utilizes their experiences and their existence as the sole muse for her creations. As a first-generation, Colombian American, queer artist, she draws strength from her own experiences and turns them into beauty through her murals. Sabogal believes that art shapes culture, and in turn culture helps to shape policy and governments and laws.
Audre Lorde once said, “We are powerful because we have survived, and that is what it is all about — survival and growth.”