Feminism (Part 1) – What Is It?
Talk to women about feminism and you are likely to hear differing opinions and oftentimes, you will get polarizing emotional stances. When I was 17 years old, I began asking every woman I knew (and those I didn’t!) what “feminism” meant to them. I have often been perplexed with the answers which, to this day, range from “equal rights between the sexes” to “militant man-haters”.
Why am I writing this? Don’t women already have equal rights? We can vote; we can work; we can own property…
Is this as far as equality goes?
Feminism is a vast topic, so my intention with this article is to begin a dialogue – an exploration of what it means to women today philosophically, and how they see it playing out in their lives practically as individuals, mothers, wives, homemakers and working women. Where women’s first names have been used, they have given permission for me to do so.
“Some people have a negative view towards the term ‘feminist’,” shares Karen. “I think that some see it as being the female version of a ‘male chauvinist’ – which it certainly is not!”
[Male Chauvinist: a male who patronizes, disparages, or otherwise denigrates females with the belief that they are inferior to males and thus deserving of less than equal treatment or benefit.]
Interestingly enough, when I verbally ask women for their definition of feminism, more often than not, the answers range from “women who think they are better than men” to “man-haters”. When I ask women to write their thoughts on feminism (even those who do not consider themselves feminist), their answers seem to be much more from a place of thoughtful reflection and are almost wholly about supporting equal rights. What this tells me is that the pervading knee-jerk response to the “F-word” in our culture stems from people’s incorrect definition of feminism, a concept I coined in my teens as “female chauvinism”.
The dictionary definition of feminism is “The principle that women should have political, economic and social rights equal to men.” Sounds simple enough. So how did the term come to be interpreted as female chauvinism?
Further confusion over the term, feminist, is expressed by Louise, “I am not fond of using the term to describe myself at this current point in history. To say you are a feminist is to work from the assumption that women are somehow weaker. I prefer to work from the reality that all people are obviously equal.”
Years ago, during a discussion with a man about “equality between the sexes”, he stated that men and women were not equal. When I disagreed, he insisted that because we are inherently different, we cannot be equal. As we both became more vehement, it was obvious that we were entrenched in our positions and neither of us would budge. It took some time for me to decipher that this particular person’s point of view was very simplistic, compressive and black and white so his definition of “equal” meant “identical; the same”, period. Whereas, my understanding of the definition was (and is!) “identical or the same in value”.
[Stats: In Canada, on average women are paid 78% of what men are paid in doing the same job. 80% of lone-parent households are managed by women. The child poverty rate is 3.5 times greater in “single mom” families than in two parent families.]
“People observing my life may not think I am a feminist or strong woman because I have come to live such a stereotypically female role.” Louise continues, “They are very mistaken! I thank the amazing feminists that came before me for my ability to choose. I live my life as a stay at home mom by deliberate choice. I am not forced here by my husband and not trapped in circumstances due to my sex. My partner and I can decide what works for our family and implement it. Because of feminism, if this wasn’t working, I could change any part of my life in any way I chose. Thank you feminism!”
Let’s take a snap-shot look at Sarah and Tabitha. Both women are married with three children. Both chose to be “stay-at-home” moms, are committed to providing wholesome, nutritious food for their families and both homeschool their children. For all intents and purposes, they live very similar lives practically-speaking. When asked about their philosophical views, Sarah does not hesitate to state she is anti-feminist, while Tabitha calls herself a feminist. Sarah sees feminism as women pursuing careers whereas Tabitha says, “I’m not ‘just a mom’. I’m a radical challenge to the systems failing our world today. I’m changing the world one fully-present, bursting-with-intensity moment at a time.” She adds, “Throughout my day, I cook and clean and bake and do laundry and garden. I read stories and play games and visit the library, I soothe hurts and I cuddle. I meal-plan and meal-prep, I set the table and I do dishes. And with each and every act that I perform in my role as ‘mother’ and ‘homemaker’, I am acting from a deeply political and deeply personal place.”
Rose also chose to stay home to raise her children. “I think feminism is a tool for achieving cultural balance and the freedom to be oneself, regardless of gender,” she shares. “It is very personal. For me, the term means having a pro-woman or ‘feminocentric’ perspective.”
Rose describes how, as a mother, she sees examples of how we live in a ‘masculocentric’ culture in books and television where there are many male characters and either underdeveloped or downplayed female characters. “When I used to read books to my kids, I would make more of the characters ‘she’ than there actually were; especially when by gendering them female, they became examples of females exhibiting more diverse and less typical behaviour than I usually found in female story characters.”
Tabitha’s “quick” definition would be, “feminism is the rational person’s response to patriarchy”. She elaborates:
“It’s been awhile since I reflected on exactly what feminism means to me. And honestly, as I’ve grown and evolved and my life has centered more and more around the home, it has changed. In my early twenties in university, I took a minor degree in women’s studies. I took all sorts of classes that allowed me to open my vision much wider than my small southern-Alberta town and urban catholic school experiences ever had. It was the first time I ever heard talk of women’s history or how global social issues such as the global economy are very much issues that affect women’s daily lives and existences. And while so much of it resonated deep within my soul, there were also many ideas that I soaked in and then took a few years to really process.
“For even in the women’s studies programming, there was a sense of equality meaning ‘getting women to the top’ and competing for scarce resources such as power and money. While several classes were spent discussing the limiting effects of patriarchy and the all-encompassing cage it has evolved into, I still remember one particular class with the head of the program at the time. She had invited each of the class participants to bring their most treasured item to share. She was doing a research project on the topic, speaking with women of diverse backgrounds, lifestyles and ages about the items of highest value to them. At the end of the days of sharing, she stood up and passed judgment on the entire episode. She was disappointed, she said, that even within her women’s studies classes, that there was such a disproportionate number of items that reflected relationship with others and so few items that reflected the achievements of the individual sharing them. It took me a couple of years to really process that. In effect, what she was telling us was that our relationships matter less than our achievements. That to achieve is far more valuable than to connect. I disagree with this and think that my core of feminism is built on this disagreement.
Tabitha continues, “To me, feminism is about living in a world built on human relationships with an equal access to power. And while I don’t want to base what my feminism is based on what it isn’t, I think it is vital to talk about patriarchy when discussing feminism. Feminism is very much about disregarding and dismantling the patriarchy that pervades every social and economic institution in our society. This patriarchal system serves very few individuals in our culture, as it is based on hierarchy, limited access to resources and scarcity in all things. My feminism is based on creating an alternative system.
“This is reflected in my life in almost every aspect of daily living, which is centered around my family. I collaborate with my partner and children to create a living environment that is in harmony with ourselves and our world. Not partaking in the patriarchal goals of conquest, consumption and ever-expanding growth, but by challenging the worldview that says there is limited amounts of power that must be fought over and creating a new world view. [This is] the definition of feminism to me.
“The alternative worldview is what I seek to express in my daily life and why I consider myself an activist, even when it may look to others like I am ‘just a stay at home mother’. I think one of the most important aspects of my activism is the fact that I act like we did win the revolution. I value childcare and the work of feeding and caregiving as vital, important aspects of society.
“I believe that feminism is caring about relationships within the entire web of life – the local and global neighbours of people, plants and animals, the water, air and soil. It is respect for and genuine interest in the well-being of all living things. It’s not about getting an equal footing in the dysfunction that is patriarchy (as so often is displayed in the mainstream media), but about dismantling it one act, one breath at a time.”
Nicole is an organic farmer and volunteers her time to publish this magazine with the hope to encourage deeper awareness.