Feminism: faith or works?

Does being a feminist mean you have to dislike men? Have to go to abortion-rights rallies? Have to take out the garbage, kill the spiders, or hold down a job during the early years of motherhood? Does it mean you have to be a woman?

Of course not! It just means you have to hate the freaking patriarchy! At least that had always been my belief. And that’s the argument made by this celebrated Tomato Nation essay from 2003. (Tx Lindsey Kuper.)

There’s just one problem: the essay is built around a misread definition — a misreading that says a lot about the very same fissures in the feminist movement that the author is hoping to heal. So I’m calling her out.

Here’s how the post begins:

feminism n (1895) 1 : the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes 2 : organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests ā€” feminist n or adj ā€” feministic adj

Above, the dictionary definition of feminism ā€” the entire dictionary definition of feminism. It is quite straightforward and concise. If you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist.

What’s wrong with this picture? The dictionary in question (Mirriam-Webster’s Eleventh Collegiate, according to the author) says no such thing.

It says that (1) feminism can refer to the theory of sexual equality. “Theory” — tricky word. Theory as in “principle,” as in “theorem,” as seen in “theory of gravitation”? Or theory as in “discipline,” as in “mode of analysis,” as seen in “literary theory”? I could be wrong, but the dictionary didn’t call feminism “the theory that the sexes should be politically, economically or socially equal.” It called feminism “the theory of the political, social and economic equality of the sexes.” I am pretty sure Mr. Mirriam-Webster’s first definition refers to feminism as an area of inquiry. An academic discipline, not a normative ideology. This is not the definition Tomato Nation is looking for.

Secondly, this dictionary says that (2) feminism can refer to an “organized activity.”

Helloooo, placards. Helloooo, armpit hair. Goodbye, lipstick. Obviously, this is not what Tomato Nation wants to hear. (Me neither! Though I have to say I’m personally partial to armpit hair.)

Okay. Here’s why the debate matters. There is a strong argument within the feminist movement that mere belief in equality is insufficient. This is not a trivial position. If you (like me) haven’t been to an “organized” feminist event since college, maybe you shouldn’t get to call yourself a feminist. And maybe feminists should not confuse things by tossing their label, netlike, over the moderate, complacent majority.

I’m talking here about the people who “hope for” equality. The people who (ick) “look fondly on” equality. The people for whom “feminism” is essentially (wait for it…) an area of inquiry.

Tomato Nation wants such people to count as feminists, perhaps on the hunch that once Blondie McRealtor starts calling herself a feminist, the feminist movement will become more effective.

Sure it will. And once George Bush starts calling himself a Democrat, he’ll be seized by a desire to increase Medicaid benefits.

Okay, I’ve been playing devil’s advocate. Here’s what I actually think: Mr. Mirriam-Webster is still using an 1895 definition of “feminism.” The big feminist development of the last century has been to scratch the word “organized” out of definition (2):

Activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.

Broadening the definition of “activity” is what modern feminism is about. Personal actions have political weight. Treating men and women equally, scrubbing gender assumptions from language, stigmatizing sexist behavior among peers, acknowledging personal hang-ups about gender roles — these things count as activity. Not a lot, but they count.

So here’s where I stand with Mirriam-Webster, and against Tomato Nation: A feminist like me should not be content to “believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for.” He should be committed to action.

-posted by Mike

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3 Responses to Feminism: faith or works?

  1. […] feel better about where they stand—or don’t stand—on feminism)? Hit them with this—well done, Mike. Well […]

  2. rlwilliams says:

    This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for this. I’m totally posting a link to this post whenever someone waves that Tomato Nation article in my face. Thanks.

  3. Mike says:

    Aw, shucks, rlwilliams. That’s really nice.

    I should emphasize that my position changed over the course of thinking this through — working out why the Tomato Nation piece bothered me. If you’d sprung the question on me last week, I would have been likely to define a feminist as a mere believer, as I’m sure many people (and dictionaries, including my own) do. Oops.

    I guess I still share the Tomato Nation spirit that semantics should be secondary to outcomes. But they aren’t insignificant.

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