Feminism is both a collective social movement and a deeply personal set of beliefs. The term “feminism” is one laden with history and ambiguous in meaning. Groups fighting for social change, calling themselves feminists, must seek to find a clear meaning, and yet, as we call ourselves feminists, the audience has already defined the term for us through their own lens and expectations. In order to see meaningful social change, individuals must unite in a common mission and message, even if the mission and message do not perfectly align with their own values and beliefs. Even though we must seek to find a common collective definition, there is value in first defining the term for yourself. My definition is constantly evolving and even my comfort in using the term changes as I acknowledge a somewhat exclusionary history that does not grapple well with intersectionality. My definition of feminism today rests on the idea that all humans should be treated equitably, and in order for this to occur we must elevate the aspects of identity that have been gendered as feminine.
To me, feminism is the idea that all humans should be treated with equity, not equality. Equality is the idea that we should all be treated the same. Equity is the idea that we should all be treated fairly. This fair treatment, however, may look different, because individuals are different. Historically, feminism was about equality, getting women the right to vote and removing the pay gap. These are important missions to take on, but they do not acknowledge the actual differences in humanity that create unfair experiences. For example, for those individuals giving birth to and then breastfeeding their children, equal rules and structures do not lead to equitable experiences. Further, when we do try to tackle these changes, we do so from the perspective of trying to make others fit into a white male world. In the case of the breastfeeding parent, for example, employers provide only a limited amount of time off, which is often unpaid, and this is a best case scenario. Upon return to work, the parent is in some cases provided with a private space to pump and in other cases, expected to do this in a bathroom stall or perhaps their car. In this case treatment of individuals needs to be different in order to be fair. Further, if we consider other individuals’ needs, instead of fitting them into a white, male paradigm, then we may work to redesign the work/life balance to create work environments that are more fluid and family friendly. This more inclusive work environment can benefits not just the individual, but also society from the greater input of ideas.
Moving away from a patriarchal paradigm requires recognizing that what we have attributed to the realm of the female or feminine is of value, worthy of cultural praise and economic recognition. Socially we have historically defined childrearing, housework, emotions and compassion to womanhood, and have delineated power, strength, stoicism and economic pursuits to manhood. Although we have more fluidity in our delineation these days, the historical lines have not been totally blurred. Too much emotion in men is still seen as a weakness. A woman in power is still seen as bossy. Culturally feminine identity is seen as less important than masculine identity. Perhaps this has limited our creativity in finding solutions to conflicts, limited our creativity in solving problems and created false divides between men and women. Further, as we are not born with prescribed gender roles and must learn them over time, this delineation leads to our individual struggle to reconcile personal traits with prescribed social identity.
Humans are not solely defined by our gender or gendered identities. We have many complex ways in which we categorize or have been categorized, and these categories of identity lead to many different lived experiences. Many of these experiences are filled with inequity and struggle. Thus, as a white woman, I think it is essential to recognize that as I use the term feminism, I may be unintentionally alienating individuals, who have been historically left behind by feminism. The feminist movement that is discussed in history books and in classrooms is largely a white feminist movement- a cis gender, able-bodied, straight and economically advantaged movement. Other feminism is largely left out of the mainstream discussion. Further these voices are often excluded in movements labeled as feminist. Transgender individuals are often excluded in rhetoric that defines womanhood through our bodies. A body with childbearing capabilities does have unique needs and social consideration, and yet we must look for ways to not ignore our sisters whose bodies do not have these capabilities for whatever reason that might be. Further we must include individuals from all experiences when we define a feminist agenda, and those with the most privilege must be willing to step back and let their message sometimes go unheard and take on auxiliary roles.
Despite the ambiguity of the term feminism and the historical lack of inclusion, I believe that the term feminism still has merit and this is why I consider myself a feminist. Feminism to me is about making the feminine equal and by tearing down the false limitations we have placed upon individuals by prescribing traits, roles and actions to a particular gender. Individuals will live more full lives if they can truly identify with all of their truths and not feel limited by society to fit into gendered norms. Further, society will benefit by recognizing and valuing many ways of being, thinking and feeling, and by creating ways for all people to participate in society without having to fit into a white, male paradigm.