Today’s International Women’s Day. A whole lot of people in this corner of the world are talking and writing about how far we’ve come as women, as well as how much further we have to go before we reach equality in both work and domestic spheres. And then there’s this separate series of conversations happening about “feminism”: women who identify as such, women who refuse to use the word, women who get hostile and angry towards other women who do not take on the mantle of feminism as their own. The political is getting very personal in some of these debates, and I’m left feeling like if I don’t own my beliefs as “feminism,” I’m doing it wrong.
Let’s take a look at the history of Western feminism, though, for some perspective. What we see as first-wave feminism, the 19th and early 20th-century fight for legal recognition of women as persons, with all of the rights that other legally-recognized persons have access to (most importantly, though not exclusive to the right to vote). Not all women, though. Not Black women, not indigenous women, not “feeble-minded” women.
And then there’s second-wave feminism. Anyone here read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique? With its focus on the malaise of women as housewives, it’s seen as one of the most influential books of the twentieth-century. And it’s an entirely foreign concept to those women who have worked every day of their lives from childhood to ensure that their families had enough money for ongoing food and shelter. There was no examination of the privileged position of the (white, middle-to-upper-class, university-educated) women whose experiences were collected for this work. Let’s not forget that Friedan also famously referred to lesbians in the feminist movement as the “lavender menace” when, as president of the National Organization of Women (NOW), she identified lesbian interests and causes as something that would threaten the movement as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong: self-identified feminists and the movement as a whole has led to significant positive change for (many) women and girls. I like being able to vote, attend university, (more or less) have control over my reproductive choices, and raise my children as a never-married single parent without being slut-shamed. The fact that husbands no longer have the legal right to beat and rape their wives – that’s feminism (the fact that many continue to do it anyway is misogyny).
I identify as a feminist. Heck, I even have a degree in Women’s Studies. But I do so with caution and with the understanding that many people have incredibly legitimate reasons for NOT feeling comfortable with that identifier. Women of colour, Aboriginal women, generational poor women, women with disabilities, queer women, women who work in the sex industry — those of us who continue to be othered have valid concerns with feminism past and present.
In-fighting among women over how other(ed) women may identify doesn’t help us. Solidarity with women who are engaged in like-minded work, regardless of what that work is called, is far more effective.
Happy International Women’s Day.