Literature Review: Feminism

This begins a series of posts that, all together, comprise my literature review for my Master’s thesis research.  You can view all of the posts by clicking here.

What follows is the section on the feminist movement and defining feminism.  Enjoy!

For quite some time, feminists have used the power and ease of distribution of the written word to spread their ideas to a wider audience.  They wrote radical texts in the form of manifestos, guides, statements of purpose, and other political texts that were often linked together – or referential to each other in some way – and were distributed quickly and publicly and often disappeared as rapidly as they appeared.  Feminists have always used literacy events to spread information about their causes; from pamphlets and packets to websites and blog posts, feminists rely on the written word to create a community and recruit community members.  Historically, women activists have formed communities by holding meetings and quickly distributing information.  Now, however, feminists seem to have taken up a presence online, and communities of feminist bloggers are springing up seemingly out of nowhere and without a formal site or forum for discussion.  How do these feminist bloggers create a community online using nothing but literacy practices?  How do their processes of reading and writing online work together with others’ processes in order to create such a community?

Before we can begin to answer these questions, though, we must explore what we mean by “feminism.”  Feminism has taken many forms since women first started fighting for equal rights.  From the volunteer force of women including Jane Addams to activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and authors and theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir, feminism has produced as many theories as it has definitions for the term.  In fact, there seem to be as many definitions for feminism as there are feminists. bell hooks, one of the foremost feminist theorists of our time, discusses the problems with feminist discourse in her essay “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression.”  She says: “A central problem within feminist discourse has been our inability to either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or accept definition(s) that could serve as points of unification.  Without agreed-upon definition(s), we lack a sound foundation on which to construct theory or engage in overall meaningful praxis” (18).  This is precisely the problem feminist bloggers deal with on a daily basis.  Every writer has a different definition of feminism, and this can cause discrepancies and arguments within the feminist community – a community that needs solidarity to survive.

There are several feminists who have tried to define feminism; among them are Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards.  In their book, ManifestA: young women, feminism, and the future, they wrote an entire chapter titled “What is Feminism?”  In this chapter, they work to posit many definitions of feminism.  They write: “In the most basic sense, feminism is exactly what the dictionary says it is: the movement for social, political, and economic equality of men and women” (56).  Although this definition is very basic, it does cover all of the issues feminists want to cover in their activism.  Baumgardner and Richards take it one step further, and break down this definition:

It is a movement, meaning a group working to accomplish specific goals.  Those goals are social and political change – implying that one must be engaged with the government and laws, as well as with social practices and beliefs.  And implicit in these goals is access to sufficient information to enable women to make responsible choices. (56)

Baumgardner and Richards also point out that feminism is just as often described by what it is not than by what it is: it is not narrow minded; it is not about rejecting women who love makeup and designer clothes or women who decide to stay home with their children; it is not about “dissing men” (63).  The list goes on, but the implications are clear: feminism must be defined by what it is rather than what it is not in order to create a radical movement necessary for change.

Most researchers and theorists agree that definitions of feminism – and, consequently, feminists – exist on a spectrum.  In their 1996 study titled ‘I Am Not a Feminist, but…’: College Women, Feminism, and Negative Experiences,” Joan K. Buschman and Silvo Lenart found that college women, ages 18 to 22, strongly believed in equal rights for women and the importance of “nontraditional” gender roles, but the young women they interviewed did not necessarily identify as feminists.  Their study discovered that there were varying levels of group consciousness when it came to feminism.  Women who identified themselves as feminist made up 17% of the interviewees and were the strongest proponents of women’s rights and equality.  The population that Buschman and Lenart define as Post-Feminists make up 35% of their population and “are more likely to see the battle for equality as a past victory than an on-going struggle” (67).  The Anti-Feminists comprised about 4% of their population and such a small size did not allow them to conclude much about that part of the population.  They did identify a new cluster of people who existed between the feminist and post-feminist populations.  These interviewees were not satisfied with women’s status at the time, but believed that individual activism was necessary for change, not the group activism the self-identified feminists sought.  Buschman and Lenart also found that, more often than not, growing up with a mother in a “nontraditional” role did not make a woman identify herself as a feminist.  Experiences that did contribute to a positive view of feminism were acts of violence against women, such as rape, sexual harassment, or other forms of sexual violence.

In 2003, Pamela Aronson took this a step further in her study “Feminists or ‘Postfeminists’?: Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations.”  She noted that, in the late 1990s – around the time Buschman and Lenart completed their study – mass media was touting the feminist movement as “dead.”  Aronson interviewed women in her study just like Buschman and Lenart did, but broke apart the results based on race, class, and life experience.  Aronson noted basically the same definition for postfeminists as Buschman and Lenart did – that they agreed that women’s rights are important but are not active in urging for further change.  She observes, as well, that negative images of feminism throughout the media could and did contribute to women refusing to define themselves as feminists.  This, however, began to change with women who came of age in the 1990s, and these women began to make up “Third Wave” feminism.  It is this “Third Wave” generation that Aronson interviews for her study, and discovers almost the same spectrum of feminism that Buschman and Lenart did.  They found that about one fourth of the women in their study identified themselves as feminists, 19% of their interviewees fell into the category of “I’m a feminist, but…” and roughly one third of their interview participants fell into the category of “I’m not a feminist, but…” (913-917) The final quarter of their research population were unsure of how they felt about feminism or had never thought about feminism.  They did not, however, find any part of their population with anti-feminist sentiments.  What they did find was that women who took the “I’m not a feminist, but…” approach were “associated with more privileged racial and class backgrounds” (919).  Those who identified as feminists in their study were mostly college educated or had taken women’s studies courses at some point.  They further state:

Those who qualified their feminist identities and those who had never thought about feminism were disproportionately from less privileged racial and class backgrounds… were college-educated, working-class women and/or women of color who came to feminism as a result of assumptions of equality when growing up. (919)

This suggests that, although many women in modern society do align themselves with feminism and agree with feminist principles, there is a good part of the population who either does not think about feminism or, as bell hooks states throughout the essays in Feminist Theory From Margin to Center, has felt excluded by the predominantly white, upper- or middle-class, college-educated mainstream feminism.  It seems that “feminism” may never be concretely defined, but that it is best to allow the definition of the term to be fluid and allow each individual feminist to take her – or his – own definition.  After all, as the Second Wave feminists said, the personal is political.

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