[Feminisms Fest] (Attempting) Defining Feminism

Posted by on February 26, 2013 in All Categories, Feminism | 15 comments

Feminism. It’s a polarizing topic, and a pretty popular one in the Christian blogging world. With posts like this and this and this, it’s easy to get mixed up and confused about feminism. What is it? What does it mean? What positions is one required to hold in order to be a “true” feminist?

Growing up, I was taught that feminism wasn’t something Christians should embrace. Sure, there were self-identifying feminists who simply thought that women were human and should be treated as equal to men, and the early feminists were good women who won the right to vote and the right to own property. But modern-day feminists were selfish women who wanted more than just equality. They wanted to live without consequences. They were bra-burning, pro-abortion, don’t-need-a-man women.

Well, it turns out *some* of that is true. There are certainly modern-day feminists who believe that all men are inherently evil and that all women should be lesbians (say what?), but these women are clearly on the fringe and don’t represent all feminists. To say they do is kind of like saying Westboro Baptist Church represents all Christians.

I first started learning about feminism in college, when I took a class in child and family advocacy and policy. It was in that class that I learned that the first feminists were actually Christians advocating for justice and social reform. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about the history and goals of feminism, and found that, at it’s core, feminism is actually a very natural complement to my Christian faith. Over its history, feminism has consistently been about pursuing justice and equality–initially for women, and now for all.

One of my more recent discoveries is that there are multiple “feminisms”–difference feminism, queer feminism, black feminism, etc. Each of these types of feminism has their own unique flavor, their own paradigms through which they analyze social issues, and, usually, one or two issues that they focus on more heavily than others (such as racism). As I’ve read about feminism and discussed it with others, these are what I see as the defining characteristics of feminism:

1. Recognizing privilege

This post is one of the best I’ve read explaining privilege. If you’re not sure what “privilege” means in the context of feminist discussion, I highly recommend reading it, as the traditional definition of privilege doesn’t completely capture the essence of “privilege” as feminists reference it. Feminism, as a system, asks hard questions about privilege and calls individuals to examine what privileges they have. Who has privilege? Why? How does that affect how they relate to the people around them? How does lack of privilege affect people? How can we be aware of our privilege so that we don’t unintentionally hurt those around us?

2. Dismantling power structures

While privilege asks who has a natural advantage in life, power structures are about who has more authority and power in society as a group. This is not about getting rid of authority completely (for example, no feminist I’ve ever read wants to get rid of the employer-employee relationship), but rather, which groups have the ability to oppress other groups based on societal structures in place. For the vast majority of feminists, the main way this is manifested is in a desire to see patriarchy eliminated (while feminism has evolved to be much more than a women’s movement, it’s still a women’s movement at heart). This is where things get a little hazy. Unlike what I understood growing up, feminists are not wanting to grab more power for themselves. Rather, they want to eliminate societal power structures altogether so that all humans are treated as equal, and given leadership based on their merits, not their gender, skin color, etc. Much has been written on how systems like patriarchy hurt not just women, but men as well. This is not about wanting to eliminate power for the sake of eliminating power, but undoing power structures and advocating for a better way that helps everyone involved.

3. Justice for everyone

Because of feminism’s framework of examining privilege and power structures in society,  it has advocated for justice in a wide range of areas, from prison reform laws that would help men, to better work policies that would help families, to civil rights for people of color. While feminism has certainly failed to do this perfectly across the board (for example, When Everything Changed details the tumultuous relationship between the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism), the philosophical framework of feminism has provided a natural base for advocating for justice for everyone, both in public policy as well as in society in general.

This is a pretty academic definition of feminism, that highlights what I have seen as the defining characteristics across feminists of differing religious, political, and personal beliefs. No two feminists are exactly alike. Some are atheists, others are Christian. Some are in marriages that reflect traditional gender roles, others are exploring what equality means in marriage (or choose not to marry at all.) Just as no two Christians will agree on everything, no two feminists will agree on everything. The important part for me is that, unlike what I thought growing up, the basic philosophy of feminism is not only compatible with my faith, it is a natural consequence of it. As a Christian, I care deeply about justice and equality. Feminism provides a framework to discuss these issues.

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk more about why this is important to me, and what I think is at stake in this discussion. In the meantime, check out the link-up at J.R. Goudeau’s blog and see what other Christians are saying about feminism!

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What about you? What is your experience with feminism? How would you define it? Do you think feminism is compatible with Christianity? 

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  • http://loveiswhatyoudo.wordpress.com/ J.R. Goudeau

    Shaney, this is a brilliant post. It’s concise, clear, and well-written. Thank you for your insight into how your understanding of feminisms has changed. It’s the emphasis on social justice that I feel particularly eager to reclaim in Christian circles and I think you’ve done a great job of highlighting that aspect. Well done.

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      Thanks J.R.! Excited to hear that from someone who teaches about this stuff for a living. :)

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  • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

    Fabulous post, Shaney. Well done with this post!!

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      Thanks Danielle!

  • http://twitter.com/EstherEmery Esther Emery

    Shaney, this is so clear and helpful! Congratulations! But let me be your first feminist who wants to get rid of the employer-employee relationship. That’s what my yurt is all about, basically, so that both my husband AND I can be full time homemakers. And there are lots of feminists who feel this way. Search “solidarity economy” or “popular economics.” Or read Shannon Hayes’ “Radical Homemakers.”

    *Hugs!* I’m so glad you see your website thriving!

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      That is fascinating! I have a lot more reading to do!

  • Mark Hutchins

    Great, Shaney. I’ve been eager to read some clarifications of your “feminism”, so I was glad to read this good beginning of your explanation. That being said, I still don’t understand why recognizing privilege, dismantling power structures (I am VERY interested in reading further thoughts on the practical implications of this – it’s a bit of a hot button endeavor) and seeking justice for everyone needs or is well served by the label feminism, particularly in light of its close association with abortion and such. I understand you aren’t arguing that the label is needed…but as a fellow believer and someone who agrees with you on the major tenets of your own feminism…it still puzzles me why the label is worth redeeming. Why spend the time redefining it instead of putting more effort into pointing out and taking action against (or for, such as the case may be) human rights abuses, be they against male or female?

    Thanks again for the post and please don’t interpret my comments as criticism. They are only meant to question, and I don’t doubt that you have good answers, which I look forward to reading if you have the time to provide them. :-)

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Perhaps Shaney you can elaborate on what type of power structures you have in mind. For instance, privileging certain types of people (men, white, etc.) over others. I think sometimes people hearing “dismantling power structures” and they begin to think that feminists are advocating for anarchy.

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      Hey Mark! Sorry I haven’t replied until now, it’s been kind of a hectic week for me. You ask a lot of really good questions. Hopefully some of them were answered in my second post, but some of them need more posts in and of themselves. :) I certainly plan to blog more about this topic.

      I really appreciate you being here. I can always count on you for respectful but challenging dialogue.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Great post- you highlighted the main themes of feminism very well, in my opinion. :) Recognizing power structures that give certain people advantages or disadvantages, and working towards equality for everyone.

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      Thanks!

  • Juliet

    I found this really interesting. For me there was never any difficulty seeing Christianity and feminism as complementary. The difficulty has been finding ways to live them that are life enhancing!

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      Yes, living it out is so much harder than talking about it, isn’t it?

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston Yancey

    Well done, Shaney!

    • http://www.shaneyirene.com/ Shaney Irene

      Thanks Preston!

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