Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Feminist Umbrella

(A letter to my daughter on the occasion of her 14th birthday)


by Valentina Solenzol

Feminism is a term that most men and women believe they understand…until you ask them to articulate its meaning.  Like Obscenity or “The Situation In Israel/Palestine”, it’s a moving target with unexpected layers of subtlety and nuance that tends to spark overpowering emotions and impassioned controversy.  General explanations that try to be objective are, by definition, desperately oversimplified.  There are entire libraries and Ph.D. programs on the subject.  This letter is intended to give you a starting point, a framework with some vocabulary and the most basic history, for you to build on.

It starts with patriarchy, which is any society (including ours) that gives men most of the power and privilege in law, politics, property rights, sex, religion and so on.  Feminism is a set of ideas, developed and supported by women and men who believe in equality of all people, designed to transform the patriarchal system into an egalitarian society. 

I see feminism as a big umbrella with two ideas printed across it:
1.    Our society systematically oppresses and disempowers women.
2.    Something Ought To Be Done About It.

Under the umbrella, there is a kaleidoscope of competing, cross-pollinating, sometimes mutually exclusive ideas, opinions, philosophies, and agendas. 

In a feeble attempt to tame an overwhelming topic, I’ll limit myself to the US in the last 150 years or so.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, suffragettes marched, protested and lobbied to get women the right to vote.  Additionally, they fought for other basic women’s rights, such as owning property getting an education; entering “male” professions such as medicine and law; having equal legal claims over their children, and much more.  In retrospect, we call this period First Wave Feminism.

Some people/topics you may like to look up: Susan B Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman

The suffragettes and their political descendants are Liberal Feminists who are focused on women gaining equal rights under the law and within the current system.

The World Wars slowed advances in women’s rights activism.  But with the civil rights movement, the Pill and post-WWII affluence, Second Wave Feminism had its day.  This generation of feminists took on inequalities in the workplace and home, reproductive rights such as birth control and abortion, women’s sexuality, and a wide variety of other issues.

Second Wave Feminism: Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, National Organization for Women (NOW), Ms Magazine

The ERA, or Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution was supposed to be the jewel in the crown of these activists.  It reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” It would have taken approval, or ratification, by 38 states to be added to the US Constitution, but it missed the mark by 3 states.

During these decades, feminism flourished and grew in multiple directions. Some activists became increasingly militant in their thoughts and actions.  These Radical Feminists, in contrast to their Liberal Feminist compatriots, believe that it is virtually impossible to overthrow patriarchy from within a patriarchal system.  They see the need for a dramatic transformation of society’s basic assumptions.

While Radical feminism vs Liberal feminism is often presented as the main feminist dichotomy, feminism actually comes in many other flavors. For example, Radical feminists, comprise (among others) Separatist and Lesbian feminists; Marxist, Anarchist, Socialist and Libertarian feminists; Black or Womanist feminists; Chicana, Asian American and Native American feminists. Third World Feminism deals with ethnic issues and racism, since the oppression the American woman experiences is a world away from what women may face in other parts of the world, from routine genital mutilation to denial of education to death by stoning. And that’s just scratching the surface of feminist consortia.

Some Radical Feminists saw violent oppression in the way men relate to women sexually.  In their view, pornography, sadomasochism and prostitution were central to explaining women’s second-class position in society.  Accordingly, they were labeled Anti-Pornography Feminists. A few had a exceedingly antagonistic attitude towards heterosexual men.  Their extreme ideas caught the imagination of the general public, creating the impression that this iconoclastic school of thought was widespread among feminists.  Because of this, many people rejected feminism altogether.

Anti-Porn Feminists: Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon

In the 1980s, others under the metaphorical Umbrella of Feminism took exception to the anti-porn approach to sexuality. Positing that sexual freedom among consenting adults is key to women’s liberation, they became known as Sex-Positive Feminists.  They clashed intensely with the anti-porn feminists in an ideological conflict colorfully nicknamed The Sex Wars.  There is still an Anti-Porn/Sex-Positive rift pervading feminism today.

Sex-Positive Feminists: Susie Bright, Carol Queen

Third Wave Feminism is difficult to discuss, because we are still in the middle of it. The children and grandchildren of second-wave feminists have been bringing women’s rights into the 21st century.  They point out that queer people and non-white women have not been well represented in previous iterations of feminism.  They challenge male-female duality, suggesting that gender is much more fluid than previously envisioned.  Many in this generation even reject the label “feminism” entirely, though they agree with the writing on the umbrella.

Most third-wave feminists fall in the sex-positive category.  High on their list of concerns are biases based on race, social class and sexuality, workplace issues (equal pay, glass ceiling, etc), rape and gender violence, reclaiming derogatory terms (i.e. “slut”), and reproductive rights. 

The Vagina Monologues, SlutWalks, Pussy Riot, Riot Grrls

How Third Wave Feminism will develop, and what comes next, is up to you. I know you will make me proud.

With love,


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