The word “feminist” evokes many different responses when people are asked, “what is a feminist?”. Perhaps your response depends on your generation, or your gender, or your religious beliefs, as to what your response will be…
The many definitions of Feminist – which one is correct?
The word Feminist historically often had a negative connotation. Rebecca West, a prominent English 20thcentury writer, once commented, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute.”
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a feminist as: “a person who believes in feminism, and, tries to achieve change that helps women to get equal opportunities and treatment.”
Ok, so what is “feminism” then?
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, I was able to witness what is often referred to as the “second wave” of feminism. The first wave of feminism was in the 19th and early 20th centuries and focused mainly on securing voting rights for women and addressing legal inequalities between men and women. The 19th-century feminists were reacting to the widespread acceptance of the Victorian image of a woman’s proper “role” and “sphere”. (Think of all those women depicted by Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters!) The first wave feminists focused on obtaining women’s suffrage, education, employment, better working conditions, and marital law. The barriers to education and employment were highly restrictive leaving women with not many options for any type of financial independence and security except through marriage.
In 1913, the word “Feminism” was a household word in the United States with both equality and differences being the route to empowerment. The women’s suffrage movement in obtaining the right to vote for women, represented the first time that women wouldn’t be treated as second-class citizens with no voice.
The second wave of feminism occurred from the early ’60s through the late ’80s. Whereas the first wave focused on absolute rights, the second wave focused on cultural inequalities which were viewed as inextricably linked to political inequalities. In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique which addressed how women often felt stultified in their roles as homemakers after graduating from university and not having the opportunity to use their degrees in a meaningful way due to cultural norms and lack of available opportunities for women. Many jobs were just not open to women at that time and it was frowned upon for women not to be homemakers.
The phrase “women’s liberation” was first used in the early ’60s and the term has endured over the years. This era had experienced increased female enrollment in higher education, the establishment of women’s studies courses and exploration of feminist ideology in the fields of politics, history, sociology, and literature. The rise of the “Women’s Liberation Movement” manifested “multiple feminisms” depending on the issues involved.
In the ’70s, feminist activists began addressing political and sexual issues in publications such as Ms. Magazine. Reproductive rights were sought through birth control and abortion both of which had been universally restricted until the ’60s. Women expressed that reproductive self-control was essential for full economic independence from men.
Although the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed in 1923, it wasn’t passed by Congress until 1972. The E.R.A. is a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. It would require states to intervene in cases of gender violence such as domestic violence and sexual harassment, it would protect against pregnancy and motherhood discrimination and would federally guarantee equal pay. But the E.R.A. has yet to be ratified because, in order to become a constitutional amendment, it needed to be ratified by 38 states by 1982, which it was not, and it has an uphill battle to fight to ever come to fruition. The conversation on this topic is still divided with some arguing that the natural order of things is “equal but different”, and opponents of that posit that there is no such thing as equal but different gender roles.
We are now in the third wave of feminism which is a response by young women to the second wave and the perceived failures thereof. This wave is challenging the second wave definition of femininity and is dismantling the concept of gender as a binary concept, so it is more inclusive, hence perhaps making the term feminism somewhat obsolete! Some younger people feel it is too harsh a term, alienating and anachronistic.
Now I am totally confused! Basically, everybody has their own definition of feminism and what a feminist is. Here is my explanation in the context of my moniker The Fiscal Feminist…
The word “Feminist” in Fiscal Feminist means EMPOWERMENT to me, plain and simple. I am a product of the ’70s and I was inspired by Gloria Steinem to work in a man’s world back in the early ’80s and claim my place. That said, I am not a bra-burner, and I was a stay-at-home mom for ten years. In my mind, these things are not mutually exclusive.
Men and women are different, physiologically and psychologically. Many books have been written on this topic. That said, I categorically disagree with any notion that women are the weaker sex or inferior in some way – these attitudes have encouraged sexism and discrimination against women in the workplace and other venues. Progress is being made in this regard, but it is slow going as women often continue to be paid less for the same job as men, and do not occupy as many positions of power as they should.
My meaning of the word “Feminist” means:
- a woman who seeks empowerment to take charge of her own destiny;
- who will not live in denial, and expect and rely on others to “take care” of her financial future, and will have the knowledge and foresight to protect her financial well-being through proactive behavior – because without financial security it is difficult to move ahead in life;
- who is willing to be comfortable with making others uncomfortable with her success due to their limited views, and who understands that others discomfort with a woman’s proactive empowerment, is not a women’s responsibility to solve; and,
- who seeks her empowerment with grace, fortitude, tenacity, respect and unrelenting resilience.
Being a woman is complicated because we need to overcome the historical narrative and cultural norms that dictated our place in society for a long period of time. We have more choices today as those beliefs evolve. Many of us choose to be mothers, and that involves circumnavigating the responsibilities of motherhood while pursuing our own independence, and many of us are now confident enough to choose not to be mothers because it isn’t what we want. All of us should choose to be self-sufficient, independent thinkers and courageous enough, not to be absolutely reliant on others for our future security and well-being.
Whatever path you choose, my mission is to encourage you to believe in yourself, take charge of your own destiny (even if you are in a relationship), and to be master of your fate.
I close with a phrase from Invictus, by William Ernest Henley:
It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul