Feminism And Alter-Feminism

 (French Artist and Feminist Orlan)

I have wanted to post on this for a long, long time.  I know that the modern feminist movement grew out of an altrusitic desire to correct social ills.  I find myself questioning whether feminism has since caused other, different ills within society, and whether “feminism” has out-lived its use-by date. 

As I ponder and sort through my own ideas of what it means to be feminine, I realized that the word “feminism” means different things to different people.  That word usually raises my hackles, and I want to pinpoint why exactly.  I’m very interested to find out what other people think.

 (Australian Feminist Germaine Greer)

I started at work last night.  I work with a large group of strong-minded, creative, independent women who work outside the home in a female-dominated industry.  Most of them are my mother’s age.  They tolerate and indulge me; when I started asking questions like “Are you a feminist?  What does feminism mean to you?” I received direct, interesting, varied answers.

Among their answers were “No, I am not a feminist,” “I want to be treated as an equal but also as a lady,” “No, but I think women should receive equal pay for equal work,” “Modern feminism has done modern women a great disservice,” “Yes, I am a feminist,” “I stay out of it and do what I want,” and “No, but I do think a woman should be permitted to maintain some financial independence.”  Very interesting.  I think I want to start asking those questions all the time and start writing down the answers.

Before I go forming my own concrete opinions I thought I should consider others’ ideas.  I’m open to reading suggestions as well, though I’ve done a fair amount of reading on my own.

Are you a feminist?  What does feminism mean to you?

{Thank you so much for your kind replies to my depression post.  Somehow just writing about it exorcises some demons, and then I spent a nice day with my daughter at the farmers’ market.  She is like sunshine, impossible to be unhappy around her.  Also, I promise an interesting sewing only post later.  I got my green cashgora in the mail this morning!  And I have the Oliver + S Sailboat pattern to cut for my dolly. }


  1. Oh dear, I'm behind and I missed your last post! I'm glad you're feeling better. (just went and peeked) I can't imagine what it would be like to be so far from the things I know. I'm agonizing over moving across the country and never seeing a cardinal again, or fireflies….and you are so much further away. I think you hold up much better than I would! On today's topic, I think you should do some reading on Third Wave Feminism, the wikipedia entry is actually not bad. I find that most of the conflict/misunderstanding/etc over the "F" word is because there is a huge break between 2nd and 3rd wave feminists. It is really helpful to understand the distance between the two. While it is well-studied and written up at this point, I think far too many women still think in terms of 2nd-wave feminism and just cannot identify with it, and it leaves them very confused. (For the record, I used to identify as a "lowercase f" feminist, I would say now that I am a 3rd wave feminist — but I would hesitate to use the term because so many people only understand it by the 2nd wave definition.)

  2. I am not quite sure why the word feminist upsets you. I consider myself a feminist and I am probably your mothers age. I get upset with young women who don't respect or understand the struggle that women have waged so that you can have the choices that you have. You vote, you can work in any field you want to, you can own property and control your own life. You have the right not to be harassed in the work place. The rights and advantages that you take for granted came with the hard work of many women. It is certainly not over though young women seem to think there is nothing left for which to fight. Hilary clinton made the rights of women in the developing world a priority as secretary of state. This is feminism. Basic human rights for women are sadly lacking in a large part of the world. I agree with the first poster; you should read some history and gain a better understanding of the struggle women have made to get to where we are now.

  3. I fully agree with Nancy, it's a subject that is important to me. I'm 49 and very aware that my life would have been so different if the generations of women before me wouldn't have fought for equal rights. When my parents divorced (experienced as shameful at the time by my mother)she was left alone with no education to speak of and no career. I've taken every opportunity I got to get educated, have a career of my own and be (financially) independent. I raise both my children in that awareness too and live together with my husband as equal partners. When my grandmothers married, they had to give up the little job they had, married women didn't work, when my mother married, that was when you got your first child. They had to ask their husbands permission to buy something for themselves! The idea alone! I'm grateful to those women who started a movement that makes it possible for women nowadays to be independent.

  4. Hmm. I'll read the wiki article this evening, never occurred to me to turn there.As for being uninformed about the history of women and the struggle for equal rights… That's not quite the case. If anything, I am a university educated female and have voted several times. As for not respecting their struggles, again not the case. I see those issues (voting, owning property, education) to be human rights issues rather than purely related to gender. Women are not the only group denied those rights, either in the present across the developing world or historically.Perhaps I see those issues in that light because I am a product of my generation, and perhaps it is not a bad way to look at those issues. In fact, perhaps the mindset of "human" rather than "gender" equality being paramount shows an upbringing in a world where women don't have to fight for equality. Isn't that a step forward? Why should questions be threatening? I'm not sure why older women would think that I'm disrespectful or ungrateful because I would question the social system I see in place. Isn't that what they did, and their mothers before them? Doesn't each generation try to leave their stamp on the world and leave it a better place for their children? These are the questions I ponder as I tend my home, wash dishes, roll cannelloni. Isn't the essence of the original liberationist struggles to allow mindspace for.. well… liberated thought? Why can't I be liberated and also strongly feel that it is my duty to keep the home fires burning? I honestly don't see any contradiction there, perhaps because I am blessed enough to have a kind, loving, and respectful husband. Perhaps I would feel differently if I found myself tied to a tyrant.Hmmm please keep the comments coming, it only helps me go deeper.

  5. I've started to think that you can measure the success and completeness of social change by how quickly people begin to doubt whether it needed to happen at all. For instance, it's only *because* universal vaccination has allowed the past few generations to grow up in total ignorance of the horrible suffering wrought by childhood diseases that parents now have the luxury of decrying it. In the same way, many people suppose feminism is no longer relevant to modern life precisely *because* we now take its victories for granted. You wonder why we can't just enjoy "human rights", but without the civil rights and women's rights movements, I doubt whether the concept of human rights would even exist in its present form.It's tempting to attribute many modern ills to feminism, but the more I read the more I'm convinced human beings are very, very bad at attributing proper causes to effects, especially when it comes to the social problems of the day, which can have many causes. We don't even really know why people get cancer or what makes kids turn into criminals, and we're studying these things incredibly hard.Reading history, especially social history, can be a real eye-opener in showing how far we have come in so little time, and how quickly we forget how things used to be. 100 years ago, women in the UK could not legally vote, could not openly obtain information about birth control, could not leave their husbands without being separated from their children, were not legally entitled to education and had little recourse against domestic violence and none at all against marital rape. These are just some legal aspects of the condition of women in western society in the past. The social aspects were much broader, subtler and more pervasive, and would I think tip the balance for you pretty quickly if you could get hold of a time machine and go back to the old days. Imagine being completely financially dependent on your husband — or a bad husband, who drank or gambled — and having to run a household and feed your kids on whatever money he chose to give you. Imagine not being taken seriously in conversations with men, or being routinely patronized, sexualized, harassed, groped or underpaid in the workplace. Imagine being unable to follow the news because you'd been deprived of all but the most primitive information on economics, politics and defense. Imagine not being able to wear pants without being sneered or spat at in the street. Imagine being raped and then being blamed for it, with no legal or emotional support. Imagine not being able to travel or even walk the streets alone. Imagine not being consulted about major decisions affecting your family and household. I could go on. Suffice it to say that I read a lot of history, and in nearly every book I encounter something that makes me thank God for the brave and determined women and men who risked their reputations and in some cases their lives to make the world a safer, kinder and more just place for women. They are the reason why I'm proud to call myself a feminist.

  6. Food for thought. I'd genuinely like to know why people assume I'm ignorant of the history of femininity when I suggest examining the future roles of women and men in our society. I don't necessarily propose a destruction of past struggles for equality, nor do I discount past injustices nor do I think that women are not the equals of men. Pur-lease. I am not interested in returning to the past (well, except maybe fashions…) but on building on the present. What is the purpose of studying history if not to gain deeper understanding of the present, and ideas of where to go in the future? Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Is it impossible that our ancestors, or the ancients had something right? That is all I'm saying, that perhaps we've liberated ourselves out of holding our own very special place in society.One thing I find troubling when I look around me is the disappearance of space for the masculine. How can men be men if the things that used to distinguish masculinity have disappeared? I'm not talking oppression, I'm talking about courage, honor, protection of women, and arenas where men alone trod- war, or business, or provision for their families. It wasn't all just about keeping the little woman at home in the past, and that selective social memory is another aspect of "feminism" I find objectionable. Men considered it their duty, their reason for being to care for and protect their women, their families. It was an integral part of masculine identity, along with a certain gallant respect for the fairer sex. Read some Victorian literature. Not all men were mean drunken brutes. Strong social pressure ensured things stayed that way. Life wasn't easy for men either. When my grandfather was struggling financially as a veterinarian, my grandmother got a job as a teacher. She was pleased to do it, he felt emasculated and ashamed he couldn't provide for his family. Please, please, the historical oppression of women by men is not the fault of men who live and breathe today any more than slavery in the Deep South was my fault. Why should we hit them over the heads with it? I suppose this is one thing I object to- the implication that somehow men are the enemy and always have been. I do not deny that women have categorically suffered at the hands of men. That would be completely foolish.However, I think it is part of human nature to subdue or marginalize people we see to be different or weaker. That same old story gets played out over and over. Perhaps "progress" and "civilization" is the process of denying the worse parts of our human natures and exploring higher ideas, attempting to implement them in our interactions with others and in our culture.Also, I think the vaccination analogy is an interesting one, and apt. What if overwhelming scientific evidence emerged that showed that vaccinations led to senility in later life among a certain percentage of the population? I don't propose that to be the case, but I think that if vaccinations were shown to be somehow insidiously detrimental, we would change the vaccine. This is so interesting, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  7. When you talk about the disappearance of the masculine and the blaming of men for the ills suffered by women, it makes me think, "This is definitely a fellow American talking!" One wonderful thing about moving to the UK is that it's given me breathing room to see how bitterly, destructively antagonistic relations between the sexes are in the US, and how continuously women and men are whipped up to mutual resentment by movies, ads, marketing, media and popular culture, until many end up hating the person they're supposed to love. I don't know how much of this to attribute to feminism and how much to anti-feminism, but it's a terrible wound in the nation's soul. I don't think it's necessarily that way everywhere. The UK certainly has its own problems, but there doesn't seem to be a gender war here — men seem more comfortable, more confident and more proud to be fathers, husbands and partners than in the States, where it's subtly drilled into them that family life is an emasculating prison. (This ad would NEVER fly in the UK, for instance.) At the same time, British men seem to have adapted fairly gracefully to the changes in gender roles the last half-century has brought about, without a lot of rah-rah about feminism and being liberated. As a result, I get to see a lot of loving, constructive, cooperative relationships here that make the best of the flexibility post-feminist life affords men AND women. I see stay-at-home husbands and male partners who raise the kids and cultivate their creative pursuits while the woman brings down the salary. I see couples in which both partners work part-time and mind the kids part-time. I see more traditional arrangements where the woman does most of the homemaking (although not many people can afford to be SAHMs in London) — whatever works. The point is that no one's forced or shamed into a certain role — in these cases, both men and women are benefiting from increased flexibility. I know that loving, respectful, mutually supportive relationships between men and women are not a new phenomenon, but it isn't the good relationships feminism has usually been concerned with — it's the bad ones, which can happen to anyone. I am deeply grateful for the changes in women's status in society that have allowed men and women to come together and stay together on a basis of equality and freedom rather than because of social pressures or lack of legal options. I, like you, am blessed with a good man, but I had to make A LOT of mistakes before I found him. Imagine if I'd had to live with the consequences of my first mistake forever by marrying him — misery all round. Done right (although it's often done badly), I think feminism is about benefiting *both* sexes by releasing them to choose how they live and love. That includes the choice of abandoning OR pursuing traditional roles. I love the spirit of open-minded inquiry in which you've posed your questions — there's not nearly enough of that on the internets. I'll shut up now! Votes for Women!

  8. I know I already wrote you, but in case any commenter is wondering, I don't think you're in any way ignorant of the history of feminism. I think it's clear that you are well aware of it and reacting to it in your own way. I suggested you look into 3rd/2nd wave thought because I think you would find that 3rd wave feminism in many ways is what you would identify with, and I find that many women who are functioning as 3rd wave feminists in their lives have never heard the term, and think they are out there on their own with these thoughts and reactions. I really do think that the wiki article is a good starting point, although of course not everyone would agree. Argh, I'd write more but I have a hyper 5 year old right in my face — oh, why can't kids nap forever? (She stopped before her 2nd birthday — ugh!)

  9. Oooh I wish I could sit and frame a decent reply, Susannah you made me smile, and Sarah I read the article and it helped point me to other people who perhaps have similar thoughts as I. Like "equality feminism" rather than "gender feminism." Also outlined exactly the things I object to. Must go play with child, have breakfast, and get to class.

  10. The feminist movement may have made life better for women in some ways, but in many ways it has made it worse.For instance, now it is practically the norm for families to have a dual income, this creates an inflationary effect (eg increased house prices) and makes it financially harder on those that do have a single income. The option of being a stay at home mum is now just not a viable option for many. I suspect many working mothers out there would prefer to be at home caring for their families, not having to head out to work from 8am-6pm. Job options or equal pay are minor concerns compared to the effect on the children in our society of this lifestyle. I see an awful lot of unsupervised kids, kids raised by nannys, stressed mothers, depressed mothers, instant food, takeout dinners, family breakdowns, and so on. Is that really ideal? Change happens, but remember societal traditions became established over centuries because overall they were the most successful way. Feminism has had a relatively rapid effect, and I think the full societal consequences are yet to come as the next generation evolves.

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