Why We Should Stop Fighting Over The Definition Of Feminism

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When feminists attack each other personally, they waste time and energy fighting people with whom they are 95% ideologically aligned, rather than focusing on the real, shared work of feminism, says Laurel Hermanson.

Sometimes I envision countless men, and possibly women, surfing the Internet, rubbing their hands together, and muttering, The feminists are arguing again.

Last week, when Susan Sarandon dismissed the word “feminist” as old-fashioned, the ensuing hubbub was predictable. Some feminists publicly denounced her, while others rushed to her side to show support. I suspect most people, if they were aware of Sarandon’s statement at all, didn’t give a shit because they were too busy just trying to survive in a world which oppresses all of us every day, in ways big and small. But in the feminist blogosphere this was big news, and rightly so, since Sarandon has spent her life fighting for gender equality, among other causes.

I don’t care so much that celebrities like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry have chosen to eschew the feminist label. (I just recently learned that Swift is a singer, and thanks to the Internet I’ve learned Perry is too.) While I don’t believe these younger stars are showing appropriate respect for the privilege they enjoy thanks to the feminist movement, I’m inclined to excuse them based on immaturity and/or naiveté. And the fact that they probably identify mostly as, you know, celebrities. I was an entitled brat when I was in my 20s, and I wasn’t famous.

What I find more troublesome is the sometimes vitriolic discourse within the online feminist community, and its potential to alienate all women. I see this happening in different ways.

Some older women have lived and breathed feminism but no longer consider themselves feminists because humanism seems softer, less aggressive. Some younger women don’t identify with feminism because, lacking the historical context of the women’s movement, they see only the backlash against shrewish, man-hating bitches. And some women who still consider themselves feminists have distanced themselves from the movement because it feels exclusionary, a dangerous place to express one’s opinion.

While it’s productive to discuss and debate the objectives of feminism, I hate to see disagreements devolve into personal attacks between feminists with different ideas of what defines feminism. Online activism makes it easy to dash off missives intentionally trashing other feminists. At best, these conflicts are distracting. At worst, they are divisive and destructive to the very causes for which so many women have fought for so long.

Of course infighting is not a problem specific to feminism. Internecine discord is prevalent in all groups and movements. From animal rights activists to political parties to religious groups, dissent fosters adaptability, sustains momentum, and can weed out members whose participation is based solely on self-interest. Without the questioning of authority, conflicting opinions, and new ideas, movements would stagnate and become little more than cults. (I’ve never been in a cult but I’ve heard they discourage personal expression.)

Because feminism is a century-long progressive movement, each generation has seen new waves striving for increasingly ambitious social, political, and economic gender equality. Ideally, each new wave of feminists should acknowledge and build upon the successes of their predecessors, as well as learn from past mistakes. But since the women’s movement began, infighting has been common not only between different waves, but among members of individual waves.

Much of the conflict between waves was constructive. For example, the rise of intersectional third-wave feminism was a response to perceived failures of the second wave, which emphasized the experiences of middle-class white women, sometimes to the exclusion of women of color.

Intra-wave conflicts have also been beneficial in helping feminists find a place on the continuum that feels right for them. But some different strands of feminism are often directly at odds with each other, and women use public platforms to air their disagreements.

For example, in a June piece on the Thought Catalog, Marie Calloway interviewed Jillian Horowitz, who said she identifies as a sex-negative feminist and expressed her discomfort with sex-positive feminism. The following day, The Frisky ran a piece by Jessica Wakeman, who wrote that Horowitz had taken a “potshot” at sex-positive feminism.

Two weeks later, Horowitz wrote a piece on xoJane with the reply (and I’m picking one quote from a longish article), “With all due respect, fuck that shit.” The next day, The Frisky ran a piece by Rachel Kramer Bussel, who said that Horowitz had written the xoJane piece “largely with the intention of riling up its supposed targets rather than fostering a nuanced debate.” Bussel did not personally attack Horowitz. Instead, she focused on one division within feminism, and concluded with “…feminism and feminists deserve better than a false dichotomy of us vs. them.” Thank you, Ms. Bussel.

While nuanced debate surely exists, every wave of feminism has suffered the effects of internal conflict and personal attacks. Susan Faludi’s recent New Yorker article is a tribute to feminist revolutionary Shulamith Firestone, as well as an examination of the rampant criticism that led to Firestone’s ostracism from the movement.

That’s a shame, because many of us, like Bussel, would like to believe that the feminist movement can be inclusive. Lidia Yuknavitch, writer and professor of literature, film, and women’s studies, believes there is no single definition of feminism. Instead, she considers the movement a collection of feminisms, each with their own constantly evolving definition.

“In my own life it’s a consciousness, an educated understanding of the history, and a living practice centered on the health, welfare, and future of women and girls, and by extension, humans,” says Yuknavitch. “The definition is alive, not static. One must live it every day, not point to it as ‘other.’ The point is not some objective definition. The point is understanding a history and its relationship to a living practice, and other living practices, personally, locally, and globally.”

What seems to be most lacking in the conversation among some online feminists is inclusivity, the acceptance that women (and men) are free to identify with and advocate for feminism in whatever way they choose. Diversity strengthens progressive movements as long as we respect that diversity rather than feel threatened by it. When feminists attack each other personally, they waste time and energy fighting people with whom they are 95% ideologically aligned, rather than focusing on the real, shared work of feminism.

How we live our lives may be inextricably linked to how we “do” feminism, but we aren’t obligated to share or defend every personal detail or ideology. If someone put a gun to my head and demanded to know what kind of feminist I am (and I hope no one ever does), I might say I’m a liberal, sex-positive feminist.

I don’t spend much time thinking about labels, however, because I believe all feminists should focus on fighting for the same goals: social, economic, and political equality for the 3.5 billion women who make up half the world’s population. If we lose that focus, we lose sight of the real fight.

Thoughtful criticism and civil discourse are beneficial when they address ideas rather than personally attack individuals. But if feminists can’t respect and accept each other as equals, how can we expect men to do the same?

Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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