Culture, Religion

Feminism: Accessible and Actionable

“Feminism is anti-sexism.” — bell hooks

Feminism is a dirty word, or at least that’s what you’d believe from the reactions you get from people if you mention it. It conjures up images of radical women or lesbians with unshaved legs and armpits rallying outside abortion clinics, fighting domestic violence and rape, or gender equality. It is an image of a woman who you can’t relate to, she is one that you don’t know what to do with, and she is one whom you shy away from.

Is this image or perception of feminism, or of a feminist, fair or true to what feminism is in its most basic form? What exactly is feminism? What does being a feminist mean? And most importantly, what does it mean for you and me, your everyday women interested, at the very least, in issues that concern and affect us?

bell hooks defines feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression”. Her definition clearly identifies feminism being about sexism… feminism is not about being anti-male or male bashing. Quite often, as noted above, feminism is associated with activism around equal rights, being equal within both the home when it comes to chores and parenting, and equal pay in the office for equal performance. But it isn’t just about being equal to men—that’s not the goal.

Feminism is focused on ending sexism which is being discriminated against based on your sex, or being treated as though you are merely a cultural stereotype of your sex. As a woman you have faced sexism at one point or another, but quite likely you face it every day without necessarily even being aware. “Here, little lady, let me help you with that.” says the old feeble man at the Home Depot even when you clearly have more physical strength and agility than he. This is sexual stereotyping. The fact that it’s still your job to keep the house in order and having to figure out what’s for dinner, even though both you and your husband work outside the home, is this country’s most pervasive form of sexism in the home.

As we develop our awareness of sexism in our lives there is one other salient instance of sexism that you should be cognizant of, that is the ‘enemy within’. For anyone raised within the Christianized American culture there is likely to be an internalized sexism, sexist thought and behaviors of our own, that is deeply instilled within. For instance, when watching “Meet the Parents” do you tend to agree that the leading male character, Fokker, shouldn’t be a nurse – that men aren’t nurses? If so, stop for a moment to realize that this is sexist thought in that if he shouldn’t be a nurse because men aren’t nurses you are in the inverse saying that only women can be nurses, and it would stand to reason that this is because women traditionally were excluded from being doctors, and were only allowed access to the nursing profession instead. In thinking that he shouldn’t be a male nurse there is internalized sexism at play and this ‘enemy within’ is what causes women themselves to, in part, perpetuate sexism. A sobering thought indeed.

Now that we know what feminism is, let’s look at what being a feminist means. Being a feminist is being concerned with ending sexism, sexual exploitation and oppression. Who couldn’t take up that cause? Really, when you strip away the negative perceptions conjured up by the media surrounding what it is to be a feminist it starts to reason that many women would be interested in these very same premises. With that in mind, let’s explore a bit more of what feminist’s focus on in their struggle.

First, feminists are turning to the issues of race to understand how race and gender are intertwined in such ways that they work against us as women and between us as women. It is to understand what it means that, as Sherene Razack in “Looking White People in the Eye” states “to have white skin is to have privilege”. She asserts that the significance of this privilege can only be ascertained when we consider how privileges combine with penalties in specific situations to produce hierarchies of women. She urges us to be aware of how the “status of one woman depends on the subordinate status of another woman in so many complex ways” in which often race is tied up. We must examine our complicity in domination and racism even within in feminism.

Secondly, feminists are concerned with another aspect of interlocking elements which, in turn, create hierarchies of women. These elements being involved with class and privilege issues which in turn affect the resources and opportunities that are accessible to these women. As Razack explains, “women are socially constituted in different and unequal relation to one another. It is not only that some women are considered to be worth more than other women, but that the status of one woman depends on the subordinate status of another woman in many complex ways.” Thus feminists are interested in helping all “recognize how we are implicated in the subordination of other women”.

Third, aware of the feminization of poverty, feminists work to enable women to achieve economic self-sufficiency, to delineate strategies for upward mobility and finally to encourage means by which poorer women may “have a good life even if there is a substantial material lack”. The “feminization of poverty” refers to the fact that the act of divorce and the constitution of single parent families (89% are headed by women) economically impact women disproportionately. A woman’s income is typically 1/3rd of that of their husbands, and in the event of divorce this subjects them to economic difficulties in maintaining their home and as well as in raising their children. Inadequate child care prevents women from having access to equal employment and educational opportunity. The wage gap, as well as occupational stratification, affects both women and ethnic minority groups. The result? Unemployment, underemployment, poverty, welfare, or the military—this is the feminization of poverty.

Fourth, feminists are understandably concerned with ending domestic violence, and violence involving women in general. When it comes to justice for sexual violence sustained then feminism seeks to move from arguments which seek to prove the woman either victim or slut, from consent to male responsibility, and with victims both able and disable bodied beyond pity to respect.

Next, feminists rebuke the notion that a woman’s value is tied up in any way with her physical appearance. Think about Dove’s campaign for real beauty which features commercials with “real women [who] have real curves,” girls who share that they hate their freckles, or they think they are ugly, fat, or wish they were blonde. There is also an ad which asks “how did our idea of beauty become so distorted” and shows how a woman goes from real to advertising billboard ready or mass media’s concept of beauty. (See www.campaignforrealbeauty.com.) Feminists work to “eliminate sexist defined notions of beauty” so that we may “love our bodies as ourselves”. Incidentally, the Bible likewise recommends that men love women as they love their own bodies, as it is noted at Ephesians 5:28 that “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

Feminists are also concerned with reproductive rights for women. Most commonly people assume that “reproductive rights” simply refers to right to choose abortion. Instead feminists are interested in sex education that helps women understand their bodies and their sexual choices, prenatal care, and the right to say ‘no’ to unnecessary surgeries such as hysterectomies, cesareans and unwanted sterilization.

Finally, feminists recognize the need for this struggle to be one that is globally aware. Women the world around are struggling for their rights as humans and to end sexism and oppression. We need work together in this common goal and to understand the support we can give to those less fortunate than ourselves. For instance according to Womankind Worldwide, in South Africa a woman is killed by a husband or partner every six hours, and in India we hear of bride burning while the practice of female genital mutilation persists in African countries. We cannot assume that what troubles us in America might be the same as what afflicts women worldwide, however, we should seek to understand how our struggles are interrelated and how we might join together globally in our endeavors to end sexism.

What can you do? Start small—you can start in your very own home. Gloria Anzaldúa speaks of the “loss of a sense of dignity and respect in the macho breeds a false machismo which leads him to put down women and even to brutalize them. Coexisting with his sexist behavior is a love for the mother which takes precedence to that of all others. Devoted son, macho pig. To wash down the shame of his acts, of his very being, and to handle the brute in the mirror, he takes to the bottle, the snort, the needle, and the fist.” bell hooks outlines the hopes of feminist parenting by which sexist values and behaviors are not passed on to children from generation to generation. Mothers and women in general can assist in this hope by first realizing our complicity in sexist parenting. Even in women headed households sexism is taught, often more fervently than ever as mothers try to in effect make up for the absence of a father or male figure. Instead parents can seek to discipline child in a manner that does not perpetuate patriarchal domination and violence. Both mother and father can share in parenting the children equally and thereby instilling an understanding of what it is to be in a loving environment, which consequently breeds secure children with high self-esteem who may thereby perpetuate a world sans sexism.

Or perhaps, if you are like me, you do not have children. What do might you do then? We might try to look at the world with a more loving perception instead of the arrogant perception that is so pervasive. María Lugones, in “Playfulness, ‘World’-traveling, and Loving Perception”, tells us that “Through traveling to other people’s “worlds” we discover that there are “worlds” in which those who are the victims of arrogant perception are really subjects, lively beings, resistors, constructors of visions, even though in the mainstream construction they are animated only by the arrogant perceiver and are pliable, foldable, file-awayable, classifiable.” This practice of playful world-traveling is one in which we can understand what it is to be them, and what it is to be ourselves in their eyes. To know another is the first step in being able to love them. Loving perception is a powerful step in ending sexism and racism in as much as bell hooks says, “Sisterhood is… powerful”.

You might also consider Gloria Anzaldúa’s exploration of a new consciousness which she coins the “mestiza consciousness”. Anzaldúa explains the complex world of one who lives between these worlds, and how in healing the split between these worlds lies our hope for peace. Speaking of this world straddling mestiza Anzaldúa explains that, “The ambivalence from the clash of voices results in mental and emotional states of perplexity. Internal strife results in insecurity and indecisiveness. The mestiza’s dual or multiple personality is plagued by psychic restlessness… The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.”

In conclusion, feminism is not a dirty word as mass media has led many to believe. To be a feminist is to be a woman, to be concerned with what concerns us all as women, and the desire to end sexism, exploitation and oppression. It is an honorable cause in which no great or singular conflict lies against the beliefs of many. Feminism is accessible to all women, to any really, who wish to see this sexist and oppressive conditions met their end. Feminism is also actionable; each and every one of us may take steps, however large or small.

The Bible Viewpoint: Does the Bible Discriminate Against Women?

“The fact is, God hates all forms of exploitation and abuse. (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 27:19; Isaiah 10:1, 2) The Mosaic Law condemned rape and prostitution. (Leviticus 19:29; Deuteronomy 22:23-29) Adultery was prohibited, and the penalty was death for both parties. (Leviticus 20:10) Rather than discriminate against women, the Law elevated and protected them from the rampant exploitation common in the surrounding nations. A capable Jewish wife was a highly respected and esteemed individual. (Proverbs 31:10, 28-30) The Israelites’ failure to follow God’s laws on showing respect for women was their fault, not God’s will. (Deuteronomy 32:5) Ultimately, God judged and punished the nation as a whole for their flagrant disobedience. […]

Jesus consistently treated women with respect. He refused to follow the discriminatory traditions and regulations taught by the Pharisees. He talked to non-Jewish women. (Matthew 15:22-28; John 4:7-9) He taught women. (Luke 10:38-42) He protected women from being abandoned. (Mark 10:11, 12) Perhaps the most revolutionary step for his time was that Jesus accepted women into his inner circle of friends. (Luke 8:1-3) As the perfect embodiment of all of God’s qualities, Jesus showed that individuals of both sexes have equal value in God’s eyes. In fact, among the early Christians, both men and women received the gift of the holy spirit. (Acts 2:1-4, 17, 18) For those anointed, who have the prospect of serving as kings and priests with Christ, there will be no distinction of gender at all once resurrected to heavenly life. (Galatians 3:28) The Author of the Bible, Jehovah, does not discriminate against women.” — Does the Bible Discriminate Against Women? Awake! November 8, 2005

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