Monday, February 13, 2012

The Confusion of FEMINISMS

Many women in this society do have choices (as inadequate as they are); therefore exploitation and discrimination are words that more accurately describe the lot of women collectively in the United States.  
- bell hooks, In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
I remember a while back when I first created my Twitter account, I tweeted to the world know that I was a feminist. I had been reading a lot of books by my favorite gal, bell hooks, and I was like “Right on, girl!” I prematurely took on the identity of something that I had not studied in depth simply because I shared the same experiences with one feminist (also a cultural critic) writer and I understood what she was implying about the power struggle within the relationships between femininity and masculinity. At the time, I aligned myself with a movement that I understood partially. To make matters worse, I also mentioned that I did not hate men and was not a lesbian in the tweet since those were the two erroneous stereotypes about feminists. By making such a statement, it was obvious that I was not prepared to really be a feminist. I have no desire to recant my statement, but I would like to rephrase it. But before I get to that, let us talk a little bit about feminism.

Feminism was first coined in France during the 1880s as fĂ©minisme from the combination of the word woman, femme, and the suffix –isme, meaning a social movement or political ideology (Freedman, 2002; Tandon, 2008). Loosely put, feminism is the fight to end women’s oppression. People most commonly aware of feminism in North America occurring in waves. In the 1800s, first wave feminism, also known as “the women’s movement,” was mainly concerned with attaining suffrage rights for women (Freedman, 2002; Tandon, 2008). Second wave feminism, also known as “women's liberation,” took place around the 1960s to the 1980s and was more focused on attaining equal rights for women in relation to social laws (Tandon, 2008). Finally, third wave feminism occurred from the 1990s up to today because second wave feminism was deemed a failure (Tandon, 2008).

This is where things get a little confusing. Although today there are all types of feminists, feminism originally began as a white women’s movement. Not only that, but these same women were also of the bourgeois class. In the case of second wave feminism, the feminists were white, middle-class women who had grown bored with being housewives (hooks, 2000). Their “oppression” was being stuck at home taking care of their children and the household while being economically supported by their husbands. Feminism originally failed to take into account the various experiences of other women whether they were white or non-white and who were actually being sexually oppressed.

As a result, today there are more feminisms than feminists. *takes in a deep breath and...* There is moderate feminism, gender feminism, power feminism, cultural feminism, multicultural feminism, separatists, materialist feminism, Amazon feminism, Africana feminism, womanism, and a whole bunch of others that are just too many to name. *takes in a another deep breath* There are just as many feminist theories: Radical Feminist Theory, Marxist School of Feminism, Lesbian Feminism, French Feminist Theory, Black Feminism, Liberal Feminist Theory, Existentialist Feminist Thought, and the list goes on and on. Feminism has as many “churches” (the feminisms) and “denominations” (the theories) as Christianity.

I am an African-American female who is also a second-generation Haitian born in Haiti, but was primarily raised in the U.S. So, I can identify with feminism because I am woman. I can identify with womanism in that I am African-American (which would mean I also identify with black feminism) and multicultural feminism because of my ethnicity as well as materialist feminism. I can also identify with global/international feminism, postcolonial/Third World feminism, and transnational feminism, which are inherently the same thing. I also identify with gender feminism and I already admitted to being a bit of an equity feminist. (Yikes! How many feminisms was that?) I have an issue with womanism and Africana feminism in that they make it seem as if the black/Africana woman and black/African man are fighting the same fight. I agree with fighting alongside black males to end racism, but I will not act as if they do not perpetuate the same sexist attitudes borne of a white, capitalist society.

The limitations of feminism to encompass the experiences of all women manifested into a conglomerate of feminisms in which the definition and real purpose of the movement are obscured. Most people will define feminism as the fight to attain equality with men. I admit that I falsely believed this to be true, too. But if you sit back and think about it, which men are feminists supposedly attempting to be equal to? If it is the white male, then they esteem to be like their oppressors. If it is the males within their own race/ethnicity, then it is pointless because their men are also subjugated in society.

In reality, “feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression” (hooks, 2000, p. 26). Sexist oppression will only end if the whole foundation of Western philosophy collapses including capitalism which breeds racism and contributes to individualism. Did I mention religion, too? Western thought promotes this idea that society can only function through domination of an “other” (hooks, 2000). The good oppress the bad. The white oppress the black or non-white. The rich oppress the poor. The men oppress the women. The oppressors are often seen as the “righteous” while the oppressed are the sinners or evildoers (sound familiar?). The aforementioned dynamics are seen as natural and right because they have been ingrained in us since childhood. Anything that challenges or questions familiar societal dynamics is seen as threatening, which is why feminism is continually attacked in mainstream media (hooks, 2000).

Besides being unable to encompass the reality of the different lives women lead due to race/ethnicity, culture, and class, feminism’s second flaw is that it has turned into a lifestyle as opposed to a political and societal movement. There is this false notion that women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, receive 6-figure paychecks, and wear designer suits and Louboutins, are the epitome of feminism. Feminism is more than merely a lifestyle choice and many women in positions of power tend to refrain from associating themselves with the term in the first place even though the movement has benefited them (hooks, 2000). The idea that feminism is a lifestyle choice negates its validity as a continual, meaningful movement. Just because a few more women have been able to climb the corporate ladder or are sitting on the Supreme Court does not mean feminism has served its purpose. What about the women who have not been able to garner the same success due to sexism and/or racism? What about the women living in politically unstable countries who are often the victims of rape during times of war? What about the woman whose rights have been taken away and who has been made a stranger in her own country?

Instead of saying, “I am a feminist” I would rather say that “I advocate feminism.” Hooks put it succinctly when she said, “I have found that saying ‘I am a feminist’ usually means I am plugged into preconceived notions of identity, role, or behavior” (2000, p. 31). It was the same mistake I made when tweeted I was a feminist. I was “plugged into” a false idea of burning bras (what?), making my choices, having my freedom, and living my life on my terms. There was that individualism creeping out of me. I wanted to be feminist because it would benefit me rather than thinking that feminism should benefit all women, men, and children as a whole. Plus, who the hell am I to even call myself a feminist in the first place. Feminism involves some form of action. I have never taken part in a feminist organization. I have never done any work in relation to feminism. Until then, I will continue to say that I identify with feminism and some of its various “branches.” How many feminisms did I identify with again?


Freedman, E. B. (2002). No turning back: The history of feminism and the future of women. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin to center (2nd ed.). London, England: Pluto Press.

Tandon, N. (2008). Feminism: A paradigm shift. New Delhi, India: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, Ltd.


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