In spring 2011, I had just graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo but that didn’t mean my desire to learn had ended. The only difference was that now I could chose what classes to take without pressure of grades and other requirements. After taking an Ethnic Studies class near the end of my college career with Jane Lehr, who turned out to be hands-down one of my favorite professors ever, I wanted to continue learning with her about Women’s Studies. So I took Feminist Theory (WGS 450), a small, upper-division, discussion-based class. We learned about many different types of feminism, their histories and theorists. The final assignment was to write our own feminist manifestos from what we had learned combined with our own theories. Because I was merely auditing the class, not taking it for credit, this “manifesto” hasn’t been edited or graded. It is very personal for me, as is feminism in general, but I finally decided to post it on here for others to read. It goes over the points of feminist theory that stood out and made the most sense to me. I hope others can gain something from it.
Here are some highlights of points you will read about:
- The societal construction of gender
- The basis of radical feminism
- “Personal is political”
- Sameness vs. differences
My Feminist Manifesto
Most feminists agree on the basic idea that gender is constructed by society. Others, like poststructualist feminist Judith Butler, go as far as to say that sex is a societal construction as well. Early on, we are told that sex is determined by our physical bodies, by biology. “A sex category becomes a gender status through naming, dress, and the use of other gender markers” (Lorber). We are all treated differently based on our sex and gender and respond, feel, and act differently based on perceived norms and gender roles. Without these gender roles, the ideas of heterosexuality and homosexuality could be eradicated because sexual preference can be seen as a social construction as well.
When we agree that gender is a constructed social institution, we can also see that gender is performed and structured which conveys and creates gender meanings. “The process of gendering and its outcome are legitimated by religion, law, science, and the society’s entire set of values” (Lorber). This holds back many people from realizing their full potential as a human, versus as a man or a woman, and from celebrating qualities that aren’t traditional for our genders.
Accepting the basis of radical feminism is important to recognizing and fighting oppression. Although there are different types of radical feminists, most can agree on a few points: women are the first oppressed group in history, women’s oppression is the most widespread and can be seen in every society, women’s oppression cannot be fixed by elimination of other forms of oppression, women’s oppression causes the most suffering to its victims even though it may go unrecognized because of patriarchal norms that blind the oppressors and the oppressed, and that the concept of women’s oppression is linked to other forms of oppression and can help understand them (Jaggar and Rothenberg).
In my life, I hope to be autonomous and constantly working toward a better Self regardless of sex and gender. But what does that really mean? It may mean something different to everyone but I hope to feel and be in control of my life- financially, physically, spiritually and emotionally. “Egalitarian liberal feminism conceives of freedom as personal autonomy — living a life of one’s own choosing — and political autonomy — being co-author of the conditions under which one lives” (Baehr). This type of feminism generally argues that current patriarchal traditions and institutions prevent full autonomy for women. Baehr lists the following as autonomy enabling conditions: freedom from violence and the threat of violence, freedom from limits set by paternalistic and moralistic laws, and access to options. I agree with egalitarian liberal feminist principles that these autonomy-enabling factors need to be identified and promoted to strengthen the women’s movement.
One may think at first that female autonomy is not possible while in a traditional heterosexual relationship because they “are often unfair to women (and) indeed often exploit women’s tendency to care about others. Injustice of this sort is not uncommon” (Baehr). But instead of denying this type of relationship all together, feminists like Jean Hampton believe it will work if the “women’s movement (can) cultivate in women and men a sensitivity and an aversion to this kind of injustice, and to develop remedies” (Baehr). The basic liberal principles of freedom are crucial to understanding autonomy from a feminist point of view and that’s perhaps why I relate to several types of liberal feminist thought.
Choice is important for all feminists as well. I liked Barbie dolls and Seventeen Magazine when I was growing up and some would argue that I consciously chose those ‘cultural artifacts’ but I believe there were larger forces at work. Simplifying this idea with examples of common personal struggles, one could say that I chose to play with Barbie dolls because if had a chosen a football or a GI Joe action figure, I would have been considered an outcast or even been called a lesbian.
I also believe in the saying that the “personal is political”, meaning that every choice we make is a reflection of political ideologies whether it is realized or not. Although feminism has greatly evolved from its roots, those early feminists are perfect examples of why the personal is political. “It is at this point a political action to tell it like it is, to say what I really believe about my life instead of what I’ve always been told to say” (Hanisch). Understanding that “personal” questions we ask ourselves on a daily basis about our relationships and status aren’t unique to ourselves are directly related to our political situations will help further the women’s movement. Understanding how the “personal is political” helps us analyze our daily actions as a political issue.
Although I believe in sex positivity and celebrating all forms of sexuality, patriarchy and dominant men control mainstream views of sexuality. Truly feminist sexuality and pornography is hard to identify. No matter what the intentions are, they can always be destroyed by objectification. If porn weren’t so accessible as to have become the sexual education teacher for many young men, then more women would accept it. Most women don’t know that there can be realistic porn without objectification and also without being “vanilla”. Porn could be empowering for women if we didn’t live in a society where sexual abuse is so common and women are mainly valued for their looks. The general radical-cultural feminist thought about porn is that it is patriarchal propaganda that enforces the male’s role of subject and the women’s role as the object. “There is no difference between gender discrimination against women in the boardroom and sexual objectification of women in the bedroom” (Tong). Instead of using pornography to overcome fears about sex and to arouse desires as radical-libertarian feminists suggest, which are positive feminist goals, I hope that an end to male domination will be the true way to let women feel fully equal, proud, and unafraid of sex. Although this doesn’t offer an immediate solution, all we can do in our current state is acknowledge the harms porn can have so that we aren’t hurt by it.
An important goal of cultural feminism is to value qualities that are traditionally associated with femininity, for example closeness to nature and showing emotions and compassion. Other types of feminists believe in the choice between the best qualities that are traditionally considered feminine and the best qualities that are traditionally masculine which leads to androgyny. Although I do not believe that an androgynous, genderless society will be a perfect one, I believe in the idea of combining qualities of both constructed genders will help deconstruct gender roles. These gender roles must be deconstructed and gotten rid of to give every human the opportunity to fulfill their potential free of discrimination.
This also leads to the idea that differences between men and women should be emphasized and celebrated, not minimized. “Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation” (Lorde). This should not be confused by thinking that means that all women are similar or the same. Women face all different kinds and degrees of oppression in different ways. This is the problem with early feminism that focuses on the problems of white, middle-class, straight women. The importance and relevance of intersectionality here cannot be emphasized enough.
Unfortunately societal inequalities exist everywhere that not only marginalize women but also those who differ in terms of religious beliefs, sexual preferences, race, and wealth. Intersectionality of oppression only causes discrimination to reoccur and continue to grow with power. “Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such a economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that’s not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate” (Lorde).
Unlike enlightenment feminists, I believe that simply removing barriers in society will not create equality. Even with every antidiscrimination law imaginable, society will not be balanced. Enlightenment feminists argue that women will become CEOs and engineers if they desire to do so but such a long history of oppression cannot be changed so easily. Therefore, we need to not only get rid of legal discrimination, but also to help those who are oppressed gain opportunities to change the balance of society over time. Affirmative action is good for oppressed groups as a whole.
Socialist feminists make a good point when they call for qualities and skills to be based on comparable worth versus equality. For example, when it comes to jobs, the role of engineers and teachers are not the same but should be seen as comparable in worth not pay. It may seem like an extreme example but society values those with wealth and giving engineers more money than teachers gives engineers more value. This also relates back to the idea of giving more value to traditionally feminine qualities and roles. The role of mothering is devalued in society and not seen as a “real job”. A majority of teachers are women and if nurturing qualities were valued more in society, maybe teachers would make more money. Similarly, many pay inequalities between men and women exist today. The current Wal-mart case is a good example of women getting paid significantly less per dollar and receiving less opportunities for advancement than men who are doing the same work.
One day there will be a world where girls aren’t associated with pink and boys with blue; where people will love each other emotionally and physically based on personality not biological sex; where “feminine” and “masculine” qualities are no longer associated with one sex or the other; where differences and traditionally “feminine” qualities are celebrated; where rape, physical abuse, and sexual exploitation doesn’t exist; where women and men are not ashamed of their bodies no matter what size and color they are, etc.
Visions of a perfect feminist world feel way too far off in the future but there are still many things we can do to get our society closer to equality. Changes start with knowledge and education through consciousness-raising. According to the Women’s Collective, the goals of consciousness-raising are “understanding one’s self in relation to one’s society and specifically, understanding what it is to be a woman in a patriarchal society that oppresses women” (“Consciousness-raising”).
I wish that consciousness-raising groups were still around and prevalent today. It is important for all women and men to be aware of society’s controls that usually go unnoticed. Some kind of feminist discourse should be a part of every child’s life and education so that more people can grow up with the knowledge to end oppression. (Of course, Michel Foucault would argue that language and discourse itself is “a historically, socially, and institutionally specific structure of statements, terms, categories, and beliefs” shaped with power and conflict. Therefore, specific terms used during feminist education need to be considered carefully because they all have some root in and connotation of a patriarchal meaning)(Scott).
Even realizing that everyday things like relationships, marriage, jobs, and education can be part of a feminist discourse and are predetermined for most people is an important step to gaining control of your own life. I think I could have gained a lot more confidence, learned to blame myself less for situations out of my control, and not been ashamed of being myself for being “unfeminine” in certain ways if I had learned about the ways society, media, and patriarchy have affected me and my surroundings.
Baehr, Amy R., “Liberal Feminism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward
N. Zalta (ed.),<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/feminism-liberal/>.
Hanisch, Carol, “The Personal is Political” (1969), http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html.
Jagger, Alison and Rothenberg , Paula, “Women-Centered Reality and Rational Legalism”, (1984).
Lourde, Audre, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”, (1984), (FT, pp. 281-285).
Scott, Joan W., “Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference: or, The Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for
Feminism” (1988), (FT, pp. 388-396).
The Women’s Collective, “Consciousness-Raising” (1970), http://www.cwluherstory.com/consciousness- raising.html.
Tong, Rosemarie, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction.