The New Definition of Feminism

A debate was staged around my dinner table last week. My sister-in-law and I were discussing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can’t Have it All," when my mother walked into the kitchen. We were busy bemoaning the fact that Slaughter (tenured and published professor, foreign policy analyst, mother of two, wife of one, likewise tenured and published) does seem to have, well, it all

In this post-lib age of working moms, career-family balance has become a women’s issue, discussed by women in various stages of life, who’ve achieved various levels of career success, and made various choices about how to navigate the dichotomy. Sure, men are just as confused about how to balance career and family these days, but let’s face it, this crossroads between the domestic and the professional is the destination of the feminist agenda, and it remains a feminist (or can we call it post-feminist?) topic. A man-centered article on career-family balance wouldn’t reference “having it all” but rather “keeping it all,” and that concept isn’t very modern (or even post-modern).

Our conversation took a turn when my mother (Ph.D., Harvard-affiliated psychotherapist with successful private practice, mother of two, wife of one, recent grandmother of one) declared that these issues don’t trouble her as much as they used to, at least not in the way they seem to trouble my sister-in-law (gainfully employed by successful company, wife of one, recent mother of one) and me (still working on it). She’d resolved the question of her particular career-life balance, and “Anyway,” my mother asserted, “I am not a feminist.” 

My sister-in-law and I, of Generation X and the millennial generation respectively, gasped in tandem. 

“What do you mean?” We looked at my mother as if she had just told us she was not an American, or not a fan of puppies. “I’m not a feminist,” she explained. “I like being feminine. I like being a mom. For me, family will always come first.” 

It’s true, the feminists of my mother’s generation were a specific, often militant group, the bra-burning enemy of the patriarchy and thus all established institutions. Today the term has come to signify something quite different. These days, posing for Playboy can be seen (theoretically) as a feminist act, a woman exercising her right to choose to be a sex object and make a buttload of money from it. 

However, amid ardent insistence from my sister-in-law and me that being a feminist does not mean being anti-feminine or anti-mom or anti-family, I began to realize that I do not really know what it means to be a feminist today. In all my years in liberal arts schools and even a brief stint in Stanford University’s Feminist Studies department, amid academic discussions of first-wave, second-wave, third-wave, I can’t seem to get a clear handle on our generation’s definition of this label. 

Why was my literature class on Writers in the Arab World cross-listed as a Feminist Studies course? Does Feminist Studies include anything that involves women and their rights or lack thereof? Or even more generally, the rights of any marginalized community? 

Perhaps being a feminist means you value the contribution of liberators like Susan B. Anthony, Betty Freidan, and Gloria Steinham and you appreciate the actions of organizations fighting the oppression of women across the globe. But perhaps, as my mother insists, you are only a feminist if you consistently do something about woman’s issues, if you fight for equal pay, the right to choice, the cessation of forced sex work or female genital mutilation, for example. Is being a feminist a label you only earn through action? Or can you be a quiet feminist?

In the end, what we call ourselves is not the most important thing. But our language is a mirror into our realities. If I call myself a feminist without thinking about what it really means, without examining the distance between my theoretical ideals and my actions toward them, then I run the risk of leading a blind life. And if my scattered knowledge of feminist ideals had taught me anything, it’s the value of critical awareness.