Feminism's Biggest Challenge: What the Heck Is Feminism?

It’s no secret that throughout its history, through all its various waves and manifestations, feminism as a movement has had trouble incorporating the voices of “minority” groups of women. At several stages, women of color, queer women, and low-income women have all broken from the “mainstream” feminist movement, unconvinced that their issues were being appropriately prioritized on the social and political agenda by leaders who were typically white, straight, and middle-to-upper class.

Those frustrations, which still rage within the feminist movement today, were brought into sharp relief on Monday when the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen went viral on Twitter, highlighting incidents in recent months in which mainstream feminist culture was seen, once again, as exclusively addressing the concerns of white women.

But race isn’t the only tension in feminism today. There’s class, there’s sexuality, there’s radical feminism and liberal feminism, second wavers, third wavers, American feminists, Middle Eastern feminists, Christian feminists, Jewish feminists, Muslim feminists — the list goes on forever.

That’s the problem when it comes to referencing “the” feminist movement. There is no one monolithic feminist movement because it’s impossible to build a social or political movement that adequately addresses the concerns of any group as diverse as women. We can construct academic definitions of what it means to be a feminist, we can deconstruct the movement’s impact on American history, on global history, but the fact of the matter is that when it comes to our day-to-day interactions with one another, we have no working definition for what being “feminist” even looks like.

For example, I find myself judging women who decide to change their name after marriage. Is it the feminist thing to do to refuse to continue a tradition that comes from a historical legacy of legalized second-class citizenship, or is it my job as a feminist to respect the personal decisions women make regardless of whether I agree with them? 

Is it the feminist thing to do to expect Huma Abedin to leave a husband who has lied and cheated on her multiple times, or is it my job as a feminist to respect what she clearly thinks is best for her and her family?

Is it the feminist thing to do to react viscerally to a religious tradition that enforces rigid codes of "modesty" on women, or is the feminist thing to do to respect whatever choices women make regarding their clothing and religious practices— regardless of what those practices imply about gender dynamics? 

The fact is that changing your maiden name is a tradition that comes from a historical legacy of misogyny, but you can change your name and still be a feminist. There is plenty of misogyny in Muslim culture, as there is in nearly every culture, but you can wear a hijab and still be a feminist. So what defines being a feminist? Who decides? Can women ever be held responsible for making decisions that contribute to a culture that disrespects women? Or are all decisions women make judgment-exempt because they made them for themselves? If we can’t even decide what acting like a feminist looks like, is it any surprise we still have problems answering questions of race and class like the ones raised on Monday? If we can’t really define practical feminism at its most basic level where do we go from there?

As Tavi Gevinson has said, “Feminism isn’t a rulebook, but a discussion.” In order for feminism to be an inclusive, robust, vibrant, healthy movement, we need to let it be different things to different people: to let women of all backgrounds decide what their issues, priorities, and beliefs are and as other feminists, acknowledge a duty to support and promote those voices, even when supporting them means pointing out deficiencies in their process. But how do we balance that need for inclusivity with the very real political need to prioritize issues on our agenda?                                    

I don’t want to be part of a movement that knowingly or not refuses to acknowledge the struggles of women whose backgrounds and experiences are different from my own. But when I’m being honest with myself, I don’t know what a movement like that looks like. I don’t know how feminism can be all things to all people and then demand change from an outside world. What change? Whose change? What change comes first? Who makes those decisions?

In the end, how do we build a feminist movement that is inclusive enough to incorporate all wings of feminist ideology and address the needs of women regardless of race, class, or sexual orientation and still have enough political bite to tackle real obstacles through specific policies? While rigorous debate and hard questions are absolutely essential to building strength within the movement, at some point feminists are going to have to stop asking questions and start answering them or the movement will cease to be anything but a rhetorical exercise. 

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Natalie Smith

Originally from North Carolina, Natalie graduated from Duke University in 2012 with degrees in Political Science, History, and French. She now works at a pro-choice non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. My articles reflect my own views only.

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