Thursday, April 18, 2013

Feminism Defined: The Lowest Common Denominator

I was recently invited to participate in a blog collaboration project over at Tales of an Unlikely Mother as a contributor on Attachment Parenting topics. Most of the bloggers involved in this project self-identify as feminists, and last week, we got into a discussion about whether or not feminism was an appropriate topic for this collaborative effort. For the majority of us, the answer was a resounding "Yes!" but there were some concerns expressed as well. The primary concerns were that 1) A focus on feminism might alienate some folks and that 2) There is no one singular definition of feminism, which might make it confusing or difficult to have a cohesive voice on the topic.

Regarding the first concern, I can't particularly be bothered to care about the opinions of people who are alienated by the notion that women are, you know, people. Which I suppose leads me right to the second concern:

What exactly is feminism anymore, anyway?


Oh, were you expecting an easy answer to that? That's adorable!

Let's back up a bit.

I've identified as a feminist for as long as I remember. Definitely since I wrote a paper about Susan B. Anthony in middle school. Definitely since I bought a T-shirt with the quote "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle" on it and had to explain what it meant to what felt like everyone at my high school. Definitely since I found out the university where I completed my undergraduate degree offered a minor in Women's Studies. And that is when I really started diving into feminist theory and all of the history behind it.

Photo by Nicole Aarstad
One of the first assignments in Women's Studies 101 was to draw what "woman" meant to me. I drew an approximation of myself, pregnant, prominent breasts, long hair. As the professor came around and discussed our drawings, she asked me "What about women who don't have or want children?" Confused, I answered that I must have misunderstood the assignment, because I though I was to draw what "woman" meant to me, not what "woman" meant generally. I largely associate my femininity with having carried children in my womb, and having nourished them with my breasts, and the strength, endurance, and commitment that those things entail. This doesn't mean you're wrong if you don't. It's just what connects in my head, partly because I have long been led to believe that I am not otherwise terribly feminine, what with my tendency to eschew make up and jewelry, my loud and often abrasive manner of speaking, my penchant for curse words and fart jokes, and an innate assertiveness that is often read as aggression (because it comes from a female).

I cannot not draw what "woman" means, generally. Because "woman" does not have one singular definition. Much like "feminism" does not have one singular definition.

As the semester progressed, we often revisited this idea of defining what "woman" means. Do we define it by what are generally considered to be feminine characteristics, like nurturing, empathy, sensitivity, caring, and compassion? Do we define it biologically, by what are generally considered to be female physical characteristics, like the ability to bear children or a body that includes breasts, vagina, vulva, and uterus?

Without entirely derailing myself here with my though process behind why neither of those avenues was appropriate, as each one excludes a number of women, I concluded that the only definition of woman I'm comfortable with is this:

A woman is someone who identifies as a woman.

That is the lowest common denominator. It is the one and only thing that every woman has in common.

So on we go to defining Feminism.

As I learned about the various subsets of the various waves of Feminism. There were a lot of "AHA! That's it!" moments, followed by a lot of "Oh wait, no AHA, THAT'S it!" moments. So who had it right? Was it the Marxist Feminists? The Ecofeminists? Maybe it was the Separatists? What about Black Feminism? Could they all be a little right, in their own ways? Why yes! They could! Just like all of us who call ourselves women are correct that we are women!

Alright then. So what's the lowest common denominator? Do all feminists hate men? No. Are all feminists lesbians? No. Are all feminists hairy legged, makeup abstaining loudmouths? No. (But some really cool ones are!) Do all feminists believe that every woman should work and that stay-at-home moms are setting the movement back? Certainly not. Do all feminists believe that women share equal status as human beings and should have the same rights and opportunities as men?


A Feminist is someone who believes that women share equal status as human beings and should have the same rights and opportunities as men.

So if you believe that? You're a feminist. And you're in good company.


  1. Interesting. So what does that make an egalitarian?

  2. Exactly. I don't even need to know what the subsets of feminism are. I know that as a woman I am equal to my penis wielding brethren and that is why I am a feminist.

  3. As someone who has a very limited knowledge of feminist theory and the history behind it, I really appreciate this post. It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized I was a feminist, but I'm always hesitant to discuss feminist issues because I'm so intimidated by those who, like you, have women's or gender studies degrees. Clearly there's no need to be so intimidated.

    Also, I'm cracking up over Destany's reference to our "penis wielding brethren." :)

  4. I want that t-shirt. :-D

    And I appreciate your anecdote about defining what "woman" means to you--one of the great strengths of feminism is its rejection of (patriarchy-inspired) hegemony. There are very many ways to be "woman," and to be "feminist." Your definition at the end of this piece sums up nicely what's at the heart of the many shades of feminism. <3

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