Thursday, April 15, 2010

Feminism—What’s in a Name?

Recently I was in contact with a fellow law professor, who teaches at another law school. She has been in the academy longer than me, and is a well-respected teacher and scholar. She is active in a group of feminist law professors, and at one point kindly asked me to affiliate with them. Oddly enough, that was actually the first time I’ve ever explicitly or implicitly been asked if I were a feminist. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to reply. Basically, I deferred and said I needed to think about it.

As I do frequently when I’m unsure how to define a key term, I consulted a dictionary. The dictionary definition of “feminism” that I found simply explains that the term means, “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” That sounds pretty innocuous to me. In this day and age, in the United States of America, who would not support the notion that women should enjoy rights “equal to those of men”?

But despite a pretty tame dictionary definition, there seems to be a pretty negative reaction to the concept of “feminism” in many quarters. For example, in my daughters’ Girl Scout troop, a recent controversy erupted as a few mothers passionately advocated that the troop should affiliate with the American Heritage Girls. There were strong concerns that the Girl Scouts might be promoting a “feminist, socialist agenda.” Rumors that Planned Parenthood was somehow affiliated with the Girl Scouts’ website seemed to fuel some of these concerns. In that context, I understood the term “feminist” to be equated with locally unpopular concepts such as abortion and big government. I’m still not clear on the connection between feminism to these other concepts, but for some folks there is apparently a connection.

Somewhat similarly, the late Jerry Falwell famously blamed the tragedy of 9/11 on feminists among other outcasts. Speaking to Pat Robertson on the 700 Club right after the tragedy, Reverend Falwell provided commentary on the terrorist attacks, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” From this statement in 2001, I understand that Reverend Falwell (and his followers) at that point equated “feminists” with abortion, homosexuality and a separation of church and state. Again, I’m not clear on how these concepts get linked in the minds’ of some, but they do.

In contrast, there are people like actress Patricia Heaton. (Ms. Heaton is probably best known for her role on Everybody Loves Raymond.) She has been outspoken on a number of political issues including the war in Iraq and the presidency of George W. Bush. (She strongly supported both.) Heaton is a conservative Christian who is passionate on “pro-life” issues. However, she is also affiliated with a group called Feminists for Life. Contrary to popular conceptions, not all who embrace the term “feminist” are in favor of abortion rights.

Luke 7:37-44 (Amplified Bible)

And behold, a woman of the town who was an especially wicked sinner, when she learned that He was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment (perfume).
And standing behind Him at His feet weeping, she began to wet His feet with [her] tears; and she wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed His feet [affectionately] and anointed them with the ointment (perfume).
Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw it, he said to himself, If this Man were a prophet, He would surely know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching Him--for she is a notorious sinner (a social outcast, devoted to sin).
And Jesus, replying, said to him, Simon, I have something to say to you. And he answered, Teacher, say it.
A certain lender of money [at interest] had two debtors: one owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
When they had no means of paying, he freely forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?
Simon answered, The one, I take it, for whom he forgave and cancelled more. And Jesus said to him, You have decided correctly.
Then turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, Do you see this woman? When I came into your house, you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
You gave Me no kiss, but she from the moment I came in has not ceased [intermittently] to kiss My feet tenderly and caressingly.
You did not anoint My head with [cheap, ordinary] oil, but she has anointed My feet with [costly, rare] perfume.
Therefore I tell you, her sins, many [as they are], are forgiven her--because she has loved much. But he who is forgiven little loves little.
And He said to her, Your sins are forgiven!

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