Thursday, April 22, 2010

Perceptions of Feminism

Since this discussion with the law professor who asked me to affiliate with a feminist law professor group, I have been exploring perceptions of the term “feminist” and trying to reconcile them with the relatively tame dictionary definition. In this process, I’ve sought feedback from a number of friends inside and outside of the legal academy. I have purposely sought the perspective of people from many different walks of life—different professional experiences, different genders, different ages, different racial and ethnic identities, different religions, etc. Their insights have really been interesting to me. And I’m grateful to them for sharing time in their busy schedules to enlighten me.

Though I sought feedback from people with different backgrounds, there were commonalities shared by everyone I consulted on this issue. They were all well-educated professionals in the United States who currently enjoy a middle class lifestyle with some degree of financial security. Though I learned a lot in receiving their feedback, I recognize these are important commonalities that may bias to some degree the insights that were shared with me. Indeed, one person shared the perception that the feminist movement was primarily a concern of the more educated and economically advantaged in our society.

Another person I consulted grew up in a developing country that was originally founded by European colonialists on the exploitation of enslaved Africans. She shared that feminism is perceived in her homeland as a “western ideal” and an “alien concept.” She noted that any western ideology is typically regarded with suspicion, as “imperialism in new clothes.” She described the perception that feminism is an ideology based on an “individualistic lens” that is at odds with the culture of her homeland. She shared that “[f]or feminists in the ‘third world,’ power is measured in large part by a yard stick of familial progress. The family unit must realize its potential. The view, then, is that western feminists seek to divide the family – a concept that is almost heretical in most ‘third world’ societies.”

I also consulted several women who grew up in the United States. They varied in age from being in their twenties to their fifties. Some were lawyers in the academy, some were not. Indeed, one was not a lawyer at all, and another was a current law student. Some were white, some were women of color. These women were also all either married or were otherwise in long-term committed relationships with men. Some (but not all) were mothers. Interestingly, all of these women indicated their understanding of feminism in similar terms—as being concerned with the equality of women in the face of a long history of discrimination. They all seemed to be focusing on discrimination in the work place, as well as in public and private leadership roles.

These women all indicated that they thought of themselves as feminists, based on their own definitions of the term. However, almost all were quick to point out popular connotations of feminism are often quite different from their own definition. They noted the popular connotations are typically negative, e.g., feminists are anti-male. The term “bra burner” was mentioned several times, as well as the term “extremist.” Several of the women expressed that they thought the term “feminist” has been misunderstood and received a “bum rap.”

In the responses of several (but certainly not all) of the women I consulted, there seemed to be a bit of initial hesitancy to embrace the label “feminist.” That was interesting because the respondents all indicated a personally favorable impression of that term and a sense that they themselves fell within its scope. Some of the women seemed to be uncomfortable with labels more generally because they can be misunderstood, divisive, and can serve as a tool for exclusion. However, several of the women expressed a desire to see the term “feminist” reclaimed and the negative popular connotations challenged.

I also contacted a number of men to hear their views on feminism. They varied in age from being in their thirties to over sixty. They were all happily married to college-educated women, and they were all fathers. Their children ranged in age greatly: new-borns, adults, pre-schoolers, teenagers. All of these men were well-educated, but not all had attended law school. The men I consulted were of various races and ethnicities. They also came from different religious backgrounds.

I have to admit that each of the men I consulted share the commonality of being very sensitive to social justice issues generally. Even before contacting them for this blog post, I personally knew these gentlemen were all very supportive of women’s equality in the work place and in society more broadly. Before contacting them, however, I was not sure if that sensitivity and supportiveness would influence their perceptions of the term “feminist.”

I was surprised in a number of ways by the feedback I received from males. For example, I had initially thought their perceptions on this issue might be polarized along generational lines, but that was not actually the case. I thought perhaps some of the men who had come of age during the civil rights and/or women’s movement might be more inclined to embrace the concept of feminism. On the other hand, I suspected that those who are closer to my age and missed the women’s movement might tend to have more negative connotations. However, such trends were not evident. Some of the relatively young men embraced the term “feminist” for themselves, others did not. The same was evident among the relatively older men in the group.

Additionally, in several instances, I was personally surprised about individuals’ reactions to whether they considered themselves a feminist. Some men I personally thought might embrace the term actually rejected it out of hand. In contrast, some of the men I thought would reject the term embraced it. It was a very interesting set of responses.

Many of the men I consulted indicated they viewed a “feminist” as someone who was concerned about the equality of women and discrimination against women in society. I was intrigued that one gentleman defined the term even more broadly as someone who wants to advance gender equality, and is supportive of men and women who enter historically nontraditional roles. When asked if they were a feminist, the men with such egalitarian views indicated that they were feminists. However, it was interesting because not all came to that conclusion immediately. Several noted they had never really thought about the question, and for some reason several had always had an assumption that only women could be feminists. However, because the definition they provided did not mandate being female, these men did eventually indicate they thought they were feminists.

There were a few men who did not embrace the term for themselves. For example, one man (who was probably the youngest in the group and is a law professor) indicated he really thought of the term “feminist” as being primarily descriptive of a particular field of scholarship. He expressed a lot of respect for that discipline and was supportive of it. However, because that was not the field in which he did research, he did not believe he fit the definition of a “feminist.” Another gentleman, who was of a different generation, indicated that he generally had a negative connotation of the term “feminist.” Currently, he associated the term with people (usually female) who were “activists” on women’s issues, but in the distant past he equated the term with men-hating “bra burner[s].” He no longer thought of feminists in those terms and recognized that feminists were “very thoughtful people who are concerned about issues involving women.” And though I know this particular gentleman is supportive of women’s issues, he did not embrace the term “feminist”; he indicated he did not embrace “isms” of any kind.

1 Corinthians 12:22-27 (Today’s New International Version)

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

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