The Many Faces of Feminism? (There’s only one).

To be against something, one must have a clear idea of what that something is. Since feminists themselves are not clear on what constitutes feminism, how is an anti-feminist to position herself?

The following is a discussion about the confusion around a) what constitutes feminism, and b) types of feminism.

The confusion around what constitutes feminism arises because feminist historians don’t agree on what of women and their activities can be included in feminism. Some feminist historians cast a wide net when deciding what constitutes feminism, while others prefer a more exclusive policy.

The advocates of a more “exclusive” definition (the smaller camp), like feminist historian Nancy Cott, insist that feminism involves a challenge to male domination, and that “feminism should designate something more specific than women’s entrance into public life or efforts of reform…” (“What’s in a Name? The Limits of Social Feminism,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 76, No. 3, Dec., 1989).

Other feminist historians cast a wide net to include within feminism any woman or group who has tried to change the position of women or ideas about women. The net gets wider to include any woman or group that has been involved in civic or social reform, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The exclusive definition is likely the better one because, as Cott points out: Certainly not all women’s activities in the political arena—not even all activities undertaken by women who claim to have ‘women’s interest’ or ‘women’s needs’ at heart—are by that token feminist. For instance, antisuffrage agitation by women (see my earlier post on this: The Antis) was certainly organized, political, public and carried out in the name of women’s interests. It was just as certainly not feminist.”

If a broad definition is used, some anti-feminists would paradoxically be considered feminists. In the 19th century Catherine Beecher advocated for women’s education so that women could be better wives and mothers. She was an outspoken anti-suffragist and thought that women’s influence was best felt when women fulfilled their roles as wives and mothers. Yet, many histories of feminism include her because she was an early advocate of women’s education.

Further, there is a strategy behind the wide net policy: some feminist historians want to include as many women as possible, even conservative, traditionally-minded women who in no way were concerned about “male domination,” to bolster their cause and strengthen the movement. It makes perfect sense: how can you be against us when you are one of us? How can we be wrong about women when almost all women agree with us? The wide net policy works particularly well when naming historical figures from the 19th century as feminist since the term “feminist” was not in use and these women wouldn’t have identified themselves as feminist. Now, they are not alive to agree or disagree.

In William O’Neill’s now somewhat dated history of feminism, Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America, written in 1969 when the second wave of feminism was in its infancy, women involved in social reform in the 19th and early 20th centuries are termed “social feminists.” Social feminists were “women who were municipal civic reformers, club members, settlement house residents, and labor activists concerned about working women and child laborers” (“What’s In a Name?”). Social feminists “put reform aims first and considered the ballot a means” for reform, not an end in itself (“What’s In a Name?”). The term “social feminist” seems to have stuck for awhile—and it is these “social feminists” whom Christian or conservative-minded feminists today consider their forebears. Some women today think the social feminists were the only feminists around during the 19th century. They were not. O’Neill’s other category of feminists was “hard-core feminists” (a term that didn’t stick): for these women the ballot and women’s emancipation was the goal. These “purists” liked to ally with the reformers because it widened the suffragist circle and helped make the goal of woman suffrage acceptable and mainstream.

As Nancy Cott explains so well in her 1989 essay, “What’s In a Name? The Limits of Social Feminism,” categorizing women as either social feminists or hard-core feminists is problematic because women and civic reform organizations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries do not necessarily fit neatly into one or the other category. Cott gives the example of Florence Kelley, among others, who was a leader in the fight for legislation to regulate women’s and children’s labour, which would be considered social feminism, but was also a prominent member of the Woman’s Party, which was a hard-core feminist organization. Further, as Cott explains, much of what is caught “in the net of social feminism might as easily be considered alternative, or even opposed, to feminism.” Social feminists favoured protective legislation for women and children, while hard-core feminists in the Woman’s Party wanted the government to amend the constitution in the form of the Equal Rights Amendment which was in opposition to special treatment for women.

Given the shortcomings and problems associated with the term “social feminists,” can one call women involved in the reform movement feminists? If one were to delve into the history of each so-called social feminist one would likely find that some were feminist-minded, while others were merely social reformers who did not see women as oppressed and did not seek a revolution against patriarchy. O’Neill’s categories allow for a wide net to be used to include as many women as possible in the history of feminism. He himself, however, calls the hard-core feminists the real feminists because it is they, not the social feminists, who sought to “narrow the gap between the sexes and to have women play masculine roles insofar as possible,” which he calls the “essence of feminism.”

The wide net policy then, serves to bolster the feminist cause at the expense of accuracy as to just who was or is a feminist. The wide net policy also makes some conservative, traditionally-minded women happy because they can have their cake and eat it too. These women may think the sexual revolution damaged family values and that abortion is evil, but they can enter any profession they’d like and ask their husbands to share the housework. They denounce whatever in feminism is distasteful to them and accept whatever is useful to them. Perhaps the name for this group of women is “cafeteria feminists,” applied in the same spirit as is “cafeteria Catholics” (those Catholics who take of the Church’s teachings what pleases them and reject what upsets them).

The wide net policy has led to “cafeteria feminists” and a proliferation of specialized groupings of feminists who remake feminism in their own image—groups such as Christian feminists. There is something incongruous though, about zealous pro-abortion activists and pro-life Christian women all calling themselves feminist. Groups of women with widely varying or opposing belief systems all trying to fit into the feminist camp is problematic—someone does not belong.

While the proliferation of types of feminism is problematic in its own right, the confusion around types of feminism isn’t so much around these specialized groupings of feminism but rather, it is around the two major strands of feminism that emerged during the second wave: liberal and radical feminism.

Liberal feminism was given new life in the 1960s by Betty Friedan, her book The Feminine Mystique, and the National Organization for Women (NOW). Liberal feminism’s main concerns in the late 1960s and early 70s were the repeal of all abortion laws, publicly-funded childcare, and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Radical feminism, on the other hand, ignited within the younger generation of recent college grads who were more explicit about patriarchy as the cause of women’s oppression. They sought to overthrow the system, as opposed to liberal feminism’s strategy of reforming the system.

It is not feminist historians and writers who are confused about who is liberal and who is radical however, it is the conservatives and Christians who criticize feminism who are confused.

When, for example, Christians criticize radical feminism they are indeed critiquing those aspects of feminism that are radical. However, in their critique of radical feminism they also include aspects of liberal feminism, without realizing they are criticizing liberal, moderate feminism as well. For example, Betty Friedan personified liberal feminism, yet many critics of feminism include her in their critiques of what they consider radical feminism.

When Christians or others criticize feminism they typically insert “radical” in front of “feminism” to avoid attacking all of feminism since they believe that feminism before the 1960s was benign or not even feminism, just social reform, or that feminism in the 1960s and 70s had merit but was hijacked by radicals. Thy myth of feminism being benign before the 1960s was addressed at length in my post The Total Anti-Feminist so I won’t go into that here. The problem with the “hijacking” idea is that any original merit in second wave feminism is very hard to find for a conservative, traditionally-minded person, and should be impossible to find for a Christian.

Legalized abortion on demand was a goal embraced by liberal, “moderate” feminism. At its national conference in 1967, NOW adopted the repeal of all abortion laws as one of its main goals in its “Bill of Rights for Women.”

Where is the good feminism then? It is liberal, “moderate” feminism that leads the advocacy to uphold legalized abortion on demand. It is liberal, “moderate” feminism that encourages women to leave their children with strangers every day to pursue a career. It is liberal, “moderate” feminism that dominates institutions of government and education and holds men and women captive to an ideology that views men and women as interchangeable—men can mother and women can soldier, for example—resulting in a denial of truth that amounts to chaos.

One can attempt to break up liberal feminism to suit one’s beliefs, as cafeteria feminists have tried to do. However, just as cafeteria Catholics make a mockery of their faith, cafeteria feminists obscure the truth about feminism.

When critiquing feminism one can insert “radical” before “feminism” to imply there is good and bad feminism, but as I’ve discussed in this post and others, the good feminism is difficult to find. So, is there a good feminism? No. Feminism has only one face, and it’s an ugly one.

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