Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ms. Understanding

Yesterday I asked a classmate to critique a piece I had written for a graduate writing class. It was a speech in praise of a former high school teacher whom I admired for inspiring me to be fearless in pursuit of my goals. In this speech I used the word “feminism” and the phrase “proud feminist” to describe myself, and credited this teacher for inspiring those qualities.

My classmate suggested an editorial change: remove “feminism” and “proud feminist,” replace them with something less negative. Tone it down a little, she suggested.

I am equally dumbfounded and pained that today there are still educated American citizens who view feminism as a negative thing.

Changing those words in my speech was not an option; they were the heart of the theme of the entire piece. They are also a keystone in the blocks of which I, as an American woman, am constructed. Those words will remain.

By definition, feminism is “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” It’s about equal rights, folks. If you see equality as negative, you have some serious socio-cultural issues to work through.

A friend called this persistent ignorant misinformation a “cultural script,” thoughtless cliches that are easy to reference and regurgitate but aren’t based on any personal thought. If you once heard the word “feminist” associated with the groups of women who used to burn their bras in protest, or that horrible moniker “femi-nazi” and that’s all you’ve ever bothered to learn on the subject, let me assure you here and now that the feminist movement is so much more than undergarment pyromania.

Women who are directly benefiting from feminist action every day are doing so unknowingly and thanklessly. Let me attempt to end some of the ignorance.

Feminists are the ones who drafted and rallied in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, which stated "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." The ERA passed in Congress in 1972 (the year I was born), but was killed 10 years later when it failed to be ratified by a minimum of 38 states. 134 years after the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls we still had not reached full equality. But we trudge on. Feminists are nothing if not determined.

The feminist movement has been a long and arduous one, but the successes it has reached have been significant:

1920 Women gain the right to vote
1963 Equal Pay Act
1972 Title IX enacted
1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act
1986 sexual harassment deemed to be illegal job discrimination.
1996 Virginia Military Institute ordered that it must admit women

And the list goes on.

The feminist movement did not end with women gaining the right to vote. It did not end with the passage of Title IX, and it will not end when a woman is elected President of the United States. There is no singular final task to accomplish, after which “feminism” will retire.

The feminist movement continues, and must continue, in order to remain vigilant in maintaining the equalities that have been attained, and to be a watchdog against inequalities that continue to spring up.

If inequality is a cancer, then the feminist movement is lifelong aftercare. It is the daily surveillance for new malignant growth; it is the periodic education of new generations to the dangers of discrimination; it is the chemotherapy which goes to Washington to permanently eradicate practices which promote gender biases that threaten to kill a healthy state of equality.

I hope my classmate comes to realize how much she has gained from feminist action. Equal access to education and sports, voting rights, marriage and reproductive rights, and prevention of and legal action against gender-related job discrimination are all POSITIVE direct results of proud feminists.

Never be afraid to call yourself a feminist. Wear that badge proudly.


  1. Lord have mercy. Next time you need a critique be sure to ask someone not jealous of you and your brilliant, independent mind. Great post!

  2. p.s. you need to check out the column leonard pitts wrote about the F word about a year or more ago. great stuff.

  3. *shaking head*
    I'm sure you already know Naomi Wolf's book, "The Beauty Myth"? If not, it's an excellent read all about this very topic.

  4. @jen...the way i see it, the experience pulled this post out of me, so anything that sparks some writing has an up side to it.
    @Kiwi...yes, I read it back when it first came out; i still have it, and it's probably worth reading again now that i'm older and more worldly-wise.