Sunday, June 17, 2007


in my aforementioned trip to the DC library, i picked up a bunch of good books - some fiction, and some non-fiction i've always had on my "to read" list. two of these are feminist theory: the dialectic of sex by shulamith firestone, and feminist theory: from margin to center by bell hooks.

i've started in on the bell hooks first. i've read a few of hooks's books before - talking back, which i thought was fantastic, and teaching community, which i thought was awful. i saw her speak at BC when i was there, and she was a really engaging presence, still evidently committed and passionate after all this time and all this work. so, i was intrigued to pick up one of her earlier (i guess one could claim more "seminal" works, but i wouldn't, because i think the word seminal evokes the word semen and who wants that kind of association for a feminist book? ok whatever i'm weird, what with the words sounding like other words and all. deal.) books on feminist theory.

it didn't take long for some points to start resonating. her second chapter, "Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression," tackles the essential but often glossed over question of what the fuck is feminism, anyway? and the problem is: we don't know. even feminists don't know. in feminist circles it is often spun, with varying degrees of conviction and plausibility, that this is an asset instead of a defect - that we are talking about "feminisms" here. i have done this myself; i find the reality of the situation to be pretty evident, but the arguments about its efficacy as a basis for social change dubious.

hooks points out that this diffuse notion of what feminism is will harm us more than it helps us in the long run. whatever the good intentions of feminist movements of old, the concentrated, concise idea of what feminism actually means somehow slipped out of pandora's box way back when, and we seem powerless to be able to get it back, to distill it back down. she quotes author carmen vazquez at length:

We can't even agree on what a "Feminist" is, never mind what she would believe in and how she defines the principles that constitute honor among us. In key with the American capitalist obsession for individualism and anything goes so long as it gets you what you want, feminism in America has come to mean anything you like, honey. There are as many definitions of Feminism as there are feminists, some of my sisters say, with a chuckle. I don't think it's funny.

hooks goes on to point out how the predominant definition of feminism as a struggle for social equality with men served only the interests of white, bourgeois women, and that because white, bourgeois women dominated the discourse, their concerns took precedence. feminism as hooks would like to define it - a struggle to end sexist oppression - is an entirely different story, which aims to deconstruct systems of oppression rather than gain favor within them. it's also, to be realistic, much more of a pipe dream - when is the demolition of an entire ordering hegemony ever anything less, really? but regardless of where one falls on this spectrum of "feminisms," i find it hard not to be troubled by this multiplicity of perspective and position falling under the moniker of feminism, especially when they can be so drastically different in both actions and aims.

i mean, if you take it up to the bird's eye view, is progress possible if we don't know what progress is?

to take it up to the bird's eye of the bird's eye, is the term "feminism" as a locus for an theory and ideology obsolete? (i know, i know, i hate to put the words "feminism" and "obsolete" in the same sentence, because it seems like every five minutes, someone somewhere is doing just that.) i mean in the sense of being useful. is it too dispersed, stretched too thin to have any practical value even to those of us who adopt it willingly?

these are frustrating questions, because even if they were easy to answer, they're most likely moot - the term "feminism" isn't going anywhere, of course. these discussions about semantics are exercises in futility. sure, maybe it's worth starting to turn the wheel of titanics like "feminist" or "pro-choice", but it would be decades, if ever, before any meaningful change happens.

on that cheerful note, i will end. it doesn't mean i don't think the questions are worth asking - hey, i just asked them here - just that the more i think about them, the more depressed i become for feminism's prospects in this cultural moment. the lack of central purpose seems to me to be a glaring omission in anything that wants to call itself a movement. but when you can't get that central purpose back (if you assume it ever really existed in the first place), well, where do you go from here?


Toast said...

The interesting thing to me about this post is that the candidate definitions of "feminism" you offer define it by its goals. I have always thought of feminism as being centered less around specific goals and more around a set of specific analytical methods. E.g. a conceptual framework that evaluates social phenomena in terms of gender power differentials or believes that the most salient aspect of our culture is that it is a patriarchy, etc.

Roni said...

I'm reading Deborah Siegel's new book "Sisterhood Interrupted" which deals a lot with this same thought but throughout the 2nd and 3rd wave. I'm still in the 2nd wave, so I'll let ya know how it goes. So far, pretty good.

kate.d. said...

toast, i think of "feminist theory" when i think about analytical methods - this is probably the english major in me. as in, feminist theory is a basis for feminism, but not the whole of it. the -ism is a broader thing that connotates a movement, and movements usually involve (ideally) the marriage of theory and practice.

and roni, i've been hearing about that book. hooks actually has a chapter about the idea of "sisterhood," and the important but often elided difference between "support" and "solidarity." good stuff.

Jennifer said...

You are the fourth person who I read within their blog a post about feminism. It must be the month of women! That isn't a bad idea! A few days before you made your post, I submitted this one

BTW, great blog! I have been reading it for a year but this is my first comment!

kate.d. said...

very cool, jennifer, thanks for reading! and wouldn't i love it if it were the month of women...and next month too...and so on...