Category Archives: thinking sisters

What is Feminism?

That’s a question that I spend significant time mulling around in my mind, but not one that I’ve ever attempted to answer with any kind of intention or purpose.

Yesterday I was a guest on Hamilton Talks, a local cable show hosted by Larry Di Ianni.  He asked me how I would define feminism; not a trick question, although it took me be surprise.  Who doesn’t know what feminism is?  I mean, they’re talked about all the time, those “feminists”.

Now. I can go on and on about feminism, but coming up with a pithy response eluded me.  I simply said that feminism, my feminism, is about equality.  For women and men to have equal access to the same opportunities.  Feminism means that men can stay home just as well as women can work.  That’s the concise and simple answer.   After all, it was the beginning of the interview and he had lots to talk about.  The complete, more complex answer, however, could take up a whole show.  And then some.

So, perhaps just to be better prepared next time, should there be one, and so I don’t have to resort to the tired and trite economic argument  (women earn 70 cents for every dollar men earn), which I did, I thought maybe I’d see what I can do with some purpose and intention.

I’ll give it 1000 words and a Saturday afternoon.

I’ll begin by restating what I said previously:  My feminism is about equality.  For women and men to have equal access to the same opportunities.

One of the reasons that I’ve resisted to define feminism is that feminism is personal to each woman.  Some women are even in denial of their inherent feminism.  That is, perhaps, the challenge of feminism, to try to be all things to all women.  Can’t please everyone, all those other –isms get in the way.

As a feminist, I believe that gender is the primary organizing feature of society.  Some people consider it race, other people gravitate, up and down, toward class.  I’m in the gender camp.  That’s probably because as a white, educated, employed person, I’m at the top of the privilege pile.  All those other factors:  race, class, ability, sexual orientation etc, etc all impact upon the primary identifying element:  gender.  And I mean gender not sex.  But what is gender without sex?

Sex is the biological condition we are born into and is used as the basis for our gender role expectations.  You’d think that would be pretty simple, but sex is not so clear cut when we consider the determining factors.[i]  And as we grow in knowledge about how it is we are who we are, that could change.  In fact, count on it.  So, right now, we consider sex to be determined by chromosomal markers, XX for female, XY for male.  That’s as small as we can see.  For now.

Gender refers to the behavioural and social expectations assigned to each sex.  People have come to use gender when they really mean sex.  This serves to, in some ways, negate the biological, which is dangerous because the biology is important, although we haven’t quite figured out the full extent of it yet. [ii]  Transgender people may be bio-boys or girls, but accept and adopt feminine or masculine gender roles, respectively.  Transexuals take it further and correct the biology to match the behavioural.  Free to be, you and me.

Feminism advocates for equality in access to opportunity, all opportunities, for everyone.

The history of women in the world, the written history of the world, forms the basis of the definition.  For centuries women have been vilified as less than men, soulless, wanton, more evil temptress than holy mother.  Women have paid for their sex through their death in childbirth and in the bonfires of the witchcraft trials.  Women have been held back from education, denied the freedom of movement, of employment, their futures tied to their biology as they birthed baby after baby.  Female gender role expectations have wrapped women solidly up in hearth and home, the space of less importance, private, maternal, yet subject to paternal control, the male head of the house, the house to the state.  Even in her own realm her power was subject to his.  In the face of the law a married woman and her husband were one:  him.  A single woman was redundant.

In advocating for equality in access to opportunity, there are many past wrongs that need to be corrected; attitudes that need to change, perspectives that need expanding.  We are, in Canada, only two generations away from a time when married women were expected to leave the workforce upon marriage, baby plans or not.  A woman’s ability to work is the basis of her economic security.  History has been too clear:  can’t trust the men to take care of the women.  Nice thought, but it hasn’t worked.  The women have to take care of themselves.  In taking care of themselves, they take care of the world:  children, husbands, parents.

It’s not hard to understand when we cast a glance around the world, to cultures where gender roles are firmly entrenched and backed up with social and judicial sanctions, places like Afghanistan or Iran, to see that gender repression can, and indeed does, exist.  Will it continue in the face of greater emphasis on female education and empowerment worldwide remains to be seen.

The pushback is relentless and continues unabated.  However, generational change can be counted on to lead the way to a new tomorrow.  I have more options than my mother, my daughter more than me.  But I’m under no assumption those options are guaranteed.  There is an imperative for women to be involved in the decisions of their time, for their voices to be heard, to be players on the stage of humanity.  Use it or lose it.

Many people will say that they’re humanists to try to capture the essence of equality, of human rights.  Humanists assume an equal playing field – which it is, in their theory.  Feminists see the inequities that accrue to gender role expectations, male and female, and work to level the playing field, particularly for women.  They do the work the humanists assume is already done.

That’s what feminism means to me.  What does it mean to you?


[i] For an interesting history of the medical invention of sex, see Alice Domurat Dreger, Hermaphrodite and the Medical Invention of Sex (Cambridge:  University of Harvard Press, 1998)

[ii] The field of epigenetics and the interaction between genes and environment expands our understanding of how we are who we are and the impact of environment on gene expression and the development of disease and other personal characteristics.