Carolynn is a graduate student working on getting her doctorate degree in clinical psychology.
What Is Feminism, and What Are Its Major Principles?
At its base, feminism is the belief that all people should be treated equally in legal, economic, and social arenas—regardless of gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other similar predominant identifying traits. Feminism includes the idea that a person’s gender does not define who they are or their worth; that being a woman [or a man] should not put a person at an overall—and especially institutionalized—disadvantage.
Feminism as a theory is incredibly fragmented, and covering all these factions would be nearly impossible—especially within a reasonable amount of space. Instead, it seems most beneficial to address those things that many (if not all) of the divisions of feminism have in common. Nearly all who would consider themselves under the feminist umbrella would agree that the core of feminism revolves around a belief in equality.
What it means to be successful in the endeavor to make this so, and how best to go about it, is where most factions of feminism disagree. What follows in regards to defining feminism is incomplete and speaks only to generalities that may be applied to most of those who consider them feminists and to what may be considered “mainstream feminism.”
It cannot be stressed enough that feminism is an exceptionally broad, deep, ingratiating, and diverse theoretical group.
I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
— Rebecca West, feminist journalist
You Might Be a Feminist If . . .
The San Diego State University chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) has a flier entitled “You Might Be A Feminist If…” that includes the following attributes that allows men and women to see what it means, essentially, to be a feminist:
- …you are a woman or man that believes in ending sexism.
- …you believe in equal pay for equal work.
- …you support choice and reproductive freedom.
- …you believe that women should not fear for their safety at night.
- …you believe that rape victims should be treated with respect, not suspicion.
- …you believe that women should not be defined by their bodies.
- …you want to see more female representation in elected office.
- …you know that equal rights are not “special rights.”
- …you believe that no opportunity should be closed to a woman because of her gender, race, class, or sexuality.
- …you believe that religion is not an excuse for sexism.
- …you want your daughter, mother, friend, sister, girlfriend, or wife to be safe from violence.
- …you believe in speaking up and taking action to end sexism.
- …you believe that women, women’s work, and women’s opinions matter.
Feminism means all of these things.
If you agree with all or many of these statements, you might just be a feminist.
Many people who read this list, and previously had not considered themselves to be feminists, reconsider their position. NOW has a multitude of resources like this, and many can be found on NOW's website.
Core Concepts of Feminism
Feminism is not an extreme point of view—but it was once. This concept is outstandingly addressed, in The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle, an incredible book about the interaction of art and activism. Below is one of my favorite excerpts:
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“The tremendous impact of feminism in everyday life includes, but extends far beyond, changes in laws, legislation, and political institutions. The texture of the life of every single person living in the United States was changed by the new feminism. Here is a short list of ideas about women that were unimaginably radical for more American men and women to think, let alone endorse, up to the 1960s, which are now viewed largely as common-sense statements:
- Women as a group have a right to earn as much as men.
- Traditionally defined women’s jobs…should be paid at a rate comparable to similar work done by men.
- There are few, if any, jobs that women can’t do.
- Women should have equal access to higher education, including fields traditionally reserved for men.
- Female writers, artists, and musicians should have respect, support, and opportunities equal to those given males in these cultural fields.
- Women are entitled to sexual pleasure as much as men are.
- Women should not be confined to housework but should be respected for it when they choose it.
- Women and men should share household and parenting work.
- Women don’t need to be in a relationship with a man to be happy.
- Treating women as mere sex object is wrong.
- Women should not be subject to sexual harassment in the workplace or in school.
- Girls and women should be encouraged to engage in sport.
- Women should have equal power in interpersonal relationships with men.
- Women have a role in the military.
- Women have a right to feel safe from the threat of rape.
- Battering women is a political issue, not a personal matter.
- Women have a right to be part of the decision if and when to have children.
- Women have as much of a place in the business world and the political world as men do.
Before the women’s movement reemerged in the mid-1960s, not one of these ideas was widely held by men or by women; most would have considered them unacceptable…”
One of the best-known slogans to emerge out of the new women’s movement was the phrase ‘the personal is political.’” In this way, the private sphere—the traditional woman’s terrain—became a more powerful place.
Well-behaved women rarely make history."
— Laurel Ulrich
What Is Feminism to Me?
For me, feminism is an underlying theory on life and society. It informs the choices I make as a student, clinician, sister, partner, friend, and every other role I play in my life.
I am always baffled when young, strong women are afraid of identifying themselves as feminists. Especially educated women who hold some of the common misconceptions about feminism.
Feminism means that I believe in the equality of individuals as a starting point for everything. It provides me with support, with a reminder that women are still treated as second-class citizens—yes, even in the United States—and pay equity is still elusive.
I bristle at assumptions based on gender and I see that the patriarchy is alive and well.
This does not mean that I "hate men," and I hate that I feel the need to prove that this is true (and I'm still resisting urges to do so).
Feminism is an integral part of who I am and will always be.
Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels."
— Faith Whittlesey
Reed, T. V. (2005), "The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle"
National Organization for Women: https:///www.now.org
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.