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Feminism - Some Definitions

From class on September 29, 2014 - Emma Watson's name came up as one of the current good role models in the media for young women and girls. Hear her speech to the U.N. here:

Emma Watson

One of the ways women have fought discrimination is through feminism, but one of the difficult parts of teaching about feminism is defining it. When I introduce myself to a class, I introduce myself as a feminist, because I am one. But students may wonder what I mean by that term, and many of them are wary of the term, unnecessarily in my opinion. 

Below are a number of definitions of different kinds of feminism. Even if you never thought of yourself as a feminist before, you may find a definition that fits you. You also may find some definitions that infuriate you!


waving hand Exercise
Which of the following definitions of Feminism do you DISLIKE the most? Why? (read them first then come back and answer this question).
Post your answer in the Moodle Discussion Group.


My own definition of feminism, by no means definitive, is

A belief that women's ways of knowing are just as valuable as men's and that women are to be valued just as highly as men
- M Louise Ripley

Other definitions: 

A set of ideologies and social analysis informed by women's experience.
- Albert Lunde, from Rose Media Computer Bulletin Board, December 1993

"To be a feminist is to answer the question 'Are women human?' with a yes. It is not about whether women are better than, worse than or identical with men... It's about justice, fairness and access to the broad range of human experience." - Katha Pollitt, Reasonable Creature: Essays on Women and Feminism, echoing Mary Wollstonecraft who in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, back in the 1800's, proposed that the ideals of the Enlightenment also be applied to women.

Alice Abel Kemp, writing in Women's Work: Degraded and Devalued (1994, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall), quotes Joan Acker that feminism is "a point of view that 1) sees women as exploited, devalued, and often oppressed, 2) is committed to changing the condition of women, and 3) adopts a critical perspective toward dominant intellectual traditional that have ignored and/or justified women's oppression." Abel Kemp says that "women are united in their view that women are oppressed, although they may disagree about what constitutes oppression."

There are many types of feminism: black feminism, socialist feminism, radical feminism, liberal feminism, post structural feminism, women's work/women's experience feminism....The choice is yours ultimately, for feminism is broad enough to encompass many points of view. 

Below are some definitions of different feminisms from a newsgroup on the Internet called Soc feminism. Comments are from moderators of the forum.

A variety of movements in feminism means that calling one's self a feminist can mean many things. In general, members of the following categories of feminism believe in the listed policies; however as with any diverse movement, there are disagreements within each group and overlap between others. This list is meant to illustrate the diversity of feminist thought and belief. It does not mean that feminism is fragmented (although it often seems that way!). Much of the definitions presented here are inspired [by] American Feminism by Ginette Castro; there is a definite American bias here. Other sources were Feminist Frameworks (2nd ed.) by Jaggar and Rothenberg (which is a worthwhile but incomplete reader that tried to sort out these various schools of feminist thought).

Defining various kinds of feminism is a tricky proposition. The diversity of comment with most of the kinds presented here should alert you to the dangers and difficulties in trying to "define" feminism. Since feminism itself resists all kinds of definitions by its very existence and aims, it is more accurate to say that there are all kinds of "flavours" and these flavours are mixed up every which way; there is no set of Baskin Robbins premixed flavours, as it were.

Amazon Feminism
Amazon feminism is dedicated to the image of the female hero in fiction and in fact, as it is expressed in art and literature, in the physiques and feats of female athletes, and in sexual values and practices. Amazon feminism is concerned about physical equality and is opposed to gender role stereotypes and discrimination against women based on assumptions that women are supposed to be, look or behave as if they are passive, weak and physically helpless. It rejects the idea that certain characteristics or interests are inherently masculine (or feminine), and upholds and explores a vision of heroic womanhood. Thus Amazon feminism advocates e.g., female strength athletes, martial artists, soldiers, etc. [TG]

Anarcho-feminism was never a huge movement, especially in the United States, and you won't find a whole lot written about it. I mention it mostly because of the influential work of Emma Goldman, who used anarchism to craft a radical feminism that was (alas!) far ahead of her time. Radical feminism expended a lot of energy dealing with a basis from which to critique society without falling into Marxist pleas for socialist revolution. It also expended a lot of energy trying to reach across racial and class lines. Goldman had succeeded in both. Radical feminist Alix Schulman realized this, but not in time to save her movement. She's put out a reader of Goldman's work and a biography, both of which I recommend highly. [JD]

waving hand Exercise
Emma Goldman
I once used a great quote from Emma Goldman on an in-class test in this course. Click here to see the test question, then write what you think it means (in a few short sentences, not in the full essay which the test-takers had to do!)
Post your answer in the
Moodle Discussion Group.

Cultural Feminism
As radical feminism died out as a movement, cultural feminism got rolling. In fact, many of the same people moved from the former to the latter. They carried the name "radical feminism" with them, and some cultural feminists use that name still. (Jagger and Rothenberg don't even list cultural feminism as a framework separate from radical feminism, but Echols spells out the distinctions in great detail.) The difference between the two is quite striking: whereas radical feminism was a movement to transform society, cultural feminism retreated to vanguardism, working instead to build a women's culture. Some of this effort has had some social benefit: rape crisis centres, for example; and of course many cultural feminists have been active in social issues (but as individuals, not as part of a movement). [JD]

Erotic Feminism
[European] This seemed to start as a movement in Germany under the rule of Otto von Bismarck. He ruled the land with the motto "blood and iron". In society the man was the "ultra manly man" and power was patriarchal power. Some women rebelled against this, by becoming WOMAN. Eroticism became a philosophical and metaphysical value and the life-creating value. [RG]

This branch of feminism is much more spiritual than political or theoretical in nature. It may or may not be wrapped up with Goddess worship and vegetarianism. Its basic tenet is that a patriarchal society will exploit its resources without regard to long term consequences as a direct result of the attitudes fostered in a patriarchal/ hierarchical society. Parallels are often drawn between society's treatment of the environment, animals, or resources and its treatment of women. In resisting patriarchal culture, eco-feminists feel that they are also resisting plundering and destroying the Earth. [CTM]

This term was "invented" by the radio/TV host Rush Limbaugh. He defines a feminazi as a feminist who is trying to produce as many abortions as possible. Hence the term "nazi" - he sees them as trying to rid the world of a particular group of people (fetuses). This term is of course completely without merit, but there's the definition of it FYI. [CTM]

Feminism and Women of Colour
In feminist theory from margin to centre (1984), bell hooks writes of "militant white women" who call themselves "radical feminists" but hooks labels them "reactionary" . . .Hooks is referring to cultural feminism here. Her comment is a good introduction to that fractious variety of feminism that Jaggar and Rothenberg find hard to label any further than to designate its source as women of colour. It is a most vital variety, covering much of the same ground as radical feminism and duplicating its dynamic nature. Yet bad timing kept the two from ever uniting. For more information you might want to also read hooks' book and her earlier reader, ain't i a woman? Whereas radical feminism was primarily formulated by educated white women focusing on women's issues, this variety was formulated by women who would not (because they could not) limit their focus. What is so extraordinary is that the two converged in so many ways, with the notable exception that the women of colour were adamantly opposed to considering one form of oppression (sexism) without considering the others. [JD]

waving hand Exercise
Why do you think women of colour interested in feminism refused to consider the issue of sexism without also considering the issue of racism? 
Post your answer in the
Moodle Discussion Group.  

I think an important work in the history of feminism and women of colour is Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga's anthology, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Colour. It's my belief that the unique contribution of women of colour, who experience at least two forms of discrimination daily, provides balance and reality to much of the more theoretical forms of academic feminism favoured by educated white women. [EE]

Individualist, or Libertarian Feminism
Individualist feminism is based upon individualist or libertarian (minimum government or anarcho-capitalist) philosophies, i.e. philosophies whose primary focus is individual autonomy, rights, liberty, independence and diversity.

There are a couple of points to make here. First is that lesbianism is not necessarily a *de facto* part of feminism. While it is true that merely being a lesbian is a direct contravention of "traditional" concepts of womanhood, lesbians themselves hold a wide variety of opinions on the subject of feminism just as their straight sisters do. On the other hand, lesbianism has sometimes been made into a political point by straight women "becoming" lesbian in order to fully reject men. However, it is never accurate to characterize all feminists as lesbians nor all lesbians as feminists.

Liberal Feminism
This is the variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure. Its roots stretch back to the social contract theory of government instituted by the American Revolution. Abigail Adams and Mary Wollstonecraft were there from the start, proposing equality for women. As is often the case with liberals, they slog along inside the system, getting little done amongst the compromises until some radical movement shows up and pulls those compromises left of centre. This is how it operated in the days of the suffragist movement and again with the emergence of the radical feminists. [JD]

Marxist and Socialist Feminism
Marxism recognizes that women are oppressed, and attributes the oppression to the capitalist/private property system. Thus they insist that the only way to end the oppression of women is to overthrow the capitalist system. Socialist feminism is the result of Marxism meeting radical feminism. Jaggar and Rothenberg point to significant differences between socialist feminism and Marxism, but for our purposes I'll present the two together. Echols offers a description of socialist feminism as a marriage between Marxism and radical feminism, with Marxism the dominant partner. Marxists and socialists often call themselves "radical," but they use the term to refer to a completely different "root" of society: the economic system. [JD]

Material Feminism
A movement in the late 19th century to liberate women by improving their material condition. This meant taking the burden of housework and cooking off their shoulders. The Grand Domestic Revolution by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one reference. [RZ]

Moderate Feminism
This branch of feminism tends to be populated by younger women or other women who have not directly experienced discrimination. They are closely affiliated with liberal feminism, but tend to question the need for further effort, and do not think that Radical feminism is any longer viable and in fact rather embarrassing (this is the group most likely to espouse feminist ideas and thoughts while denying being "feminist"). [CTM]

This term has appears to be a catch-all for the bogey"man" sort of feminism that everyone loves to hate: you know, the kind of feminism that grinds men under its heel and admits to no wrong for women. It is doubtful that such a caricature actually exists, yet many people persist in lumping all feminists into this sort of a category. [CTM]. 

Radical Feminism
Provides the bulwark of theoretical thought in feminism. Radical feminism provides an important foundation for the rest of "feminist flavours". Seen by many as the "undesirable" element of feminism, Radical feminism is actually the breeding ground for many of the ideas arising from feminism; ideas which get shaped and pounded out in various ways by other (but not all) branches of feminism. [CTM]

This term refers to the feminist movement that sprung out of the civil rights and peace movements in 1967-1968. The reason this group gets the "radical" label is that they view the oppression of women as the most fundamental form of oppression, one that cuts across boundaries of race, culture, and economic class. This is a movement intent on social change, change of rather revolutionary proportions, in fact. [JD]

The best history of this movement is a book called Daring to be Bad, by Echols. I consider that book a must! [JD] Another excellent book is simply titled Radical Feminism and is an anthology edited by Anne Koedt, a well-known radical feminist [EE]

Popularly and wrongly depicted as Lesbians, these are the feminists who advocate separation from men; sometimes total, sometimes partial. Women who organize women-only events are often unfairly dubbed separatist. Separatists are sometimes literal, sometimes figurative. The core idea is that "separating" (by various means) from men enables women to see themselves in a different context. Many feminists, whether or not separatist, think this is a necessary "first step", by which they mean a temporary separation for personal growth, not a permanent one. [CTM]

waving hand Exercise
When I first taught this course in 1989, I taught it as a "separatist" course, not by choice but by chance, as only 14 people registered for the brand new course and none of them was male. Since then the course has always included men. In a business course that examines women's role in management, what differences might you expect to find between a course that excludes men and one that welcomes men?
Post your answer in the
Moodle Discussion Group.

Men's Movements
[Largely contributed by Dave Gross. Exceptions noted.]

It may seem odd to include some notes on men's movements in a description of feminism. However, many of these movements were started in reaction to feminism: some inspired by and others in contra-reaction to it. In this context, examining men's movements tells of some specific reactions to feminism by men. [CTM]

Most men's movement historians date the men's movement back to the early seventies. In 1970, according to Anthony Astrachan ("How Men Feel" p. 291) the first men's centre opened in Berkeley, Calif. and the magazine "Liberation" published an article by Jack Sawyer entitled "On Male Liberation."

The men's movement equivalent to the catalyst provided to the women's movement by Betty Friedan, was The Male Machine by Mark Feigen Fasteau in 1975. 

Feminist Men's Movement
These groups are closely aligned ideologically with the feminist movement. They believe that we live in a patriarchal system in which men are the oppressors of women, and that the men's movement should identify this oppression and work against it. Most of the Men Against Rape groups fall under this category. The largest feminist men's group is the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (Formerly the National Organization for Changing Men). Some publications from this viewpoint are Changing Men, the journal of NOMAS, and the following books: The Liberated Man by Warren Farrell, The Male Machine by Marc Feigen Fasteau, The 49% Majority ed. by Deborah David & Robert Brannon, and Refusing to Be a Man by John Stoltenberg.

waving hand Exercise
Men and Feminism
What does it mean to say that "Women's liberation is men's liberation too," in  terms of management in the workplace and in terms of balance in the home?
Post your answer in the
Moodle Discussion Group.
The above ends the long piece from the soc-feminism newsgroup discussion. 
We will end the definitions of feminism with a comment from a woman: 
"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, or a prostitute."
-- Rebecca West, 1913
waving hand Exercise
Four Feminisms
Of these four kinds of feminism (below), which most closely fits your personal beliefs and why?
Post your answer in the
Moodle Discussion Group.


Marxist Feminists believe that class distinction is the greatest evil, that the very ownership of private property, a basic tenet of capitalism, oppresses women. The hierarchies that govern most businesses make most capitalist organizations untenable to a Marxist, and a Marxist feminist believes that in too many businesses, hierarchies of power oppress women. Sally Helgesen, author of Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership, tells stories of women managers who have moved away from the hierarchical model to a model like a web, with the leader in the centre but everyone on the same “level”    Karl Marx
Socialist Feminists also believe that both gender and class hierarchies oppress women, and many advocate recognizing the work of the woman who stays at home to raise the next generation as labour worthy of compensation   globe in red for socialism
Radical Feminists believe that it is hopeless even to try to work with men and their current business organizations. I’ve met some radical feminists who have said very simply that they will never work for a man. Unfortunately it’s not that easy. A large number of businesses are run by men. But more sadly, the simple fact that you work for a woman does not always mean that she will be egalitarian in organizing the workplace she supervises. These are the “women who outman the men.” Then there are the women who mean well but who have idealism but no management training to run an organization.  stick figure holding female sign, says Feminism
Women’s Rights Feminists, in which category I would probably place myself (when I’m not infuriated and thinking like a Radical Feminist), work from the premise that all people truly are created equal. I add the word “truly” because in the country where I was born, we had a constitution that declared that all men are created equal, but it turned out they didn’t mean men of colour, and although they spoke glibly about how the word “man” included women as well, it did not, because although those words about all men being created equal were written in the late 18th century, women did not get to vote until the early 20th century. I'm not sure I believe that a non-sexist society can be achieved by working within the present system, or if it can, that it can be done anytime soon. A study done by a major bank in the mid 1980's calculated that if we wait for changes that ensure equality for women to come naturally, it will take about 400 years. This is why practices such as Affirmative Action are necessary. It is the nature of power that no one who has it gives it up willingly.  women's rights


waving hand Exercise
Your Definition
What is YOUR definition of Feminism?
Post your answer in the Moodle Discussion Group.


Sheryl Sandberg's Book Lean In

waving hand Exercise
Sandberg Feminism
How does Sheryl Sandbert's book Lean In help you further understand the topic of this unit?
Post your answer in the Moodle  Discussion Group.


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AP/ADMS/WMST3120 3.0 Gender Issues in Management
York University, Toronto
© M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.