What is a feminist?

Or, maybe the question should be, what is feminism? I wonder this a lot as I read the SDMB, because I consider myself a feminist, but I suspect that many people here would disagree with my definition of it, or even dispute that I am one.

I consider myself a feminist because I believe that women should be equal under the law. I also believe that women should have the same opportunities to achieve whatever they want as a man would have, have the same reward for equal work, and that it is unethical to take sex into account when making an assessment of someone’s achievement. I think that men and women have basically the same level of intelligence and ability to reach goals in any arena chosen. I have a career, and my mother (who is of the generation before the boomers) is a highly educated career woman herself. She taught me that I could do anything I set my mind to, and that I should never let anyone tell me otherwise.

On the other hand, I believe some things that I think may take me out of the mainstream of feminist thought. For instance, I believe that there are inherent differences between men and women, and that there are some things that in general men are better at, and some things that in general, women are better at. And that there are certain areas of interest that are more “feminine,” some that are more “masculine,” and that there is often a biological basis for which is which. I also believe that modern gender dynamics have evolved from traditional gender roles, which evolved (quite literally) from our animal ancestry, where males have the role of hunter, and the females have the role of gatherer, where the males are more removed from daily family life, and the females are the nurturers. I think that most people are generally happiest when in these traditional roles (or, at least, our modern approximation of them), and that acceptance of this does not mean that one is setting back equality, or necessarily selling short their own abilities.

So, that in a nutshell is a little bit about my philosophy on feminism. What say, you, Dopers? Am I on track, off base, or all wet? What is the core of feminism, and where can reasonable people disagree?

My daughter announced to me yesterday that when she’s older, she wants to be a boy. When I asked her why, she said, “So I can be like Callahan,” (her best little friend). Of course, my first impulse was to say, “Honey, there’s really no difference between boys and girls!” but of course that’s not true. If it were true, then why are we constantly correcting her when she uses the wrong pronouns? Instead I said, “Well, you can do all the same things Callahan can, boys and girls are very much alike.”

Because I do agree with you that, on aggregate, men and women are different. I feel no need to apologize for that; there are very real biological differences between our hormones and musculoskeletal systems and even our brains. And any woman knows what a profound impact even a slight shift in hormones can have on your mood and behavior!

The important thing about feminism in this day and age, I think, is that we emphasize to our daughters and sons that their individual abilities and desires are more important than the aggregate, than the average. Just because “women, on average” are more likely to be nurturers doesn’t say a single thing at all about whether my daughter is a nurturer or whether your son isn’t a nurturer. Just because, “on average, men have greater spacial intelligence than women” doesn’t mean my daughter can’t be an awesome engineer, or that my son won’t struggle in physics.

At the same time, I think it’s good that we continue to do research into the average differences between men and women, especially in medicine and education, so we can anticipate pitfalls and offer, say, extra math tutoring pamphlets printed on pink paper to appeal to the girls and babysitting classes with skateboarding graphics to appeal to the boys. Stereotyping? Sure. But let’s make it work for us instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

So that’s what being a feminist today means to me: legal and job related decisions and opportunities should be gender blind, based only on ability and performance history. I think it’s shameful that women still make less for the same work. I don’t think women without children should be punished monetarily under the assumption that someday they’ll hurt the firm by breeding, or those who take no maternity leave or sick kid days should be treated like those who do. I think paternity leave and sick kid days for fathers should be identical to those offered to mothers at the same company. I think we should stop treating dads as freaks and child molesters when they show up at the playground with their kids. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s anti-feminist to examine the differences that often show up between the genders. I know that I really enjoy “feminine” activities that make my guy friends bored, and I think that’s entirely okay. I no longer feel a need to apologize for enjoying “traditional” woman’s work over man’s work or gender neutral work.

We as a culture moved through a time when women were inferior and everyone understood and accepted that. Then we went through (and are perhaps still going through) a period of time when everyone understands that we’re all the same and all equal (this is the overwhelming message on Free to Be, You and Me, which my 15 year old son finds bizarre - why would anyone have to point that out, he asked me once). I think now we’re (I hope) moving through a new understanding: that we’re different AND we’re equal. It may not have worked for segregated schooling, but I think it’s true of gender behavior. And our individual differences, IMHO, are far more important to our individual happiness and productivity than our aggregate differences.

You certainly conform to *my * ideal conception of a feminist, which is: a liberated modern woman who considers herself equal in all legal, personal, and professional respects, but who nevertheless acknowledges that there is such a thing as femininity, and that it’s nothing to be afraid of, and that men and women do indeed have certain differences, even if those differences cannot be strictly codified or used to define individuals.

But I’m a guy, and that probably makes me irrelevant to this discussion. To be sure, my two friends who are genuine USDA-approved self-identifying feminists who teach Women’s Studies in academia certainly do *not * consider what you’ve described to be feminism. For them, true feminism implies much more adamant opposition to traditional gender roles, and the active elimination of everything those roles imply in society. They would, for instance, disdain a woman’s choice to be a housewife is she so chose.

I think that was the right answer. I have noticed that kids the age of our daughters are REALLY aware of gender, and quite frankly I was surprised to see it at such a young age.

Yes, I think you are spot on here. My daughter is not super girly, and I’m disinclined to steer her into girlyness. At her school, the girls are super into princesses, dress-up, holding mock weddings etc., and she just really doesn’t seem to be into it. I think that the important thing, as a parent, is to help your child develop their own interests and talents, whereever they might lie.

Do you think this is the way to approach it, though? I don’t know…I get really irritated at how the girl toys are all pink these days (for example, even toys that should be gender-neutral, such as a really-operational kid’s digital camera I saw that was available in blue and pink, only. And when I was looking for a toy kitchen to get my daughter for Christmas, I searched long and hard for one that wasn’t pink or light purple, so that my son won’t be turned off from playing with it when he’s at that “pretend play” stage). I wish more toys would just be neutral. How about a toy camera that’s silver, made to look like mom & dad’s, you know?

I agree with all of this, with maybe the only nitpick being that I’m not sure studies are showing that women are still making less for the same work (or, that is, when they are, there are other mitigating factors besides gender discrimination).

Yes, I agree, and that’s as it should be. I think the bottom line of “feminism” isn’t about women, so much, but about individuals, and treating people as such. I think that where we women (especially those starting with our generation and younger) have really benefitted from feminism is that we have so much more freedom to choose what we want our lives to be, at least as far as societal judgement is concerned.

I personally think your opinion is as relevant to this discussion as mine is, and quite frankly, I think this is one area where “feminism” falls short. It’s not just a women’s issue, because we have to live with, you know, you men. If we don’t involve men in the discussion, how do we expect to change their views? And how can we create a feminist society if we don’t get men on board with the idea?

As far as disdaining the choice to be a housewife, this, too, I find problematic. I think the true essence of equality is being able to do what you believe is best for you as an individual, and not subvert that for some kind of loyalty to identity politics.

I think you’ve got progressive feminism nailed. Unfortunately many who classify themselves as feminist consider the definition to be that since women have been in submission for so long, they should now be dominant.


I think that, because, as you say, preschoolers are intensely aware of gender, that there will always be “girl colors” and “boy colors”, although what those colors are may change. Kids are just too eager to divide themselves by visible means. But I agree that there should be choices in toys - Caileigh has a blue and silver kitchen and a red tricycle and a plain brown wooden table and chairs, because I chose all of them for her. But when she got to pick out her own “big girl sheets”, it’s pink and princesses all the way!

So, no matter what the “girl thing” of the moment is, whether that be pink or princesses or bling or bratz, I say go ahead and use that on the things that girls might otherwise shy away from. What the hell, give her a pink tool set if that will get her to learn how to build stuff.

There’s still a huge amount of debate going on about that topic. Raw numbers as of 2004 show a gap of about 23%. The Independent Women’s Forum, taking into account things like maternity leave, greater flex-hours and limited travel, believe that women’s pay is about 98% of men’s. Which, you know, is good. But it’s still not 100%.

Yes, but there’s still a very real danger of going the other way. In the mid 90’s, I and some of my peer group experienced a real slap in the face from feminists who didn’t think our goals of becoming housewives and mothers were worthy of respect - both in person and in the media. I wish I could say that’s gone away, but what **Figaro **says seems to belie that, and I believe him. (Speaking of - how the heck did Figaro’s post get in before your reply when it wasn’t there when I started typing this reply to your reply?)

The beginning of feminism was the realization that women did not need to have their roles defined for them by stupid men.

The end of feminism was the realization that women did not need to have their roles defined for them by stupid women, either.

Which is much of why feminism has lost credibility. There is a big chunk of ideology that one must accept, or else they don’t want you to call yourself feminist. You can’t be a feminist if you are a SAHM. You can’t be a feminist if you are pro-life. You can’t be a feminist if you vote Republican. You can’t be a feminist if you think there might be inborn differences between the sexes other than the obvious ones.

In a way, it’s kind of funny - the same people who will insist that there is a “gay gene” seem to be the same ones who will deny emphatically that there can be any difference between men and women above the collar bones. And Goddess forbid you should mention such heresy in public, or they’ll eat you alive.


I’m trying to go for “kid colors,” like the bright primaries for most of the toys, since I have a baby boy and I’m not wild about the idea of buying all new toys for him. (My husband, God bless him, is so cheap, he doesn’t know why we can’t hand down my daughter’s clothes to him. I told him, I’m sorry, I am not putting pink pajamas with hearts on the lad.) I have to admit, my daughter picked pink sheets, too, and I don’t mind her having a pink room (truth be told, I like pink myself). I just wish everything wasn’t so gender-specific. I think it’s so twee.

I can’t argue with that. I guess, while my daughter does like pink, she is sort of a tomboy, so I don’t have the issue with encouraging her to think of building & tools as “girl things,” because those are the kinds of things she likes to do anyway.

I know there’s a lot of debate…it’s a pretty complicated issue, and I have heard conflicting reports. But I definitely agree with the spirit of your post…that women should never be penalized for being women.

Yes, I agree that there are “Ivory-Tower” feminists who stick to the idea that women have to have careers, etc. etc., and that’s part of why I started this thread. Does that define feminism, or is my view a legitimate post-modern (or “progessive” as figaro said…I like that term!) evolution of feminism as a philosophy? I think so, but then, I would, wouldn’t I? :slight_smile:

See, and this is what I don’t get…how do they know?! Here we are, two moms conscious of this stuff, doing what we can (for whatever reasons) to choose gender neutral stuff (I even bought one bag of “boy colors” Lego and one bag of “girl colors” Lego to mix together, for goodness sakes!) Neither of our kids watch very much television, and I know I always skip commercials, and she doesn’t watch anything more girly than Sesame Street and Baby Einstein (not even Dora or Thomas, honestly!)…so why did they both pick pink sheets? Where did they pick that up??? Obviously, it takes even less exposure to cultural norms than I ever expected it to.


Maybe they’re just pretty sheets and you and I are the ones making it about gender.
Prob’ly some of both.

On a more practical note, I think the word “feminist” loses its meaning unless used in the context of advocacy. Unless you are fighting for something that is outside the current societal consensus of a woman’s “place” in society as expressed through laws, etc., you probably have no cause to identify as a feminist, just as I wouldn’t call myself a civil rights advocate just because I hold the basic beliefs of that movement to be valid and important.

I wish all “feminists”, whosoever it is that is laying claim to the moniker, were as sensible as you. And I say this as a househusband who chose to give up my career so that my wife can pursue hers. (Potential career, anyways – I was about to finish my PhD, but she got hers first.)

“Many” do? Really? I don’t know any feminists who believe this personally. I mean feminists in academia.

Well, many in the sense that those who’ve decided to make their views known to me personaly or the public in general have largely held this view. Which does not make them the actual majority or anything. Usualy they don’t state it as baldly as I’ve put it, but being a man, I’m not afraid of a little baldness. :cool:

I’m all for recognising limitations and them attempting to overcome them without being hamstrung by stereotypes. I’ve never let the fact of my gender’s general lack of communication stop me from getting a degree that’s essentialy based on communication.


The term you are looking for is “separatist-feminist” and they are very much on the fringe.

Of course, that doesn’t stop them from being very vocal, and idiots like Rush Limbaugh bemoaning the “feminazis” doesn’t help much.

Hilarious, yet relevant link.

Shodan wins the thread.

In any case, wrt the OP: I’d say that in modern times “feminism” really doesn’t mean anything. The fallacious little acid test “Do you believe women are equal before the law and should get equal pay? Then you’re a feminist.” gets on my nerves. First, because whatever “wave” (or at least, a significant and vocal part of whatever wave we’re in now) of feminism we’re in now certainly says a lot more than that there should be legislative and career-based equality. There’s also the fact that I, for instance, happen to think that men should be equal before the law and get equal pay, as should Jews, blacks, Asians, the Irish, etc…

And yet, I’m not a “masculinist”, “Jewishist” “blackist” “Asianist” “Irishist”, etc…

Which, of course, is one of the problems I see with modern feminism, it is quite often inherently divisive and limiting, drawing folks into different, armed camps. And I have sat through quite a few academic courses where the women did, indeed, talk about how women had been oppressed in the past, so if their policies were blatantly unfair and discriminatory to men, why, that was jut justice. I’m not sure how common such views are outside the academic community, or even in all the hundreds of colleges in the nation… but there are certainly enough of that type of ‘feminist’ that they don’t even feel guilty about suggesting sexism.

I sat through enough courses in college and grad school that I know that “Dead White European Male” (or, indeed “white” and “male”) are not simple descriptors for many “feminists.”

As such, I prefer the label “humanism” or if you prefer “secular humanism” to “feminism.” Do you believe that women are equal under the law and should be treated right, and that’s your driving goal, screw everybody else? Well, that’d be a good description for some but not all modern feminists. Do you believe that everybody, absolutely everybody should be equal under the law and treated right? Then you’re a humanist and it’s absurd to call you a “feminist” simply because women happen to be part of the totality that is humanity.

I am very much a feminist, and well schooled in modern feminist theory. I think the vast majority of feminists (even the kind that teach Women’s Studies in universities) would be pleased that you describe yourself as a feminist. They might disagree with some of your ideas, but I think very few would want to take that title away from you. The only time this is a real problem in feminist circles is when some women choose to become “token feminists”; they go on television or in print saying “I am a feminist, but these people are crazy!” Sort of like what Joe Lieberman does to Democrats.

I don’t think that’s what you are doing, though. It’s something to watch however; if a lot of men (especially conservative men) are saying “You are the kind of feminist I like!” then I think it’s smart to wonder why that is. Feminism isn’t about making men happy, or really about men at all.

Also, it’s a common idea that men aren’t welcome to talk about feminism, that they aren’t included in the dialog. I won’t say that never happens, there are too many groups with all different ideas floating around in order to make a statement like that. I will say it isn’t something the majority of feminists believe at all, and I think it’s mainly an untrue stereotype. Feminists don’t (on the whole) believe women are better than men, or that all men are rapists, or anything like that.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s work in New Guinea would seem to debunk the animal ancestry theory. She studied the Arapesh, the Mundugamor, and the Tchambuli of New Guinea and found that they didn’t necessarily conform gender behavior as we in the west expect.

She found that amongst the Arapesh both sexes were involved with caring and nurturing children and neither one of them was supposed to be aggressive. The Mundugamor both sexes behaved in what we would say were “masculine” behaviors and were violent, aggressive, and had little interest in children. The Tchambuli the men and women were different from one another but opposite to our western expectations. The women were the ones who controlled business interest and had the common sense whereas the men spent time decorating themselves and gossiping, had their feelings hurt easily, and were prone to sulking.

I think our gender roles have little, if anything, to do with our animal ancestry.


Feminism is a humanist philosophy. It’s a subset, for people who are working towards a specific part of that ideal.

If anyone is truly interested here

is a good place to read up on the basics of modern feminist theory.

This is the only comment you’ve made that triggers opposition in me–the idea that we have natural roles that make us happy. Because if you believe that, why wouldn’t you steer your daughter (and your son) into those roles? You might reply “well, I want to encourage my child to explore things that they seem to be innately interested in”, but I would certainly steer my (hypothetical) children towards those things that I thought most likely to make them happy, even if there was a chance that they were an exception.

For example, most people are happier with friends, but there are undeniably some true introverts who are happiest alone. Even knowing that, if I had a shy, retiring child, I would encourage them to develop friendships and spend time in the company of others. I would probably keep encouraging this for years and years before I became convinced they were a true introvert, and didn’t just not know what they were missing.

In the same way, if I genuinely believed that “most people are generally happiest when in these traditional roles (or, at least, our modern approximation of them)”, I would encourage my kids to develop an interest in those sort of gender-appropriate pursuits, even if they didn’t seem to have any native instinct to do so, because I would worry they just didn’t realize they were missing.

As far as the most extreme forms of feminism, I think that any such huge social change has to come from radicals, and that there have to be people willing to hold a hard line, just as there have to be people willing to compromise. In the 1970s, in some states “marital rape” was still a legal oxymoron. Pregnant teachers had to hide themselves from children. Women graduating at the top of their class in law school were being offered positions as legal secretaries. The fact that all of those seem barbaric and alien a mere generation later is the result of that fanaticism. So while my beliefs may be more moderate, I’m thankful they were there, and far be it from me to second guess what they should have said, done, or thought.