Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Feminist Fears: An Analysis of Feminist Theory and Activism

Jessica Mason McFadden
Feminist Theory 455
Dr. West - WIU
December 2005

Realistic Solutions to Feminist Fears
A Personal-Political Analysis of Theory and Activism

Simultaneous Evolutions and Activist Animosity

My feminist evolution began at sixteen, when I first acknowledged, adored, and adopted feminism as an affirmative name, lifestyle, identity, and movement. At that time, being a feminist was easy—I incorporated feminism into my academic and community activities. I was afforded opportunities because I was a junior in high school from a middle-class family, and I created opportunities because I was a lonely lesbian from a Catholic household. When I entered college and my concept of feminism was simple, I believed that time would carry me through the stages of feminism, but as I encountered new perspectives, I learned that, like life, feminism is complex and challenging.

I have been asked a popular introductory question—what is feminism?—in Women’s Studies courses a few times, and each time, I have accumulated a list of descriptions, concluding that feminism is a personal and political term that is different for each individual. Not only is it challenging to define feminism because it accounts for a range of beliefs and behaviors, it is also challenging to develop a comfort for feminism. So much of feminism is located in the practice of women telling their stories (and other forms of theory) that a comfort zone develops that often hinders other aspects of feminism.

Feminist activisms are, in part, stories that women tell and theories they propose, but they are also marches, campaigns, sit-ins, group meetings, poetry readings, interventions, proposals, lectures, protests, boycotts, and paid and unpaid commitments that feminists make to enhance and empower women’s lives. Having a belief is different than sharing that belief with others, which is different than writing about that belief, which is different than making a plan and taking action to achieve specific goals. While all of the facets of feminism are connected and they are all important to the movement, achieving a balance among various feminist behaviors is often intimidating.

Activism is central to feminism, and it is both simple and complex. Activism may refer to the informal or formal actions that feminists take on the behalf of women. There can be no feminism without action—feminism is action. From its beginnings, feminism developed as actions taken by women who recognized inequalities and demanded more, writing stories, sending letters, holding secret meetings, running from forced marriages, and signing petitions. Women’s actions from before the 17th Century through today have shaped the history and evolution of feminism.

Women’s history is central to feminism, because so many women’s actions relate to the feminist struggles and goals. Women’s history has shaped feminism, but feminism was not a contemporary term throughout women’s history. Whether or not women identify as feminists, women’s actions are women’s history, and therefore, influence feminism (De Hart and Kerber 21). Formal activism is an extension of informal activism, as it is organized, goal-oriented, and recognized as distinctly personal and political. Activism is the thing that drives social change, but the change exists on many levels and is not always clearly identifiable (Baumgardner and Richards 283). By analyzing feminist stories, theories, and other resources, I will consider from a personal-political point of view some of the challenges in broadly implementing activism through a translation of theory into activism and by identifying activist strategies.

Activism, Reasonable Fears, and Self-Centeredness

Often, feminists who wish to take personal-political actions in their local and national communities lack the advice and preparation necessary to proceed with confidence. Feminists who are physically isolated lack access to skills, tools, information, role models, and opportunities to take action, but even feminists who are not physically isolated may suffer from a debilitating sense of isolation that diminishes their confidence and drive to take action. This psychological isolation may result from low self-esteem, anti-social personality, or a desire for sameness, depending on the experiences and temperament of an individual. Both physical and psychological isolations of feminists need to be acknowledged and considered in order to overcome some of the major barriers that prevent feminists from valuing their actions and participating in activism. One way that the feminist community might address barriers against activism is to prepare feminists for activism by developing courses in feminist activism and making such courses requirements in Women’s Studies departments.

Feminists who desire to engage in activism need preparation, both personal and political. This cannot be achieved for men and women who do not have access to resources, so it is important that privileged feminists communicate with those around them and those who are distant, offering advice, resources and opportunities for discussion. Feminists may find this request intimidating or stressful, as I have in the past, but reaching out is a great way to exchange support and create opportunities. Reaching out isn’t easy, though; it may require that feminists step out of their comfort zones.

Lisa Maria Hogeland discusses the intellectual and activist work that is part of feminism in her article, “Fear of Feminism: Why Young Women get the Willies.” In the article, Hogeland explores the logical reasons that young women have to fear feminism. Even as I identify as a feminist and find pleasure doing so, I feel the fear of feminism at times. The fear of feminism is rational: it is the fear of reading, talking, thinking, and acting (Hogeland 21). Feminism is also challenging because it “requires an expansion of the self—an expansion of empathy, interest, intelligence, and responsibility across differences, histories, cultures, ethnicities, sexual identities, othernesses” (21). These challenges are intimidating, but there are ways of working through the fear.

Methods of preparation offer opportunities for feminists to move through their fears. Some forms of preparation are very personal (for example, efforts to embrace self-centeredness). Feminists who make efforts to understand their feelings and trust their instincts are better able to move through their fears into action. Developing a sense of personal selfhood which values autonomy enables feminists to stay connected to their selfhood even when they must take on work that does not involve personal relationships (Hogeland 21). There are ways for feminists to accept the discomforts of feminism, but giving value to and being self-centered is the root from which all branches of preparation grow. I suggest that feminists prepare for action by studying feminist writing, reading theory, engaging in self-reflection, communicating with others, taking care of their bodies and emotional well-being, prioritizing, and networking. If feminists focus on these elements, while also making efforts to listen and practice sensitivity, they will be prepared to understand and engage in activism.

An Ambiguous Translation: The Action of Theorizing and the Theory of Acting

Translating theory into activism is a personal-political process that differs from person to person, depending on issues that are important to an individual. Many concerns and interests that I have are central to my identity as a feminist and my relationship with feminism. I am particularly interested in education, social location, gender and the custodial state, motherhood across cultures, religious doctrine and oppression, gender roles, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and parenting, sexuality, and lesbianism. I have read feminist theories that address issues that are important to me, and still have had trouble bringing those theories to life through personal-political actions. The difficulty lies in identifying what, if any, actions theorists suggest in their writing and then incorporating those actions into my life.

Feminist activism defines action broadly, and that indefiniteness makes activism easy to avoid or dismiss. Theorizing is one form of feminist activism. Because theorizing is activism and theory is a place where people look for directives for activism, readers may feel confused as to how they should engage in activism.

Like readers, theorists are affected by the multiple meanings of activism. Theorists contribute to the detachment between theory and activism when they do not spell out steps to acting out what their theories propose. Theorists may suggest actions, but not in a way that is easily identified by readers. This barrier between theory and activism affects the translation of theory into activism. To remedy the problem, I propose that theorists write about activism and include suggestions for activism that are clearly labeled. I also propose that readers spend more time dissecting theories, specifically giving attention to opportunities for action and discussing action whenever discussing theory.

In Feminist Theory 455, we participated in the translation of theory into action, reading and discussing various theories. At the end of our discussions, we often expressed frustration over being stumped as to what we should do (or how we should follow up on the theories). We were able to approach the readings and discussions with confidence, but we were unsure when it came to the final piece—action. In retrospect, I believe that if we identified opportunities for action while we read the theories, we would have been better prepared to discuss the possibilities and problems of activism.

Theories about theory and activism are a great place for feminists to prepare for and take action. Charlotte Bunch helps to organize and explain the relationship between theory and action in her essay, “Not by Degrees: Feminist Theory and Education.” Bunch’s “Model For Theory” is divided into four components: description, analysis, vision, and strategy. If applied to my experiences in Feminist Theory 455, when we read in preparation for class and discussed theories in class we were engaging in the first and second parts of Bunch’s model, describing what exists and analyzing why it exists (Bunch 14). We also developed visions for what we want to exist during our discussions, but because of time constraints we were not able to make lists of established principles or set goals. If the goal of the course was to explore not only theory, but the relationship between theory and action, or if the course were a feminist activism course, we would have explored Bunch’s fourth element: the struggle to form strategies to change what is and to achieve what should be (Bunch 14). Bunch suggests that developing a strategy requires that feminists make judgments, consider questions, and examine tools for change (14). Bunch’s proposed model is a tool that feminists should have because it guides them through theory, leaving them prepared to enter activism with strategies.

Another theorist who explores the question of what feminist theory is and the way it relates to action is bell hooks. In her essay, “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” hooks identifies theory as a location for healing by describing her experiences as a child without a sense of home or love (hooks 37). Hooks suggests that theory as healing may be translated into action, and I suggest that one possibility for action is to share and distribute theory with those who are suffering so that they may be empowered by having the resources to understand their suffering.

Just as Bunch translated theory into action in her essay, “Not by Degrees: Feminist Theory and Education,” I have translated bell hooks’ theory about theory into an opportunity for action. Bell hooks also translates her theory into action when she claims that anger toward theory destabilizes the feminist struggle against oppression, suggesting that instead of complaining, feminists work to make known the importance of theory to feminist movements (hooks 41). In Feminist Theory 455, we discussed hooks’ suggestions and devised a possible action to be made that might help achieve her goals of making theory.

In order to move beyond the critical phase, we agreed that feminists could be actively inclusive and progressive by trying to maintain positive attitudes when confronted with struggles, seeking opportunities to makes things work or to change things instead of complaining and giving up. Upon examining my own and others analyses of bell hooks’ theory I conclude that various translations of theory into action may exist simultaneously. Translations directly or indirectly made by theorists, translations made by individuals while reading theory, and translations made by groups after reading theory are all examples of theory translations into activism.

The Ripple of Life: Identifying Activism and Finding Opportunities for Action
Contemporary feminist writers in the United States are responding to the need for guidance that feminists have when it comes to activism. To assist feminists in developing a willingness to approach activism, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards have written Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. Keeping with the idea that activism is personal-political, Baumgardner and Richards write about their experiences with activism and what it has meant to them personally. According to Amy Richards, activism is a simple engagement that comes naturally to people, especially children (as she describes a sense of possibility that was instinctive in her) (267). Although Richards’ experience with activism is personal, key components in Amy’s experiences as an activist can be summarized in steps: discovering and identifying desires, making goals based on those desires, identifying personal strengths and talents, pairing those strengths with specific goals, working to achieve goals, and achieving an outcome in response to the work.

Richards’ personal account of her participation in Freedom Summer ’92, a project with the goal of registering one million voters in fifty states, is both welcoming and intimidating to feminists. The momentous goal and formal organization of the project may intimidate feminists who aren’t interested in traveling across the country for their activism. Fortunately, Richards explains that her personality has influenced her decision to become an activist. Richards is a highly motivated individual who is also a great communicator, so it makes sense that she wants to interact with people. There are opportunities for activism, however, that do not require feminists to travel or go door-to-door, and Richards emphasizes this. She recommends refining your strategies along the way because it will help to ease some of the stress that you may feel when you discover that parts of your original plan are unrealistic (Baumgardner and Richards 269). She also explains that listening is an important part of activism because it provides feminists with new connections, ideas, and resources (Baumgardner and Richards 270). Baumgardner and Richards emphasize the importance of individuals and communities in activism. They describe activism as the practice of “autokeonony:” a link between self and community that creates balance (280).

While Baumgardner and Richards create a balance of formal and informal guidance for activists in Manifesta, Barbara Findlen weaves together informal guidance for activists in her compilation of feminist stories. Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation is informal because it consists of essays written by a multitude of writers from different social locations, ethnicities, classes, and sexualities. It provides feminist readers with many opportunities to relate to one of the stories. One writer, Lisa Bowleg, introduces her experience with activism in “Better in the Bahamas? Not if you’re a Feminist,” by referring to bell hooks. Bowleg was inspired by hooks’ call for a “door-to-door movement to educate people about feminism” to speak out to her family and friends, initiating a dialogue about feminism and her life as a feminist (qtd. by Bowleg 245). Bowleg’s narrative might be appealing to feminists who are looking for informal activist opportunities. Although Bowleg didn’t go door to door, she engaged in activism by talking to family and friends. It is important that feminists have access to a range of resources, so that they may choose what to respond to and who to relate to.

Resources are available, but they are not always available for the people who need them the most. I hope that distributing information and making contact information available to as many people as possible will be a goal for feminist activists in every community throughout the country, as well as internationally. Even though challenges continue to keep many people from feminism, the fear that feminists feel toward activism is being combated with welcoming opportunities that are available in guides, pamphlets, books, and on the internet.

Writing this paper and thinking about the many facets of feminist activism has helped me to face some of my own fears. In the future, when I am involved in a feminist activity or discussion of theory, I will try to implement some of the strategies that various theorists have proposed, particularly bell hooks and Charlotte Bunch. Theory and activism are aspects of my identity because they are central to feminism. They are distinct yet they also interact, which attests to the complexity and spaciousness of feminism.

Works Cited

Baumgardner, Jennifer, and Amy Richards. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Bowleg, Lisa. “Better in the Bahamas? Not if You’re a Feminist.” Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. 2nd Ed. Ed Barbara Findlen. California: Seal Press, 2001.

Bunch, Charlotte. “Not by Degrees: Feminist Theory and Education.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. 2nd ed. Eds. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

De Hart, Jane Sherron, and Linda K. Kerber. “Gender and the New Women’s History.” Introduction. Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. 6th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.

Hogeland, Lisa Maria. “Fear of Feminism: Why Young Women get the Willies.” Ms. New York: Henry Holt, Nov. 1994: 18-21.

Hooks, bell. “Theory as Liberatory Practice.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. 2nd Ed. Eds. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

No comments: