A 21st Century Feminist Praxis
I am a woman. I am a sister, a granddaughter, a friend and a best friend, a classmate, a leader, and a woman.
But we women have a problem of inclusion. Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex that women rarely talk about women as we, as if there is some fear of claiming unity. I notice this tendency in myself all the time; if I see a quality in another woman that I don’t like, I quickly categorize her as being a certain type of woman that I am not. I watch The Bachelor and lament that the sort of woman who goes on that show––the sort who competes for a man’s hand in marriage––is ruining all hope of tearing down the patriarchal walls that surround us, antagonizing them as impediments to gender equality. But what I have begun to envision is a feminism that embraces the we, that values all expressions of womanhood rather than isolating those who don’t hold the same tools of feminism that I do. I have started to believe that the strength of feminism lies in an appreciation of all variations of being a woman, from the armpit-hair growers to the high-heel wearers (I am not trying to depict some sort of absolute scale here, but rather provide different examples of ways in which women might express themselves).
Feminism, to me, is about being empowered as the woman you are, and not apologizing for that for a minute or a second or a microsecond of your day.
Feminism, to me, is about being empowered as the woman you are, and not apologizing for that for a minute or a second or a microsecond of your day. Our world was crafted in a patriarchal fashion––it was never intended to be a place for us to feel equally important or valued or worthy of taking up space as are men. The ultimate tool with which to dismantle that order must be our own confidence in who we are; if men and society (and religion, and capitalism, and a lot of other things) are the hammers and nails that enclosed us in this asymmetric system, then our sense of empowerment and self-worth are our bulldozers and sledgehammers with which we will take it down.
A striking example of how women might find meaning in all sorts of places lies in how women practice Orthodox Judaism, an observant denomination that is often perceived as reinforcing gender stereotypes and perpetuating women’s oppression. There are many ways of practicing Orthodox Judaism, including dressing modestly, refraining from reading Torah in synagogue services, and performing a set of mitzvot, or commandments, that often take place in a traditionally domestic realm. Yet many Orthodox women take pride in these duties as important ways in which they express their identities as women. They do not feel oppressed by their covered collarbones or shackled as they bake the challah for Shabbat; what some women perceive as a tool of the patriarchy, others utilize as a tool of their own feminism.
Maybe the power of feminism is found within our own unique cultures, identities, and our sometimes-divergent modes of expression. Maybe we don’t need to define what a feminist looks like, because there is no single archetype.
Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen-name bell hooks, writes beautifully about the importance of theory in Theory as Liberatory Practice. She writes about theory as a sort of refuge she sought as a child trying to make sense of her world. Yet, she notes, theory is not sufficient to make a change. The mere possession of a term, she explains, does not put it into practice; at the same time, we might be practicing a theory without even being cognizant of what that theory is. Therefore, she writes, we can do the work of the feminist resistance without ever using the word feminism. What if that is our best defense against the current gendered order within which we live? What if our best way to fight the feminist fight is by being ourselves and loving ourselves, living as we are and cherishing all types of womanhood? Maybe the power of feminism is found within our own unique cultures, identities, and our sometimes-divergent modes of expression. Maybe we don’t need to define what a feminist looks like, because there is no single archetype.
Now, it would be false to claim that even the most empowered of women have total agency over their choices. I might feel comfortable and proud of my decision to wear heels, but that decision is still rooted in a traditional desire to please the eye of the patriarchy. There are very few choices, if any, that we women can make that will truly be the result of our own volition, rather than some societal force. However, I believe that rather than eliminating these manifestations of our gendered world, we should accept the choices of those who wish to embrace them. We cannot, unfortunately, shed all elements of patriarchy from our society, but those who choose can reclaim those elements as instruments of their own feminism. In addition, by embracing all types of women, we avoid the risk of excluding women who are often marginalized by mainstream feminism, particularly women of color, women outside of North America and Western Europe, indigenous women, and many, many other groups that are not properly represented in popular discourse about women.
We cannot, unfortunately, erase all elements of patriarchy from our society, but those who wish to can reclaim those elements as instruments of their own feminism.
This practice of feminism, the practice of seeing all expressions of womanhood as legitimate and as mechanisms with which we can achieve gender parity, is imperfect. I do not mean to suggest that it is a flawless solution to the problem of gender inequality. I do, however, believe that this practice is an important approach to consider as we look at the society in front of us and seek to devise a future in which all women are treated equally in the law, in the household, in the workplace, and in the morality of all those who share this world.
We women do not express ourselves in the same ways, nor do we express ourselves in ways that are always compatible, but nonetheless, we are all women. I believe that we must embrace all modes of empowerment as equally valid and important components of our feminist fight. By doing so, we bring ourselves closer to the world we so need and deserve.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review or its editors.