What is a Feminist?

My  III/IV students are reading The Handmaid’s Tale (or, at least, they’re SUPPOSED to be reading it; Goddess only knows if they are).

The novel brings up a lot really interesting (and, depending on the group of kids and how they’re approached, sticky) discussion topics: religion and government, autonomy and freedom, the role of the sexes in society, fertility and who gets to control it.

Several of the critical articles I’ve read in preparation for teaching this book are of the opinion that, like good satire, Handmaid is less a cautionary tale than it is pure fantasy.  My favorite among them opens with a line something like “The English read it and say jolly good yarn.  Canadians read it and ask can it happen here?  Americans read it and say how long have we got?”  That author’s contention is that, despite what some of us may fear coming from the ultra-conservative Christian movement, the establishment of a Gilead-like society in the U.S. is essentially an impossibility.

While that may be so, the novel and the ideas it presents still offer a valuable starting point for a lot of critical inquiry in to our current society, and I have every intention, despite the inherent risks, of engaging my students in some questions that will likely cause them (and perhaps their parents) considerable consternation.

I plan to start off relatively slow.  I’ve already asked them what their impression of “feminism” is, and I got some of the usual answers (though no one ‘fessed up to thinking that feminists are angry, unshaven man-haters who love making a big deal out of nothing and who just need to lighten up and get laid, already): they identified feminists as people (and one boy said that men can be feminists – gender doesn’t matter) who are concerned with certain issues pertaining to equality and fairness.  When I asked them what that means – “equality and fairness” – I was answered with issues like equal pay for equal work and family issues; no one said anything about abortion, gender roles, domestic violence, or rape.

We’ll so get there…

That conversation got me thinking, though: I tend to include feminist as a characterization of myself, but that’s only because my definition of feminism was formulated around the bumper-sticker wisdom that says “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

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I tend to think of myself more as a humanist.  I am concerned with justice and equality for everyone and am not focused exclusively on one group.  I went to look up “feminist issues” as I was considering what kind of writing project I will ask of my students in this unit and discovered, here, that most of the things listed are things I consider human issues, not just feminist ones.

Putting a label on something – calling it a “gay issue” or a “feminist issue” – gives excuses to entire populations of people for not thinking the issue has anything to do with them.  If someone tells you that this or that is a “gay issue” then you, not being gay yourself, might feel that you don’t have to concern yourself with that problem.  Certain men (I suspect a great deal of them, but not many of the ones I associate with) stop listening after something is marked as a “feminist issue.”  Not being a woman – or not considering themselves feminist – gives certain men an excuse for disengaging.

I guess what I’m trying to do is figure a way that I can honor the idea of feminism while, at the same time, promoting the idea that any issue that concerns another human being – ANY other human being –  is worth looking into.  That I, personally, am not directly affected by domestic violence, for example (or by female genital mutilation in Africa, or by prenatal death rates in Afghanistan, or by the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda), doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be concerned with them, that I shouldn’t care enough to learn what I must and to do what I can.

I think of literature as a means for approaching the issues that affect us in our real world.  Taken one step further, I think that literature is a means of expression to others who DON’T share our experiences.  If I can get my kids (and myself) to think beyond our safe, comfortable little lives, I’ll consider myself to have done some good.



Filed under analysis, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, I love my job, lesson planning, Literature, out in the real world, self-analysis, Teaching

8 responses to “What is a Feminist?

  1. I also think that by saying that you are a “feminist” it tends to give the impression that those are the only values that you fight for and for only one set of people. It’s not true obviously but it has a limiting sound to it.

    • Success Warrior:

      I think it is what it is, a very liberating term that denotes not so much a radical approach, but one of independence. On my campus, sill men like to use the term “femnazi.” I hate this.

  2. Darci

    I love this topic. For my 8th graders I present a universal topic usually wrapped around the denial of a core human right, we then break into small groups and each is assigned a culture/gender/race. After they complete a Venn diagram graphic organizer and then present out to class. Final assessment is an essay on the concept and their thoughts.

  3. Beth

    I adore this book! Great idea for an assignment too!

    If you are interested in a movie that has a lot of ideas you can relate to the book watch Children of Men (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0206634/).

    • My husband and I JUST watched Children of Men last night, as a matter of fact. I’d bought it in a bargain bin a while ago and never watched it (I bought it on the strength of its reviews). I can see a lot of parallels in the book, but I was left disappointed with the film. I kept waiting for something that never happened…

      • Beth

        I know what you mean, the movie could have been more. One of the things I really liked about the movie was the more global view. Maybe if you help them really see what it would be like on that level they may engage more.

  4. I almost completely checked out as soon as I saw the word “feminist”… no, not true. I completely checked out.

    All of these “-isms” generally get co-opted by the rich elites, who use them to distract us from the way we’re ALL getting screwed, and get us to kick each other instead of getting together and collecting some heads. Tell me the last time a “feminist” organization got anything useful done on a national level, and I’ll show you a picture of me wearing the outfit I had on when it happened.

    Likely, that will either be me in a diaper, or at best me wearing a white suit with the sleeves pushed up, a pastel T-shirt, and sunglasses, in the Sonny Crockett style.

    • I think you’re reinforcing my point, Joe; it should be a whole lot less about compartmentalizing our shit and a whole lot more about getting together and getting shit done…

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