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The New Feminisms and a Call for Multi-Gender Submissions

July 15, 2011

Each semester when we get to definitions—the power they can wield in certain hands—I ask the students in my critical thinking classes to respond to a list of words: gay, freedom, family, addiction, success, liberal, conservative, for example. What do the words mean to them, what do they mean in the media, what do the words mean when they are with their friends? Who uses these words and why?

         At some point I ask, “What about the word feminism? Is feminism a positive word, or is it negative?” The answers range surprisingly within sexes and classes. Many young women and men cart out clichés of sixties-era stridency, vociferous protestors, and aggressive underarm hair. Others see it neutrally, or even positively—modernly.

After a bit of back and forth, I give my class a pop quiz:

“Question 1: Who thinks women should be allowed in this classroom?”

“Question 2: Who thinks women should be allowed to wear jeans?”

“Question 3: Who thinks women should be allowed to vote?”

“Questions 4: Who thinks women should be allowed to drive, hold property, win the World Cup, be president…?”**

Inevitably, the room is a sea of hands, and I point out that anyone who even tested those waters is, in fact, a feminist, though some may object to this label. I tell them that, though much maligned in their worlds as it may be, feminism simply advocates equal opportunity and treatment of the sexes.

Students may disagree with this definition. You may disagree with it. And you wouldn’t be in strictly sexist territory either. Consider the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, saying in the New York Times Magazine she did not consider herself a feminist, even though she investigated legal claims with a female perspective and is a fundamental role model for women in the U.S. “I didn’t go march in the streets,” said O’Connor.

In O’Connor’s case, label and action did not coincide, but the actions were clearly supportive of women’s rights. Others may not identify themselves as feminists because of the same associations my students have—preconceptions of tactics exaggerated by certain factions. This is exactly backlash that proponents of gender equality have to battle. And “battle” is apt here because, while feminism has never advocated an Amazonian, exclusively women’s world, balancing out gender possibilities and realities is perceived by some as a full frontal assault, and the kind of propaganda usually reserved for warfare is used to attack it, tear it down, and ridicule it.

The relevance of healthy, accurate, gender-balancing role models and debates can’t be understated with three female presidential candidates in the two most current elections cycles—female candidates whose commitment to, strain of, or exploitation of feminism is spotlighted nationally. (Not to mention the myriad of other examples of powerful or popular women—from Tina Fey to J Lo—who represent, to the average girl in the United States, images of femaleness for better or worse.)

Expanding the practical definition of feminism beyond cliché and caricature and propelling it into the 21st century is an opportunity everyone should engage in. It is actively the work of groups like The Third Wave Foundation and other third-wave feminists—picking up from the second-wave women of the CivilRights Era, who carried the torch from the original, first-wave suffragettes. new form of feminism incorporates diverse voices andperspectivesgay, lesbian, and transgender, sexy feminists, and even, yes, men. What the new feminism is—or the new feminisms are—will depend on open public debate of gender equity that allows women and men to investigate institutionalized sexism, question quick media categorizations, and resist stereotyping gender roles in supportive, non-stereotyping settings.

Stereotypes are often thought of as overt—name-calling, hate crimes, racial profiling. But they are also unconscious. As another supreme court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, stated so eloquently just days ago—in her written decision that ruled ultimately on the narrow legal definition of class action, and not the question of a pervasive sexist atmosphere—”Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to the biases of which they are unaware.”

Only a fool would claim to be immune from similar self-sabotage. For the first year of my first son’s life, I stayed home while my wife worked. Although I was elated to have this bonding time, I occasionally felt like I was failing in my manly duties. Comparisons with other men in my family did not help, and I often found myself making them. The work-first culture of our society generally, and my family specifically, definitely got to me from time to time. The truth is, I was lucky to have that year, and being close to my son early let me lay a more solid foundation for my fatherly functions of the future.

It also made me sympathetic to what my wife is going through now and more nurturing in general. (And maybe it explains why my second son insists on calling both his mother and I “Mommy” right now. Especially if he wants to be fed or falls down, whichever “Mommy” he wants most—and it does switch—he holds out his toddler arms to and irresistibly asks for in the feminine familiar.)

For a few semesters, I stopped giving the quiz. I thought students were tired of me delivering my dusty, academic definitions from behind the security of the lectern. But recently, I reinstated it, and after that class and as late as the end of the semester, students were grateful for the opportunity to discuss and clarify such a shadowy term. The sadly default definition they have been presented by our limited media is still too restricted in a time of international female leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Argentina President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner are.

Compare those role models to (though it may seem like bad form to bring them up here) what partially forms the popular domestic label: the crass glamour of the economically elite Real Housewives, one member of which recently confided on television that she was not comfortable with a woman president and would not vote for one.

This is another depressing example of self-sabotage, the psychology for which no doubt stretches deep. And while this individual is extreme in her infamy, I doubt her outlook is: I can easily imagine the man who hears, in the repeated charge of “Mommy” directed at him, a threat to his manhood—a childish taunt at first that grows to a challenge that needs, deserves, to be answered.

The United States is extremely advanced when it comes to gender equity  in relation to many other parts of the globe. For a stark look at that disparity, I would point readers to the current , the details of which are too horrifying to seem real. But individuals in a free society such as ours need to continue to push the discussion of gender forward. dirtcakes invites readers, writers, thinkers and artists of both sexes and of every persuasion and lifestyle to engage in this debate in our third issue: Girls Will Be Women.

**I learned of this quiz years ago, long enough to forget exactly how. I believe Gloria Steinam created it and used it in schools and other settings when discussing feminism. If readers know more than I, please comment.

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