Sunday, October 30, 2005

What is Feminism? (Libby)

I pressed a student recently for a concept she wanted to explore for a paper in Freshman Comp. She blithly replied, "Maybe, um, feminism??" The resulting questioning revealed that she really had no idea what she meant when she proposed it other than it had something to do with women and, given her gender, she felt a connection with the topic. All of this begs the question that we are still on the same page when we use the term feminism. Nancy F. Cott documents the history of the term in one of her books, The Grounding of Modern Feminism. It's a remarkable book and does an amazing job tracing the evolution of the American women's movement. Even with a relatively long history, by the 70's, the women's movement remained so "white" that women on the margin, lesbians, women of color, had to fight their way to that table. Only a little later did the women's movement become this contemporary feminism which embraces so much. So when this student, just two weeks ago, threw out "feminism," I was left with a dozen thoughts running through my head: Where would she begin? What would be her way in? Which feminism? And how did we stray so far that a quiet 20 year old wouldn't even know what it (or she) meant?

Much ruckus has been made over the need for a third wave of feminism. The position, held by a good number of Second Wave feminists, is often that women of the younger generation don't know enough about their own history to appreciate the gains made by women before them. By not appreciating those gains, they'll be readily handed back. I confess to some disappointment that this young woman didn't know more before college. We talked a while, and she and I whittled "feminism" down significantly. She's already turned in her paper and moved on. I'm still thinking about the vague connection she made and what it means if her understanding is typical...