What is your definition of feminism and how is it relevant to young women today?
Scholars including Rosemary Radford Ruether and Sheila Briggs answered this question to begin an intergenerational dialogue and luncheon session at a gathering of WECSOR, the West coast division of AAR, on the Whittier College campus near Los Angeles on March 27, 2011.
“My mother and all her friends were feminists,” said Rosemary. “They went to college in 1915,” a time when first-wave feminism was close to winning suffrage for women. Thus Rosemary, born in 1936, inherited her passion for gender equality directly from that first wave.
“What is feminism? The affirmation of the full humanity of women,” she stated.
“Feminism is relevant today because all cultures presently existing have been shaped by patriarchy,” she continued, arguing that we must work cross-culturally. “Feminism must take many forms; we must not negate each other but accept our diversity, as articulated in many locations. We’ve only barely begun. Patriarchy is deeply entrenched and has ways of reasserting itself.”
In Pakistan, we see acid thrown on girls attending school; in the West, women are seduced to reflect and accept male power. We also observe the attempt to make feminist accomplishments seem ephemeral.
“Feminism has to be reinvented,” she concluded, “until each generation of girl children, born with the instinct of their full humanity, grows up affirmed.” We now live in a system that distorts both men and women.
“Is feminism still relevant? To ask this question reflects ignorance, as if the successes of a few privileged groups have somehow carried over to all.”
Karen Kidd, a historian at CSU Fullerton, explained the historical development of the word feminism, which entered English from French in about 1912.
“Cutting-edge American suffragists, convinced by that time that winning the vote was inevitable, saw the need for a new term to describe the wider agenda of gender-justice that the vote would enable us to pursue, and began to call themselves ‘feminists.’” After the vote was won in 1920, these women began to address a wide range of social problems rooted in patriarchal traditions, and the wider culture began to express its doubts about this new feminism.
Sheila Briggs, professor in both the School of Religion and the Gender Studies program at USC, described “how feminism defined me as a student in Yorkshire, England, in the 1970s.” At that time in Europe, feminism was a movement of the Left, associated with socialist and Marxist traditions, she explained.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” she recalled, quoting Wordsworth and remembering the first conference on feminist theology in 1975.
Tammy Schneiders, a Hebrew scholar at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Religion, contrasted feminist studies of the Hebrew Bible (“often sidelined”) and “masculinist studies,” which sometimes veer into bad scholarship.
Anne Eggebroten, a lecturer in women and religion at CSU Northridge, argued that feminism should not be so misunderstood and difficult to define; any dictionary gives a simple definition—“the principle that women should have political, economic, and social rights equal to those of men.”
She cited ten examples of the need for feminism today, ranging from the lack of a female US president and female Pope to the need for literacy and birth control to be
available to all women in the world.
A lively discussion among scholars of all ages followed the panel presentation. Subjects included the “matriarchal studies movement,” feminism and pop culture, Bitch magazine, and kids’ clothes.
Tammy Schneiders, mother of a pre-teen, described fashions for little girls as “Prostitutes R Us.”