Feminism: Is the word itself important?

A few months ago JOFA posted “The other F word”, a piece written by SAR High School’s English Department Chair, Simon Fleischer.  In his piece, Simon discusses his students’ reluctance to identify as feminists despite sharing the movement’s ideological concerns. Simon wrote: “Part of me believes that as long as they’re thinking about the issues, the rhetoric is moot. Let them call themselves whatever they want…so what if they’re stuck on the word?”

Simon isn’t alone with this.  In the past few months the question of “feminism”’s relevance has more frequently surfaced.  Even some notable feminists are arguing that “feminism” is not relevant or necessary to the movement’s goals.

In her widely-shared UN speech, Emma Watson proclaimed “And if you still hate the word — it is not the word that is important but the idea and the ambition behind it.” Judith Shulevitz shared a similar ambivalence towards “feminism” in the New Republic: “I’m sort of sick of the word ‘feminism.’ If I had my way, we’d replace it with something less gender-specific, like ‘caregiverism’.” 

At the same time that feminists have questioned “feminism”, pop stars like Taylor Swift and Beyonce have publicly, maybe bombastically, identified as feminists. Time Magazine’s proposal to ban the word is some frustrating but provocative evidence of the public’s perception of the word as overused and trite.  Dissatisfaction with “feminism” on part of feminists is nothing new. The question might really be why feminists return to it.  What need does “feminism” fulfill, and for whom? 

In the following interview Simon Fleischer discusses this issue as it relates to his experiences teaching high school students:

Ma’yan: Do you struggle with the question of the necessity of the word “feminism”?

SF: I am not struggling with the necessity of the word. I do struggle with the rightness of the word. For some, it suggests changes only in the role of women. Really, for me the goal is a rethinking of gender roles in general. Humanism was taken a few hundred years ago– but something like that might be more appropriate. Still, there’s a big difference between rethinking the word for theoretical reasons having to do with its accuracy, and rethinking the word for strategic reasons. The former feels right. The latter is borderline offensive. 

Ma’yan: What do you mean by Strategic reasons?  For political reasons?

SF: If we decide the word doesn’t accurately give voice to the values we are trying to promote, then we should change the word. That feels self-evident. But Feminism is an ethical question, a matter of right and wrong. The idea that we should have to think strategically about word choice so as not to offend anyone, given the rightness of the cause, offends me. That’s why it’s probably a good thing that I am not in charge of any major organizations. 

Ma’yan: How did you come to be a feminist?

SF: I grew up in a home in which gender roles were somewhat deemphasized-at least those having to do with domestic responsibilities. I have a clear memory in my head of my dad with a vacuum, and this was in the 70s, not the 90s. People assume being a male feminist requires a willingness to see the limitations imposed on women, but I think there’s actually a degree of selfishness that is quite natural to being a male feminist. Men are limited by traditional assumptions about gender too. The joy of full participation in parenting, the undoing of the restrictions imposed on emotional expressiveness– these are subjects men should embrace for selfish reasons. Being a male feminist need not be so selfless!

Ma’yan: Do you feel that the word accurately reflects your own beliefs?

SF: I don’t give the question much thought. The word was chosen, promoted, embraced by people fighting a good fight decades before I came into this picture. Changing the word is a significant move. There’s history here, and I wouldn’t be so quick to toss it out in response to some anxiety-ridden strategic concerns. 

Ma’yan: Is there a difference in male and female student reception of feminist ideas?

SF: In the school in which I teach, I am as likely to encounter openly feminist male students as I am female students. It doesn’t really break down by gender. The more striking phenomenon is how many students, whose lives have clearly been enriched by the feminist movement, who attend a school that could never have existed before the feminist movement– a school with female Talmud teachers teaching male students, for example–refuse to acknowledge that debt. So many of my students really think the feminist moment has passed. Problems have been solved. Stop complaining. Others assume feminists are, by definition, extremists who deny any differences between men and women. Others align the division of responsibilities in the home with biological differences– just as women breast feed, so too do they cook. These are the issues that emerge. 

Ma’yan:  Some might say that celebrities like Beyonce are normalizing feminism and becoming feminist role models for women and for girls.  Any thoughts on if this is a good thing for feminism?

SF: I am not a big pop-culture guy, beyond being occasionally horrified by the behavior of celebrities, and struck by how shallow and insipid so many of our public figures are. Do I think it’s a problem that some celebrities are role models? My knee jerk reaction is absolutely. So I try and teach my kids to separate the wheat from the chaff, to take in the music they like but not the negative values. This is a tough thing to do. Still, when I think about it more, I feel that when celebrities use the platform their celebrity affords them to promote positive values, I don’t think they should be punished or criticized for it. Honest efforts to elevate public discourse should be lauded, even if it feels like sometimes humility is lacking. 

Ma’yan: Do you have any answers for the question you posed a few months back: “So what if they’re stuck on the word?” Does it matter that young people identify with “feminism”?

SF: In my experience, when students express concern with the word, they aren’t really concerned with the word. Concern with the word indicates concern with the values. That being the case, I don’t think it’s a fight we can give up on. I push back– you might be concerned with the word. But truthfully you already are a feminist. I call their bluff.

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