What is feminism?

Camille Paglia has a new essay in Arion (pdf) on the history and significance of feminism. Her article offers a close examination of the feminist movement in order to assess its relevance today. Near the start of the article, she asks:
What precisely is feminism? Is it a theory, an ideology, or a praxis (that is, a program for action)? Is feminism perhaps so Western in its premises that it cannot be exported to other cultures without distorting them? When we find feminism in medieval or Renaissance writers, are we exporting modern ideas backwards? Who is or is not a feminist, and who defines it? Who confers legitimacy or authenticity? Must a feminist be a member of a group or conform to a dominant ideology or its subsets? Who declares, and on what authority, what is or is not permissible to think or say about gender issues? And is feminism intrinsically a movement of the left, or can there be a feminism based on conservative or religious principles?
Paglia’s historical account ranges from pop culture to social theory to sports to grassroots activism. I highly recommend reading the entire piece. It’s long, but illuminating. She concludes with some thoughts on the future of feminism as well as some interesting proposals for the reformation and renewal of the movement:
One thing is clear: the feminism of the future will be created by women who are young now. The doctrinal disputes and turf wars of the older generation (including me) must be set aside. I reject the term “postfeminism,” which became a glib media tag line in the ’90s and is often attached to me. There is no such animal. Feminism lives but goes through cycles of turmoil and retreat. At present, there is no one leading issue that can galvanize women across a broad spectrum. Feminism certainly has an obligation to protest and, if possible, to correct concrete abuses of women and children in Third World nations. But feminism might look very different in more traditional or religious societies, where motherhood and family are still valorized and where the independent career woman is less typical or admired.

In conclusion, my proposals for reform are as follows. First of all, science must be made a fundamental component of all women’s or gender studies programs. Second, every such program must be assessed by qualified faculty (not administrators or politicians) for ideological bias. The writings of conservative opponents of feminism, as well as of dissident feminists, must be included. Without such diversity, students are getting indoctrination, not education. Certainly among current dissident points of view is the abstinence movement, as an evangelical Protestant phenomenon and also as an argument set forth in Wendy Shalit’s first book, A Return to Modesty, which created a storm when it was published nine years ago but whose influence can be detected in today’s campus chastity clubs, including here at Harvard. As a veteran of pro-sex feminism who still endorses pornography and prostitution, I say more power to all these chaste young women who are defending their individuality and defying groupthink and social convention. That is true feminism!

My final recommendation for reform is a massive rollback of the paternalistic system of grievance committees and other meddlesome bureaucratic contrivances which have turned American college campuses into womblike customer-service resorts. The feminists of my baby-boom generation fought to tear down the intrusive in loco parentis rules that insultingly confined women in their dormitories at night. College administrators and academic committees have no competence whatever to investigate crimes, including sexual assault. If an offense has been committed, it should be reported to the police, so that the civil liberties of both the accuser and the accused can be protected. This is not to absolve young men from their duty to behave honorably. Hooliganism cannot be tolerated. But we must stop seeing everything in life through the narrow lens of gender. If women expect equal treatment in society, they must stop asking for infantilizing special protections. With freedom comes personal responsibility.
For another take on feminism today, see the new article in The Atlantic on working mothers.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for passing this along David. I found it refreshing.