(This post was originally posted here. )
Feminism. As a career development and higher education professional, the word comes up often as students explore their life directions.Though it was over a decade ago, I still remember when I first shared the word with my family. My grandmother’s response was something to the effect of, “Yeah, that’s really just a term wealthy people use to describe something I’ve had no choice about for years.” Wow. That was a sock at the time to my “very enlightened,” undergraduate gut.
As the first woman in my family to go to college, I arrogantly could not understand that my new, emerging way of thinking came off as dismissive to their years of wisdom.For me, feminism felt like an answer. An answer to the deep murmurings I had felt my whole life. It was almost therapeutic. However with more time, I was able to see that there were parts of my cultural and socioeconomic experience to which it did not so directly speak.
As a white woman with Latina heritage, from a rural, lower economic environment, much of my cultural and socioeconomic identity was not based on what many of my mentors heralded as a liberated independence; but rather, on a familial, interdependence and endurance. Finding out where I “fit” in the feminist story took time.
Feminist theory is rooted in the experience of women; largely focused on historical oppression and liberation from restrictive structures of power. It only makes sense then, that if the voices who are discussing this topic are influenced from a largely white, majority culture perspective, this provides only one lens through which to glimpse.
Higher education is a context in which we have the freedom to draw conclusions through thorough synthesis of ideas from one discipline to the next. In this way, the most powerful feminism higher education professionals can offer students is one informed by many voices including those influenced by sociology, psychology, theology, and more.
Judith Plaskow, a personal favorite feminist theologian, explores the concept of finding solidarity in feminism through community in her article, “The Coming of Lilith.” She writes, “It is a place where women can… begin to understand and thus, begin to overcome their common oppression.” In essence, community is were true feminism can take place. In later versions of her writings, she acknowledges the lack of representation of other kinds of diversity within her writings and thus, the importance of diverse backgrounds.
I am certainly not the first to think of this. For years, women have explored this concept including Patricia Hill Collins, Alice Walker, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sloan – Hunter, Bell Hooks, and now a contemporary author, Christina Cleveland to name just a few.
When I began exploring the opinions of friends from various class and racial backgrounds, I was quickly able to see that I was not alone in this assessment. “Feminism is something white women do in their spare time,” a statement made by a friend. Again, a sock to my proverbial gut. Sometimes those from a majority culture lens may be tempted to dismiss comments which do not reflect their experience. But to not listen runs so counter to what feminism (whatever the form) should be teaching all of us to begin with. “What narratives are not being heard? What narratives are being choked out by power systems which only validate a privileged experience?”
As feminism makes its way outside of the doors of higher ed and into every day conversations, it is important that the ongoing narrative continues to capture this power of community and what feminism can be through this light.
As higher education professionals, the way we embrace our feminism must reflect the many experiences represented in our body of colleagues and students. If we are not having honest conversations together, our students won’t either. If our feminism is only white, our students of color will not see themselves in it. If our feminism is rich, our students who are without resources will not see themselves in it. We must all do a better job of intertwining our feminist experience outside of our socioeconomic and cultural lens.
“To be honest, while I consider myself a feminist in theory, I do not have the luxury of openly acknowledging this” said one friend. “As a woman of color, it’s not that I’m not interested in feminism, it’s that I have so many other social ills with which my heart and mind are consumed.”
We must recognize that feminism is broad, and wide and deep. It has a long history muddied with class, race, and power. There is room at the table for many, varied experiences. It does not need anyone to “defend” its honor. In fact, we are creating a malnourished feminist experience if we do not allow it to be informed by the wide variety of backgrounds women bring.
Keep in mind, one’s background will not only inform what she believes feminism is, but the goals and purposes it serves in her own life. Listening is key. Listening is one of the most feminist things we can do. And that’s turning the dominant narrative of power and leadership on its head. Which is what we’ve all wanted all along.
Plaskow, J., & Berman, D. (2005). The coming of Lilith: Essays on feminism, Judaism, and sexual ethics, 1972-2003. Boston: Beacon Press.
Christ, C. (1992). Womanspirit rising: A feminist reader in religion (2nd ed.). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Collins, P. (2000). Black feminist thought knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (Rev. 10th anniversary ed.). New York: Routledge.