Wednesday, June 18, 2003

We Have Brains

In response to the following:

Labeling someone a feminist
June 17, 2003 12:12 PM

I'm in a young feminist bookclub and last night we were discussing No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle B. Freedman. She states that she uses the label of feminist, even for women who wouldn't themselves claim that label. Apparently, it was for easy reading/writing, so she doesn't call one woman a 'womanist', another a 'humanist', and yet another a 'radical feminist'.

So I ask you, is it fair to label someone a feminist if they don't claim it? Is it important to label others as feminists, even if they won't march with you at the Feminist Pride Parade? How do you feel when the woman next to you on the bus, in class, at work states, "Oh, I believe I should be paid as much as Dan, but I'm not a feminist!"

I've often lamented the label here in Blogland. My opinion has yet to change, but I feel the need to reiterate it today.

Labels are man-made constructs, terms wrought of our inherent fascination with taxonomy and our need to create some base form of understanding. As such, while labels may be helpful in classifying, organizing and making sense of the world around us, they are restrictive. They compartmentalize human beings in ways that suggest one over-arching human experience.

But there is no over-arching human experience. Nor is there one single female or feminist experience.

Applying dictionary-defined labels of "femaleness" or "feminism" does not make a thing female or feminist. There is no innate quality of femaleness or feminism in the word/label. Labels are, as I've said before, merely taxonomical. It is a Shakespeare noted: "That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet."

The label may be arbitrary, but it isn't powerless at all, for--as Michel Foucault noted--once a thing is brought into discourse (ie. once it is named), it may be controlled, diverted, called "deviant" by the group which has discursive control (usually the group in power--think Newspeak in 1984. See Foucault's The History of Sexuality for more on this). "Feminists" are not immune to this.

I have had my status as a "feminist" challenged on several occasions because my own beliefs diverged from the party line. I have been harassed, humiliated because they didn't fit the textbook definition. Labels--especially when applied to political beliefs--seek to codify. But I am living proof that it's not that easy.

With this in mind, I'd say that it is unfair to label someone as "feminist" or "anti-feminist" simply because their views seem, at first glance, to coincide with a definition. It must not be assumed that there is one type of feminist. Instead, it must be acknowledged that their are variant feminisms. And it is not up to one person or another to attempt to label them.

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