In Search of Feminism
By Elizabeth Kilgallin
Amanda Wager, Olivia Smith, and Bridget McGinley are each in their third year at Sweet Briar College, a women’s college of 800 students nestled in the in the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Each of these young women is politically aware and socially active. Each professes to be a feminist; none agree on what that means.
Feminism, as a movement addressing women’s rights, has a rich history which is often discussed in terms of its “waves.” Societal interest women’s rights began in the time of the enlightenment. 1792 saw a landmark event with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Demands for full legal equality with men arose at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, which featured historic women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Among the rights demanded for women were the rights of equal compensation and full educational opportunity. After the Seneca Falls Convention there was increased activity in what became the Woman Suffrage movement; some thought this long battle ended in the United Kingdom in 1918 when women gained the right to vote and in the United States in 1920 when that right was finally won. The battle, however, continued and is still being waged today.
After that first “wave” of feminism, a second wave arose in the 1960s and continued into the 1990’s, a period that witnessed the anti-war and civil rights movements. This wave was more radical. Martha Rampton, of Pacific University, has written that this wave was increasingly theoretical, based on a fusion of neo-Marxism and psycho-analytical theory, and began to associate the subjugation of women with broader critiques of patriarchy, capitalism, normative heterosexuality, and the woman’s role as wife and mother.” A third wave of feminism arose in the late 20th century. This wave fought against what was considered limited objectives of what they considered middle-class white feminists; these third wave feminists wanted to include equal rights for all people regardless of race, creed, economic or educational status, physical appearance or ability, or sexual preference among the goals of feminism. To confuse matters, today we also hear of “post-feminism,” a term used to describe a range of viewpoints. While not “anti-feminist”, post-feminists believe that women have achieved second wave goals while being critical of third wave feminist goals. The evolution of feminism thus continues. Today we have what some refer to as three types or categories of feminists: equity feminists, gender feminists, and third-wave feminists.
The first group, “equity feminists,” believes that there are differences between men and women, and fight for reform to remedy what they consider unequal treatment of women in society. They support issues like “equal pay for equal work.” These equity feminists are somewhat similar to the “first-wave” feminists who fought for woman’s suffrage and supported efforts to get women into the workforce. These feminists are generally more conservative in their application of feminism to society.
The second group, “gender feminists,” wants to eliminate all distinctions between men and women in all aspects of society. Gender feminists blame the oppression exerted by the modern patriarchal society for whatever differences exist between men and women. They believe that this patriarchal society is built on a structure that requires women to be less valuable than men. By ending patriarchy, they believe society can have total egalitarianism between the sexes. These feminists tend to align themselves with the second-wave feminists of the 1960s.
The third group represents the so-called “third-wave” feminists of today. These feminists are not as radical as the feminists of the 1960s women’s movement, but they are not as conservative as the equity feminists. They fight on behalf of liberal causes such as abortion on demand. As Amy Richards of feminist.com notes, these feminists believe that a feminist is someone who simply “believes in the full equality of women and men”. This group believes the goal of feminism is equality and, to Richards, that means both that women do what men have done (be fire fighters and corporate executives) and that men do what women have done (be stay-at-home fathers and secretaries).
To confuse matters even more, some feminists do not accept the above categories. They object to these terms and consider them expressions of anti-feminist rhetoric. Despite numerous efforts, it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify a single and fully satisfactory definition of feminism. This is largely due to the fact that people who consider themselves feminists disagree greatly in their philosophical and theological beliefs and the application of their feminist principles in actual life. As the Oxford Companion to Philosophy notes, “The strands of feminist thinking in relation to philosophy have been and continue to be diverse and do not necessarily present a unified point of view.” So where does this leave the Sweet Briar women? What is a feminist? Who is a feminist?
Amanda Wager is a Biology major at Sweet Briar College. While in high school she followed politics closely and generally supported candidates from the Democratic Party. Since arriving at Sweet Briar College, Wager has been active in the SBC College Democrats and was a fervent supporter of Barrack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. In a recent interview, Wager identified herself as a feminist and explained that the liberal platform and agenda of the National Democratic Party was aligned with her principles as a committed feminist. Wager took sincere offense to reports that the Republican presidential candidate “needed binders” of information to find a qualified female candidate for a cabinet position when he was governor of Massachusetts. She also firmly believed that the Republican Party represented an “affirmative threat to women’s rights in general and to reproductive rights in particular.”
Olivia Smith is a Government major at Sweet Briar College. While in high school she followed politics and generally supported Republican Party candidates. Since arriving at Sweet Briar College, Smith has been active in the SBC College Republicans and was an ardent supporter of Mitt Romney in the recent presidential election. In a recent interview, Smith identified herself as a feminist and explained that the conservative platform and agenda of the Republican Party was aligned with her principles as a committed feminist. Asked about feminism at Sweet Briar, Smith opined that while the student body was clearly in favor of women’s rights, some students who claimed to be feminists were “doing more to harm the cause than help it.”
Bridget McGinley, a Philosophy major at Sweet Briar College, related that despite many hours of reading and discussing the issues, she had undecided feelings during the recent presidential election. McGinley also considers herself a feminist. “That is why I am here. During my visit as a high school senior I was very impressed by the strength and vitality of the feminist presence at Sweet Briar. I don’t mean students were protesting or barricading themselves in buildings to demand things. Rather, I was impressed by opportunities for women to lead, by the encouragement given to students to excel, and by the high expectations the school had for its student body.”
It is clear that Sweet Briar College is home to diverse opinions on the nature and definition of feminism. The reason behind these strong and diverse opinions may well be Sweet Briar itself. The women who attend this small college have affirmatively chosen to attend a school of eight-hundred women. According to McGinley, “Sweet Briar is not a second choice school. Students don’t think, ‘If I don’t get into William and Mary I’ll go to Sweet Briar.’ It is a totally different experience that women choose for themselves. It offers women an experience they will not get elsewhere.” McGinley’s observations correctly note the historical background of women’s colleges, which were founded with a mission of education and advancement of women. The Women’s College Coalition, an association of 47 women’s colleges, reports that research has shown that when private 4-year women’s colleges were compared with all private 4-year institutions by their Carnegie classification, the women’s colleges awarded women equal or larger proportions of bachelor’s degrees in traditionally male-dominated fields (which include mathematics, computer sciences, and physical sciences) than co-educational private 4-year colleges did.
Regarding role models, the Coalition reports that women were over 70 percent of all executive, administrative, and managerial positions at women’s colleges and were over half of all full-time and part-time faculty, much higher percentages than the norm for private 4-year colleges within each Carnegie classification. These factors appear to have contributed to the successful accomplishment of women’s colleges. They have created a climate where, according to Wager, “women are taken seriously, where they are encouraged to realize their potential, and where academic expectations and demands are high.” It appears, to the students of Sweet Briar, that the mission of women’s colleges is being achieved. More importantly, it seems that in doing so, women’s colleges like Sweet Briar are contributing to the achievement of significant goals of the feminist movement.
The Sweet Briar women interviewed for this article share a common understanding that women did not always have such opportunities. Smith said, “few students in college today fully realize how far women have come in the area of education.” Women were once excluded from education. Myths prevailed about the danger of educational pursuits by women. A professor at the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Edward H. Clarke, in 1873 claimed that a woman’s body could only handle a limited number of developmental tasks at one time, and that girls who spent too much energy developing their minds during puberty would end up with undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems. He argued that “dire consequences — physical weakness, emotional breakdown, sterility, even death — awaited young women who put their intellectual pursuits before their unique physiological needs.” Others argued that educating women would encourage their independence, thereby presenting a risk to the institutions of marriage and the family. Given this cultural barrier to the education of women, it is not surprising that while Harvard was established in 1636, it was not until 200 years later that women were first allowed to attend college. Oberlin College was the first college to admit women; it became co-educational, in that they allowed women to attend. But attending college was not a panacea.
There is a great difference between just allowing a woman to attend college and creating a place where women are respected, have role models, and can learn and grow in a supportive environment with opportunities to lead and excel., The early co-educational schools did not recognize a woman’s right to pursue any academic field. They had no female faculty or female leadership. These colleges admitted women; they were no institutions where women would be treated equally. For example, Barbara Solomon, author of In the Company of Educated Women, notes that at Oberlin women were required to darn the socks of their male classmates. The Sweet Briar students interviewed understand that they attend a women’s college – one that is committed to preparing them to confront the challenges of an often male-dominated world. They embrace the school and its mission, yet they disagree mightily on which among them is a “true” feminist. How can a woman who believes that as a feminist she must fight for the very liberal planks of the Democratic platform find common ground with a woman who believes that as a feminist she must fight for the very conservative planks of the Republican platform? One must be wrong and one must be right. Right? Perhaps not. Regardless of political perspective, feminism is commonly understood as a philosophy or practice that supports the rights and interests of women. It seems, therefore, that feminism is, or should easily be, a unifying issue; that men and women who support the political, economic, and social equality of men and women are all feminists.
Sweet Briar’s Olivia Smith explained that her father, who she describes as “only slightly right of Genghis Khan on the political spectrum,” considers himself an almost militant feminist. Smith recounted her father’s declaration that: “Of course I’m a feminist. I pity the fool who tries to tell me my daughter she can’t do something or be something because she is a woman.” Is that all it takes? Need one only be a woman or someone who cares for a woman to be a feminist? Can Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, men, and women all be feminists?
Perhaps defining a feminist is like defining a Christian. All Christians recognize one Jesus Christ and dedicate themselves to actions in furtherance of their faith. Sounds like it should be simple for all Christians to agree on the definition of a Christian. However, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, there are nearly 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world. With this as a template, perhaps it is not unusual to experience such difficulty in agreeing to an all-encompassing definition of a feminist. Perhaps Sweet Briar’s Wager, Smith, and McGinley can together realize that they are all feminists.