Feminism: What’s woman got to do with it? | By Adriana Onita

From October 22-26, The Wanderer Online is participating in the “Who Needs Feminism?” Call to Action Week, which you can read more about here. Throughout the week, we’ll be posting 2-4 articles per day where writers answer the question “I need feminism because…” If you’re interested in writing something, please send us your piece at wnfualberta@gmail.com.

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Feminism. The F Word. A word that is still sometimes seen in our society as radical, uncomfortable, and even unnecessary. The rise of Feminism in the 1960s in America has attempted to radically change the way we think about the relationships between words and worlds, by blurring the boundaries between personal and political, enabling us to critically “rethink and remake our own worlds” (Robbins qtd. in Wolfreys, 55) and moving beyond patriarchical programming and traditional models of the representation of women. But because there are still many popular misconceptions about feminism and because “it is not a unified theory with a single corpus of work” (49), feminism is still a white-hot topic in the 21st century. Gilles Deleuze (1986) pointed out, in relation to the origin of feminism, that “the events which lead up to 1968 were like the rehearsal of the three questions – “What can I do, What can I know, What am I” (115). Only in light of the third question can we begin to answer the question of this campaign (Who needs feminism?) and aspire for a world in which feminism has ‘accomplished’ its main goals and is not needed anymore.

The link between personal and political is at the heart of feminism. In its commitment to “uncover and change structural inequalities…and oppression” (Wolfreys 51), feminism has much in common with psychoanalysis, black theories, postcolonial theories and queer theories. However, recently, scholars such as Judith Butler have revised what it even means to be a woman, suggesting that sex and gender are two separate things, that the latter is culturally constructed, and that sexual identity is a performance. Theories such as Butler’s “have produced quite hostile responses… because it appears to undo some of the earlier political assumptions about women as a group who are oppressed because they are women” (Wolfreys 54). So what does ‘woman’ have to do with feminism anyway?

The chief problem facing feminism is to re-define what it means to be a woman without falling into binary oppositions, tautologies, and linear ways of thinking. However, one of these oppositions is the construction of sex/gender binary, which may lead to its own reductionism. Judith Butler tackles the essentialist philosophy by making a distinction between sex and gender: “whatever biological intractability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed: hence gender is neither the causal result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex…” (Butler 6). She also notes that “[t]here is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; … identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” (25). In other words, feminists such as Butler have used a binary opposition, to, as Hans Bertrens smartly puts it, “politicize gender – by showing its constructed nature – and put it firmly on the agenda of the later twentieth century”(77).

This leads to a very crucial discussion question that must be addressed in this campaign: what’s woman got to do with feminism? Judith Butler and other scholars destabilize the notion of gender, of being a “woman”. However, to what extent does the necessary but exclusionary practice of categorizing “women” aid/hinder the political agency of feminism overall? Is not such a reification contrary to the activist goals of feminism (and this campaign), reinforcing traditional gender relations in the context of a heterosexual model? How could we perhaps make space to “rethink and remake” words for a new world, where one would not “need” feminism anymore?

Works Cited

Bertens, Hans. The Basics Literary Theory. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Wolfreys, Julian. Literary Theories A Reader and Guide. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Adriana Onita
BA Hon Romance Languages (2012)
MA Spanish and Latin American Studies (2014)

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  • This is a great article, Adrianna. The final paragraph asks some excellent questions that deserve careful thought by all of us!

    I hope that you write more articles – I look forward to reading them!

    – Neekoo