#BacktoBasics: What Is Feminism?

On my second date with my first every boyfriend, as we were driving back from a lake where we’d hopped a fence and sat on the beach looking at the stars, he turned to me and asked, “So, can you tell me more about this feminism thing?”

I honestly don’t remember what I said. It was something about seeking justice for women and working to combat gendered violence like rape and sexual abuse. I didn’t have a ready answer, and since – even then – I was still in my infancy of actually claiming the label for myself, I ended up fumbling around for words.

It’s easy, now, to try and boil feminism down into a simple definition – “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” But this platitude does little to capture the activist nature of the feminist project, does little to acknowledge the contexts of the patriarchy. Context, forever and always, is important.

Feminism is About Equality of Outcome as Well as Equality of Opportunity

 Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC’s prime time news and commentary program All In, writes in his debut book, Twilight of the Elites, that a system only guaranteeing equal of opportunity regardless of equality of outcome will end up with neither.

In other words, feminism believes that all peoples must have equal chances to succeed – the “level playing field” – and that these equal opportunities must lead to equal outcomes for both men and women. If it does not, the playing field is not truly level, and inequality will continue.

The feminism I practice believes that women not only should have access to the same degree programs and the same educational opportunities as men, but also should be paid equally for the same work, not judged on the basis of appearance or behavior in ways that men are not, and should have the ability to make life choices without it being ascribed to their gender.

My feminism also recognizes that women are far less likely to own property, that women are more likely to live below poverty level, and that such economic oppressions limit both equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. As a result, feminism needs to be about caring for the “least of these” in poverty just as much as we care about the fact that a rich white woman was fired from her job for being “bossy."

Feminism is About Economic, Racial, Gender, and All Other Forms of Justice

Christian Feminism, in particular, exists to bring about a more just world, to call for justice in any way we can. When a black woman in Florida is sentenced to years in prison for firing a warning shot into the ceiling to scare off an abusive husband, feminism calls for justice. When a trans woman is attacked on the streets of Minneapolis and then sentenced to a men’s prison for killing her attacker in self-defense, feminism calls for justice.

Justice, famously, is blind – in theory. In practice, feminism notices that Lady Justice seems to take race and gender presentation into account. Inequality extends to the court system, putting rape victims on trial for their sexual histories, punishing people of color more harshly for the same crimes, and robbing the impoverished of access to a quality appeals process. Therefore, feminism radically opposes simply staying with the status quo's definition of justice - instead, it seeks to rectify all injustices, regardless of who the victim is.

Feminism Recognizes and Honors the Lived Experiences of the Oppressed

Feminism, in its most important iteration, recognizes that the voices of the oppressed, rising up in victory, are some of the most powerful tools we have in the fight for justice. Feminism believes survivors; feminism honors individual stories; feminism recognizes the complicated nature of and different sociological pressures affecting individual decisions. Feminism recognizes that those who are closest to the experience of oppression are the most well-placed to speak to its effects. Feminism wonders about the representation of stories, is forever aware of the history of various actions, and takes steps to avoid the oppressions of the past. Feminism does this by listening to the marginalized.

Feminism doesn’t care if you wear high heels or bright red lipstick or a bra. Feminism cares about your praxis – the ways in which you work for justice throughout your life, the ways in which you recognize the humanity of others, and the ways in which you allow yourself to take in and empathize with those stories.

Feminism says to the suffering: speak, for you are not alone.

This is my basic view of feminism – an ideology which prizes justice, values the voices of the marginalized, and seeks for more equality in response to historical and current oppressive systems.

My feminism is heavily influenced by my position in Christianity – a desire for a Jesus who understands suffering, listens to those who suffer, and offers hope for the future. Your feminism may come from a different angle – you may have developed it in spite of your religion, or because of it; you may come at this from an entirely irreligious angle. What matters is that we are all working together to bring about a more just society, one that reflects equality on all levels and for all peoples, one in which we can speak and be heard.