When Aley Schiessl, a freshman majoring in English literature and writing for new media, was asked if she identified as a feminist, Schiessl responded without hesitation: “I do.”
Schiessl is able to wear the label as a feminist, but she thinks the movement still has a long way to go.
“I’ve always been about female empowerment, and I think that we as women have come a very far way, but there’s a lot of work we can still do, not just for people who identify as a woman, but people who are of different cultures, backgrounds and orientations,” Schiessl said.
Dr. Lynne Woehrle, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Peace Building Certificate at Mount Mary University, views feminism as a development conducive to progression within humanity.
“I see feminism as a body of theory and a body of policy and a social movement that is active for change in society,” Woehrle said. “I look at the feminist project as aimed at searching for a way to make society such that people are experiencing social equity, which is different from equality. Equity is fairness; equity includes justice. Equality can be construed to mean ‘sameness,’ and that’s not really the work of a feminist.”
The feminist movement is generally discussed in terms of three stages, each with its own issues. The first stage, late 19th and early 20th centuries, focused on giving women opportunities to acquire their own property and vote.
“We have now, for the most part in the world, completed what people would call the first wave – access to voting rights and legal participation,” Woehrle said. “Although, that’s still a little new in some parts of the world.”
The second wave, 1960s and into the ’90s, mostly revolved around sexuality, women’s reproductive rights and the equality in salary and workplace opportunities.
“The second wave brings in the discussions around daily life, culture, relationships in the household, relationships in businesses – and I mean relationships not being intimate, but I mean sort of social relations,” Woerhle said. “How do people get along, and what does that look like?”
The mid-90s evolved issues from the second. It saw an increase in women bringing light to gender-based violence, gender role expectations and inclusion of people with different backgrounds.
“The third wave sort of says ‘Okay, we’ve had these conversations, now we’re going to move to a place where we assume that we are diverse,’” Woehrle said. “We assume that we are living multi-culturally in feminism, and we’re not going to have a big conversation about anymore, but we assume it in our analysis.”
RELUCTANCE TO FEMINISM
Schiessl believes that sometimes there is uncertainty when it comes to accepting the feminist label because of attitudes from the past.
“A lot of it is historical. From my recollection, this came about in the ’60s and ’70s and more recently, where feminists are being viewed as very angry and being man haters,” Schiessl said.
Dr. Marmy Clason, associate professor and department chair of communications at Mount Mary, believes the answer to why many are so wary of embracing feminism is complex.
“There have been high-profile people who have used the phrase ‘feminazi’ such as Rush Limbaugh, and when something like that catches on in the mainstream, then the juxtaposition of those two words together just obviously creates this negative connotation,” said Clason.
Clason noted that even though there are people who generally hold ideals associated with feminism, many are hesitant to be labeled as a feminist. In graduate school, she interviewed young women about their beliefs about feminism. Clason asked questions about equality and then asked if they consider themselves feminists; many said ‘no.’
“Yet most of their thinking, and most of their values that they had socially were mainstream feminist concepts. So the idea that we’ve created the word ‘feminist’ to be pejorative is really sad,” said Clason
FOURTH WAVE OF FEMINISM
Woehrle questions whether or not we’re locating a fourth wave in the feminist movement.
“We have a pretty good agreement of first, second and third; but third has started pretty long ago, so it’s most likely that we are in a fourth wave, but that’s really probably up to people in the body, especially the activists because theorists tend to follow a little bit behind what activism is doing. So, to call it a fourth wave, there needs to be some sense of a differing in characteristic from the third wave.”
Dr. Jennifer Hockenbery, professor and department chair of philosophy, believes the next wave of feminism will incorporate queer theory. “It’s this idea that in order to advocate for women, we have to understand what we mean by ‘women,’ and we don’t,” she said.
Hockenbery further explained that as a society, we are starting to realize that we aren’t as neatly categorized within the gender binary as we once thought.
“Trying to help all people have equality means that we all have to think more deeply and complexly about the whole idea of what a man and a woman is,” she said.
Woehrle had similar thoughts concerning the fluidity of gender identity.
“I don’t think that male and female are the only categories that are out there and that they are exclusive,” Woehrle said. “I don’t really engage in what is called the gender binary, I think that we are much more of a continuum.”
In the fall of 2015, Schiessl initiated Spectrum, a student organization at Mount Mary that focuses on advocating and being inclusive to issues within the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer community.
“A lot of it is about education and teaching people so that we are all on the same playing ground because people have different understandings of feminism and people have different understandings of gender identity and sexual orientation,” Schiessl said.
OPEN TO INTERPRETATION
Clason suggested that those who are uncertain about being labeled as a feminist should have an open conversation about how the word “feminist” is perceived.
“Usually the first thing I ask people is ‘What is your perception of that word? Why are you resisting?’” Clason said. “Then I try to dialogue with them since there’s such a broad array of different types and different thoughts of feminism that it’s likely they are somewhere in that mix, but they don’t realize it… While the word has beco
me sort of derogatory, its values and concepts are ones that a lot of people adhere to.”
Schiessl’s advice for someone who is struggling with the idea of being a feminist is to remember that it can mean different things to different people.
“The way I look at it and approach it might be different from the way you look at it and approach it or the way somebody down the hall looks at it and approaches it,” Schiessl said. “There’s not necessarily one right way to be a feminist; it’s mostly about acceptance.”
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT FEMINISM
FEMINIST THEORY: FROM MARGIN TO CENTER | BELL HOOKS | 1984
Hooks explores how feminism must recognize the multilayered experiences of women from diverse backgrounds to bring an end to women’s oppression.
FEMINIST RHETORICAL THEORIES | KAREN A. FOSS, SONJA K. FOSS, CINDY L. GRIFFIN | 2006
This book includes the diverse insights of nine feminists and their viewpoints of feminism.
RACE, CLASS, & GENDER | 9TH EDITION | MARGARET L. ANDERSEN | 2016
Using intersectionality as a lens, Andersen investi- gates how aspects such as race, gender and class molds a person’s experience as an individual.
THE FEMINIST STANDPOINT REVISITED AND OTHER ESSAYS | NANCY HARTSOCK | 1999
A collection of Hartsock’s most essential essays that assess political and feminist theory.