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What Is Feminism? by Jane Smiley

PUBLISHED: October 16, 2012


 Editor’s note: The following post is part of a series in which a diverse range of women writers discuss their definition, idea, or experience of feminism. For more background, take a look at our Fall 2012 issue, which features “Bad Feminist” by Roxane Gay. To kick off the series, we are proud to have American novelist Jane Smiley.

As a novelist, I instinctively interpret Feminism as the portrayal of women as complete actors in a diverse world—never less intelligent or self-motivated or interesting than male characters. Plenty of women novelists like George Eliot and Virginia Woolf blazed this trail before I came along—one of the first women in the modern era to do so was Marguerite of Navarre, in the 16th century. As a Caucasian American woman over six feet tall, born in the middle of the 20th century, I may use Feminism or not, because I have the luxury of choice. For most of recorded history, women have been viewed as possessions or objects to be bought, sold, and exploited, without voices or rights, their only powers personal or intimate ones rather than political ones. In the West, women can use Feminism if they want to, they can interpret it personally, or culturally, or as a matter of taste, and they can shape it to their own perspective. That they have these choices is a victory for Feminism, Liberalism, and Individualism.

Feminism is an ideology, set of ideas organized around a particular vision of the world. Like all ideologies, Feminism can be used to analyze our own experience, compare it to what we see around us, and understand how the world works. Or we may use Feminism for its political promise—the attainment of power. Every ideology is both generous (a set of ideas) and selfish (a set of rules and strategies), open and strict. Since women compose more than half of the humans on the earth, and so form a much larger core audience for Feminism than the audience for any other ideology, including all religions, all political systems, all philosophical systems, its applications are both more diverse and more problematic that those of other ideologies. In many cultures, the basic premise that men and women are created equal as individuals is simply nonexistent—for those cultures, what Feminism promises is very basic and very dangerous—autonomy and self-definition; in those cultures, Feminism is inherently revolutionary, and because it is about relationships and sense of self, it can be met with rage and violence in the most intimate of settings—the home, the family, love, marriage. As a set of ideas, Feminism is only partly equipped to deal with its huge range of applications. To many women, Feminism equals freedom, but in many cultures, individual freedom is dangerous—solidarity is the only hope. The difficult battles are not being fought in the U.S. and Europe—they are being fought in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, where women are used, threatened, and belittled everyday. In the West, literature has marked the trail and blazed the way: The Heptameron, Roxana, Pamela, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, and Orlando are a few examples of novels that take women and their concerns seriously. Whether women reject Feminism or embrace it, we can still use it; I don’t see how we can do without it.




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John W. Anthony's picture
John W. Anthony · 11 years ago
Hi Jane – typical thoughtful essay, bringing your wide range of experience & insight to bear of the topic. One reality that I would like to see acknowledged occasionally is that men can be feminists too. To my mind, “feminism” does not imply a gender (or gender bias), but rather acknowledgement of equality (in many ways), validity of aspirations, and the existence of a true person. In the 1960s, for example, no one felt that all Freedom Riders had to be African-Americans.

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