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Editor's Note Male Bashing or What's In a Name? Feminism in the United States Today One of the enduring questions of women's history is who was a feminist? For example, how do you categorize Catharine Beecher? She played an important role in mid-nineteenth-century United States history by being instrumental both in the movement to make accessible to females an education beyond the fundamentals and in opening the teaching profession to women. Yet, she opposed woman suffrage and was an influential proponent of separate spheres ideology, a vision of gender roles which, although enhancing the social value of characteristics traditionally assigned to women and increasing their power within the home and over their children, celebrated and disseminated a sharply delimited arena of action for the lady of the house. The word "feminist" itself was not coined until near the end of the nineteenth century,1 which raises the issue of whether it should be used to refer to persons living before that time? More to the point, however, is the question of how historians should refer to individuals today who have specifically rejected the label even while insisting on equal rights for women. But what exactly does it mean to be a feminist? Virginia Sapiro's well-known introductory textbook in women's studies answers the question by arguing that gender is one of the most important bases of society and serves as the rationale for women's lower status and lesser resources vis-a-vis men in most known societies. However, since gender is not a category of nature but a social construction, it can be changed. As a consequence, feminism includes not only analysis of the gender system but also the notion of working together to eradicate gender inequality.2 Of course, such a broad definition invites numerous perspectives on the problem, resulting in a variety of feminisms—domestic feminism, socialist feminism, radical feminism, cultural feminism, and even power feminism, to name a few. But if "working together" means a social movement , the definitions of the various feminisms alluded to are more important to scholars and that cadre of committed feminists who are at the core of both theory and practice than to the nation at large. A movement requires numbers. Therefore, perhaps the most important definition of feminism at this historical moment (what some erroneously have called postfeminism) is the common meaning of the term on the street, in the © 1996 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 2 (Summer) 1996 EDITOR'S Note 7 dorms, on the talk shows, and in the media more generally. That definition can be summed up in the expression, "male bashing." Teachers have long been familiar with the reluctance of high schoolers and undergraduates to identify as feminists. "A lot of young women don't want to be called feminists because, hey, listen to Rush Limbaugh, and you've heard it all. It's equated with being lesbian, fat, ugly," explained a seventeen-year-old at Feminist Expo '96.3 What has changed is that today even women graduate students are becoming wary of the term. A Cornell graduate student asserted at a 1996 American Historical Association session on "Women's Activism in the Historical Profession" that very few of the graduate women in her history department called themselves feminists. In part this reflects the contemporary shift from a focus on who is a feminist to what a feminist believes—a shift from equating feminists with lesbians to insisting that feminism is nothing more than male bashing. This antifeminist strategy is a more pernicious threat, because it marks a move from attempting to deprecate the individual to trivializing the message. If feminism is nothing more than trashing half the population, who could be for that? "Femi-nazi" name-calling—obscene, offensive, and ubiquitous as it is—points up the key problem with current common understandings of feminism: whether one is for it or against it, there is perceived to be a bright line of beliefs and behaviors which separate feminists from the rest of the world. On the one hand, women who might be attracted to the movement's push for equality are turned off by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 6-9
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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