The Vocabulary of Feminism

29 Mar

by Kayla Corcoran 

Like every fifth-grade vocabulary quiz, this blog post starts with a word bank:

educated           rights                     to equal            to teach

citizen               position                 gender             forbidden

to oppose          young woman      to struggle        traditional

to be aware       vote                        assembly         to demand

Now, for the test: Using only these words, please make your argument defending the Feminist movement’s right to exist.

Prompted by the vocabulary in our new chapter, my Arabic professor decided that our class would stage a debate about the necessity of advocating for women’s rights. She divided our class into two sections: those who would argue that Feminism remains relevant today and those who would argue that Feminism has overstayed its welcome in the face of all the progress that women have made. Partially because I spend half of Arabic class wondering what is actually going on and partially because I couldn’t seriously believe that the professor was asking us to debate Feminism, I laughed incredulously and asked, “Is this a joke?” She shushed me and told me to stop using English. I took her admonishment to mean “no.”

She divided the class arbitrarily into the pro-Feminist group and the anti-Feminist group. Even though I found myself on the pro-side, I felt uncomfortable about the debate. I am not unaware that the point of the debate was not to convince ourselves one way or the other about Feminism. The point of the assignment was to practice using our vocabulary and forming comprehensible sentences. Nevertheless, the situation felt strange. As it turns out, however, the uncomfortable nature of this debate turned out to be a blessing: it taught me a thing or two about how we address Feminism and the conversation that surrounds this complex network of issues.

What I learned comes in the form of another question: did you notice that the vocabulary list with which I provided you at the beginning of this post didn’t include the words “sexuality,” “birth control,” “health care,” “domestic violence,” “double standards,” “lesbian,” “choice,” etc.? In class, I couldn’t mention any of these things even though I feel that they are relevant because I didn’t know how to say them in Arabic. For the majority of the times when we speak about Feminism, we speak about it in our native languages without the same inability to express ourselves. But just because we know how to say the words does not mean that we always use them. We cannot talk about Feminism if we are not equipped with the right words and with all of the words, and we are not doing Feminism any justice if we cannot talk about it.

And we need those words. When I joked that the vocabulary list didn’t include “birth control,”  someone else in my group joked that birth control wasn’t relevant to our debate. On the contrary, it is incredibly relevant—both the word itself and the acknowledgment that Feminism today encompasses so many more points other than “rights” and “gender.” If we debate the relevance of Feminism in those terms, then Feminism is in danger of being irrelevant. If we’re only talking about women being able to vote or to hold jobs outside of the home, then we don’t need Feminism any more. Mission accomplished.

But we’re not only talking about women being able to vote and to work anymore (and even these issues are still more complicated and less “equal” than we’d like to think they are, especially if we move beyond the United States). In debating the relevance of Feminism with a limited vocabulary, we miss the nuanced version of what Feminism has become, and that version includes a lot more words besides “vote.” The women (and men) who fought for women’s political rights laid the groundwork for us to engage in a more complex dialogue about Feminism. This nuanced version of Feminism is the kind of Feminism that we need today—the kind that examines the intimate roles that Feminism and gender relations serve in the lives of modern women and men who are voting and who are working but who are struggling with other social inequalities.

Just as society, for centuries, did itself no favors by clinging to the idea that women were intellectually and physically inferior to men, we are not going to do ourselves any favors by clinging to ideas of what Feminism has meant in the past—whether it’s “suffrage” from the beginning of the twentieth century or “bra-burning” from the sixties. We are not going to have fruitful conversations and constructive debates about Feminism if we cannot articulate how it is that Feminism has changed from these past conceptions. There was a time for suffrage and there was a time for bra-burning, and today can still be a time for those things, but it is also a time for other things. We are wrestling with questions appropriate to our own historical moment, and we should also acknowledge that these questions vary across communities and individual experiences.

If we, as individuals, don’t know why Feminism is relevant to us, then it is no longer relevant. So, my friends, I leave you with an invitation ripped right from the pages of Candide: cultivate your garden of Feminist vocabulary and never stop cultivating it. Learn to ask yourself why Feminism is important to you and embrace the fact that your ideas may change over time. In short, be better than a fifth-grade vocabulary quiz.

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