What is Feminism?


US scholar, bell hooks defines it expansively as a movement to end all forms of oppression and discrimination.  She cautions that we must recognize that sexism may be the form of oppression most readily visible but this is not the only and the primary source of inequality. Further, she enjoins us to remember that not all women have been oppressed all of the time nor have all men been oppressors; people who are oppressed in one setting can turn out to be the oppressors in another context. Similarly, hooks reminds us that black women’s experience of sexism is different from those of upper-class white women.  She and other feminists would contest the idea that there is a universal female experience or a universal male experience.  Her definition of feminism thus speaks to a transformative politics.  She insists that before we can transform the world, we must learn to transform the oppressor that resides in all of us.

Most dictionaries define feminism as a political movement to secure gender justice.  These claims for gender-based justice and equality have been recorded and articulated since at least the 1790s.  Many European male political thinkers of this era, such as John Stuart Mill, recognized that the formulation of individual rights often excluded women.*  Most 19th and 20th century feminist movements have been about providing women access to resources, material goods, and the franchise.  At least in the US, liberal feminism has largely resulted in the passage of a series of laws such as Title VII of the civil rights act or the equal pay act, legal measures to formally end discrimination in the public arena.

By the 1970s, feminism started to incorporate ideas about sexual justice as well.  Thus, gay and lesbian liberation movements emerge from and share strands with feminism.

By mid-20th century some feminists began to question how certain categories of knowledge were gendered and designated exclusively as domains of male/female activity.  Thus although art itself is designated a feminine trait, most artists are male.  How does this come about?  Who defines these terms?  Beyond highlighting double standards, feminists have highlighted that all knowledge is produced from a gendered perspective.  Male-centered knowledge is often unmarked as such, it goes under the name of knowledge.  Whereas female centered knowledge gets designated as such and in the process devalued.  Thus, feminist artists such as Judy Chicago in the US were forcing us to think about who defines art, what constitutes art, why is some art just art and not defined as male art while others are classified as women’s art?

The Feminist art movement was largely a rearticulation of feminism within an artistic idiom.  Thus, feminists highlighted art forms that had been devalued because they were designated as feminine or domestic, such as embroidery, quilt-making.  Similarly, by foregrounding the female experience of the world they wanted to draw attention to the fact that most art offers us a male experience of the world.  For instance, think about the Rene Magritte image in the surrealism section of our course, entitled The Eternally Obvious.  How does this representation of the female nude differ from Ana Mendieta’s nudity in the video we watched or Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece?  Why do we tend to gloss over one of these pieces but the other causes discomfort ?

While Nam June Paik proclaimed that the medium is the medium, feminist artists proclaimed that the message matters as much as the medium.  They were not so much interested in art for art’s sake but in the kinds of messages/things art could allow them to convey. Like feminism, feminist art is about reordering, if not abolishing, existing hierarchies.

*Friedrich Engels has most famously characterized the birth of private property as the root cause of women’s subordination.

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