A simple, yet concrete definition of feminism by Bel Hooks provided a starting place in answering this when I asked myself the same question. Feminism “is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (Hooks 1). It is not a movement that claims that men are the enemy, she asserts. Sexism, sexist thinking, and those that perpetuate it are the problem, not men as a whole. Feminism is in the business of waging a war against sexism to promote gender justice for all.
Recently, Lindsay asked me when I realized I was a feminist. Is feminism born, are there moments that create within us sparks that inflame us to be champions of justice? Perhaps, but my feminism was nurtured slowly by my parents. A woman of incredible strength, intelligence, and love-- this is often how I describe my mother to those who have not met her. Sparing you details shameful and painful, I realized that the relationship my mother shared with my father and the community was distorted, disgustingly wrong. She often opened my bedroom door long before daylight, wishing me a wonderful day and reminding me of things I needed for school that day. “Don’t forget your French horn, that book laying on the hearth, and remember that your sister will be picking you up from school today at 4:00. I love you.” She would return home late in the evening, having been working 14 hours alongside my father. He would watch television, smoke cigarettes which my mother hated (in the home she had decorated, helped pay for with her labor, cleaned, and maintained for so many years), and eat a dinner that either my mother or I had prepared for him-- some meal he liked, regardless of what anyone else in the house had preference for. She would continue her day when she returned home, cleaning the bathroom, doing laundry, feeding the dog or cattle, and weeding the vegetable garden. Yet she, the woman who I admired and loved more than anyone on earth, the same woman who worked harder than my father every day they were married-- this woman was not permitted to spend money on things she enjoyed or wanted. My mother was, in fact, permitted to do very little. As I grew older, hate and anger built in me toward everything my father represented: generations of male dominance over other human beings in something that society stupidly saw as being acceptable. In fact, my view on marriage when I was younger was that women were, in fact, legalized slaves to their husbands (perhaps it still is?). I could have been shorter here, but when we love someone who has been oppressed, spiritually, physically, and mentally beaten, words write themselves from our passion.
Can I be a feminist if I have a penis? This is a question I struggled greatly with at Rhodes. I wildly embraced feminist ideals while simultaneously feeling angry, diminished by the belief that feminists do not want my voice or action because I am male. I have come to the conclusion that it is my duty as a human being to embrace ideals that support humanity and community. Feminism is for everyone, not just women. It is not merely an academic study, but a duty to humanity that we raise consciousness so that we may discontinue our use of bars and begin realizing that difference in each of us is useful, powerful and natural.
What am I doing now? Many of my behaviors and thoughts before college were certainly chauvinistic, sexist, and clearly wrong. Even in my more-conscious state, I wield the bars of sexism swiftly and elegantly, usually without realizing I have done so. As my understanding of the mechanical, almost industrial (and certainly barbaric) mechanisms of sexism and oppression increase, I am more able to think before acting and speaking, making conscious choices of how to treat others. Feminist courses sometimes unnerve me because I am afraid of offending others because my frame of reference is clearly skewed as a male, but becoming more finely honed through conversation and interaction with my peers, and reading feminist theology (particularly useful because oppression and sexism have grown strong in many faith traditions and “good” theology can be intensely liberating for those individuals) and philosophy. What am I doing? I am standing beside you, as equals. I will no longer open doors for anyone unless they are in need of assistance, for door opening and all activities are equal opportunity activities. Each bar that I can stop myself from using, let me do it as I recognize and name them. Teach me when I step out of line, for I will make mistakes. This is our duty to each other as powerful, educated men and women: to stand together in our war against sexism and oppression, side by side.