What’s in a Word?

Feminist futures


in Archive


“Feminism is not dead.” If this is the sentence Sylvia Walby was forced to use to open her book The Future of Feminism, it casts doubt that the argument that follows will be persuasive. It carries the tone of defensiveness, of exasperation, of stomping your foot. Of “You guys.”


  • The Future of Feminism by Sylvia Walby. 224 pages. Polity. $22.95.

And yet what other way could anyone possibly open a book about such a topic? Women who are feminists, if you can bestow that title on someone from afar based on their beliefs and good deeds, squirm and writhe to avoid using the word. For a while, Bust magazine, which was founded on distinctly feminist principles in the early ’90s, would ask every interview subject whether or not they would call themselves a feminist. It was surprising who would duck out of the way of that word, from musicians to fashion designers to writers. Now the magazine itself has dropped the word from its description. What once was billed as a feminist perspective is now a “female perspective.” It was once Proud to Be Feminist. Now it is “Proud to Be Female.”

During a 2004 interview with Bust, musician PJ Harvey answered their query by saying, “I don’t ever think about [feminism]… I don’t see that there’s any need to be aware of being a woman in this business. It just seems a waste of time.” That interview caused a mini-scandal among readers of the magazine, who wrote seemingly endless letters expressing their disappointment in the politics of a strong female singer. Now it seems the magazine itself has grown to agree with her.

This is the feminist present, when even the magazines that helped to define the Third Wave are having second thoughts about being so strident. The word postfeminist gets thrown around a lot these days, by commentators and columnists and women leaders. As in, “Gender equality achieved! Let’s go get a drink.”

What’s left unsaid is: Don’t look over there at the wage gap or the lack of maternal support or the nightmarish situation overseas with honor killings and suicide rates and genital mutilation. What could the future of feminism possibly be?

Walby’s The Future of Feminism is, mercifully, a wonky book. In her introduction, two sentences after claiming feminism is still alive and well, she calls it “vibrant.” Her book, though, is anything but. Walby, a professor of sociology, digs around in UN reports, reports from the European Council, articles in sociology and economic journals that maybe 500 people subscribe to. She writes sentences like the following, which was selected at random: “Since nations and national projects are gendered, the relations between nations and national projects are also gendered. Thus competition and contestation between nations and other polities is often a gendered competition and contestation, in that changes in the dominance of one nation or polity over another can have implications for the gender regime in those nations and polities.” There are entire sections on economic policy, of which I understood maybe 20%. Oddly, as a result, it’s perhaps the most okay I’ve been with the use of the word feminism in a long time.

When the word feminism is tossed around in the usual discourse the scale is so small. Feminism can improve your sex life, so says Jessica Valenti in her 2007 book Full Frontal Feminism. Use feminism to dissect episodes of America’s Next Top Model, or whatever’s happening to women writers who used to write feminist prose and now recap TV. It’s rare to hear the word being used by a politician, unless he’s explaining that feminists want us all to have mandatory abortions that are paid for by tax dollars. This is the result of feminism’s… I won’t say success. Progress?

Feminism used to be one recognizable, unified thing. Or, clarification: There was one version of feminism large enough that it could be used to represent the whole. With such hulking, obvious enemies to be conquered, from the right to vote to reforms in divorce law, goals could be set. Progress could be marked. Troops could be rallied. Now it’s diffuse, it’s dissolved. We might believe that men and women are equal and should be treated as such, but we might not want to launch a protest when they’re not. Because the goals, too, became diffuse. Are we upset this week about the airbrushing of women’s faces on the cover of Marie Claire, or about how many books written by women get reviewed in the New York Times? Should we sign this online petition with no obvious destination about sex slavery in Thailand or are we all going to go see Bridesmaids because we need to support movies written by women? Are we supporting Julian Assange because transparency in the government is also a feminist issue, or do we hate him because he’s maybe a rapist?

God, maybe I was right back in paragraph four: meet me at the bar in 15 minutes.

Walby ignores the minor debates a modern feminist has to engage in with her own head and outlines real, definable goals and issues, explains why issues like economic policy and environmental sustainability are feminist issues, and what is being done. She even gets into internal debates about maternity — issues that cause flared tempers and false dichotomies between working mothers and stay at home moms — while managing to keep her head. While some feminists don’t want anything to do with maternity, believing it simply reinforces stereotypes and oppression, Walby argues that anything that makes pregnancy and motherhood safe and manageable is a step towards progress.

It wasn’t until the book was over and back on my shelf that I realized how long it had been since I’d read a book about the state of feminism that was so gloriously impersonal. No anecdotes about personal oppression, no giving a face to the issue, no whispery confessions about dark times and dark encounters. Just policy. Just wonderful, wonderful facts — from the gendered aspects of the financial crisis (as most of these corporations that caused the crisis were run by exclusively male boards and executives) to the contributions that feminist theory can make to environmental policy. This is a rarity in modern feminist literature, which starts off from the belief that you need to be talked into thinking feminism is important. But all that reaching out, all that grasping, just creates distance. By starkly revealing the truths about the worldwide status of women, I am allowed to have a rational response to the matter, rather than being emotionally manipulated into feeling something about women.

“The personal is political,” so said the Second Wave. And it was, and it is. Personal choices have political impact, and so does fighting for your ability to make those choices. And of course you need both rational and emotional arguments. But the balance has been toward the emotional, the personal, and the confessional for a very long time. Women and feminists have been participating in debates about many of these issues, of course. But many of them have been doing so without using the word “feminist.” Walby doesn’t shame anyone for not using the word feminist. A dozen writers from Jennifer Baumgardner to Caitlin Moran have stated that the word feminist needs to be “reclaimed,” but then they use the word to write about vibrators or the Spice Girls.

If the future of feminism as outlined by Sylvia Walby is in government policy and on executive boards of corporations, I do wonder what the future of the word itself will be. Perhaps it’ll be fully discarded as an anachronism, or maybe it’ll continue to limp along, resurfacing with periodic reclamations and obvious injustices. I want it to be tied to things large in scope, but as more women, more politicians, more professionals, more magazines inch away from the word, it seems unlikely. Feminism, as a concept, is not dead. But feminism, as a word, might be on life support. • 12 August 2011