On definitions

What do we really mean?  Why do we have heah a failure to communicate?

Many recent set-tos and arguments on the internet we’ve seen seem to hinge on differences of definition and related communication difficulties.

Micro Dr. O was recently “raked over the coals” for a post she made saying that women who say that people who say that becoming the trailing spouse is failing the sisterhood are not feminist.  (She has promised to refrain from using the offensive term “feminazi” in the future.)

I’m hip with the idea… it’s like those crazy guilt-mongering “AP” folks with the lists of you must cosleep/sling/breastfeed etc. that totally don’t understand that the definition of Attachment Parenting is simply, “Do what works for your family” (and what works can include the list, but should not force the list because not all things work for all baby/parent dyads).  But the difference between “attachment parenting” and “feminism” is that there’s one definition for attachment parenting because it was coined by one person (Dr. Sears).

My definition of feminism does not include putting women above men, it focuses on equal treatment and equality more generally.  But apparently that is not the definition of Dr. O’s detractors, as they specifically state that the fringe elements are still part of the greater feminism set.  Huh… so what is feminism then?  Who is right?

Maybe there are multiple definitions of feminism.

In fact, there are.

From colleagues on the intarwebs, a non-comprehensive list of feminism types, as listed in Half the Human Experience: The Psychology of Women, by Janet Shibley Hyde, 7th edition, 2007.  New York: Houghton Mifflin.

•Liberal feminism: This is what I mean when I use the term “feminism,” and probably what Dr. O means as well.  Specifically, that women should have opportunities and rights equal to those of men.  Not more, just equal.  We favor working to reform the current system as it just needs some tweaking and will progress if we keep pushing (though probably too slowly).
•Cultural feminism: In this version, women have special, unique qualities that patriarchal society devalues.  These feminists might argue that a woman’s place is in the home, but we should value home production more than we do as a society.
•Marxist feminism: Standard Marxism.  Women are oppressed based on class because of problems with capitalism, just like everybody else except our capitalist overlords.
•Radical feminism: Radical changes are needed, such as female-only space safe from oppression.
•Postmodern feminism:  This places a strong attention to the language we use and the structure we are in.   We do not experience reality directly but construct it actively, assigning meaning based on our past experiences, expectations, etc.  Gender can’t be understood in isolation, but only in relation to things like class, race, etc.  Gender is a stimulus variable that affects other people as well as yourself.  This I think probably best describes #2’s version of feminism, to which I have some sympathies, but as a pragmatist, liberal feminism is mostly where I’m at.  I imagine #2 also sympathizes with liberal feminism.

(#2 says, I’m kind of a mixture.  I have some sympathies with all the approaches, depending on situation.   My male feminist friends also run the gamut, which is interesting to me.)

So if your definition of feminism is liberal feminism, then women who advocate for women’s preferences over men’s are not feminist.  In fact, they may be doing harm as they are placing the blame for a trailing spouse on the woman herself (rather than on, say, the patriarchy as a post-modernist would), thus further distancing us from the ideal of equality.  However, in the context of radical feminism, such a stance seems appropriate.

Are radical feminists true feminists?  Well… that all depends on your definition and how expansive it is.

As academics especially, before we start raking people over the coals, let’s stop and remember that our disciplines have different jargon and different definitions and maybe if we’re polite to each other we can learn new viewpoints and come around to other ways of thinking.  After all, we’re not stupid, we just have different training.  (And bullying is so anti-feminist… or is it?)

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32 Responses to “On definitions”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    Radical Feminists often want me to join their causes because I represent someone who lives in a man’s world and is successful, but I often butt heads with them.

    Just recently a woman who’s doing great things with exposing young girls to science and math was looking for volunteers. She really wanted a female only atmosphere to make her girls “comfortable” with science in her own female only setting. I reminded her that in real life, her girls will be outnumbered by men anyway, so what’s the big deal to have men teach some sessions. She was looking for female engineer/scientist volunteers and I am one of a very very short list in my little community, so either she needs to expand her scope to include finance (where there are more women + you need math), or she needs to let guys help.

    When I told her that I couldn’t commit to what she wanted because I work, travel and have 2 young children, then she was like “why don’t you fight to work part time”. I was like, engineering jobs aren’t conducive to part time work and I’m happy to be employed. If I were to go part time, I’d have to do a different kind of entry level role and she thought that was so unjust.

    The feminists who want their cake and eat it too drive me nuts. I can go on and on about this so I’ll just stop there.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My sister volunteers for women in engineering events. She does them on the occasional Saturday morning. I don’t know if they have guys there too or not. (Sister is also younger, childless etc.)

      On the one hand, all-female means that there’s diminished stereotype threat and it shows role-models, that women can achieve in these environments. On the other hand, women are often just as sexist as men.

      It sounds like your friend is also a wee bit cultural feminist– a woman’s role is in service to her community and she should be valued more for that. That’s part of the problem Dr. O was having– if she becomes a trailing spouse, is she letting women down.

      I would be happy to work part-time for full pay (and full advancement opportunities)! That doesn’t really mesh with academia though… some folks do do that after tenure or full-professorhood but my sense of responsibility wouldn’t allow it.

      • First Gen American Says:

        Yeah, I was proudly telling her about a few of my friends who ended up doing career changes for the sake of family and her response was “what a shame that firms don’t accommodate women with families.” Yeah, well, certain jobs just don’t have flexibility whether you are a guy or girl.

        I dunno, but I thought it was pretty cool that my girlfriend became a patent attorney so she could work from home with more flexible hours. You can’t become that type of attorney without a technical degree, so I didn’t think she was selling out at all.

        I also argued that without their degrees and experience they wouldn’t have had the skills needed to do their entrepreneurial ventures. (Another one of my friends has an organic baby food business)

  2. Everyday Tips Says:

    I am very similar to you in terms of views of what feminism means. I just want all people to have equal opportunities, that is it. I don’t get offended when someone holds the door for me as I hold the door for anyone. It is almost like some people look for reasons to be upset when it really could be very simple. Everyone, men and women have special, unique qualities that should be respected and it doesn’t necessarily always correlate with being male or female. (Although I will say most women seem to have the special talent of being able to hear a baby cry in the middle of the night much more so than men.)

    I am not a fan of Dr. Sears. If he is right about everything and his way is the only way, then my kids are going to end up really screwed up.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Dr. Sears does NOT say that his way is the only way. He specifically says that YOUR way is the best way. His whole point is that different things work for different parent/baby pairs and that we shouldn’t do things that don’t work for our family. He’s a reaction to the idea that you must sleep-train, punish/not pick up your infant, etc. (which is what most people around here will try to guilt you into doing, though that’s less true these days in many other parts of the country). He’s saying, the things most folks associate with AP are ok to do (you’re not spoiling your baby), not that you must do them. In fact, he specifically says things like, if cosleeping doesn’t work for your family then don’t do it. His point is to listen to your instincts rather than fighting them.

      And yes, women who have given birth do have chemical reactions to babies crying that lasts some number of months after the baby is born. That’s why mothers feel like they must comfort their infants, but can let a toddler cry longer. It really is biological.

      • becca Says:

        Also, toddlers grab your glasses and poke you in the eye *on purpose*. It significantly reduces your incentive to comfort them when they are crying because they had something frustrating happen that you warned them about. (kidding… sort of).

        I’m pretty ‘big tent’ with my definition of feminism. Liberal feminism has a lot of appeal, but I do think there is a complacency that a lot of liberal feminists have (maybe especially among young women?).
        That’s something I see in a lot of groups though- sometimes, you work with people who you don’t agree with about everything, because you recognize their perspective helps the movement. More ‘extreme’ people help reaffirm purpose within the movement and more ‘moderate’ people help bridge boundaries between the movement and society at large. That’s why I feel one of the more self-defeating things is to define yourself such that your tent is very small.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Can’t it be argued that some extreme elements hurt rather than help the cause?

        There was a really great article that Roxie had recently about Fred Phelps doing more to champion the cause of gay rights than anyone actually in the movement.

      • Everyday Tips Says:

        Maybe Dr. Sear’s opinions from 16 years ago vary from more recent. However, I could swear that he strongly advocated co-sleeping, eternal nursing, etc etc. However, I haven’t read his views in ages, so maybe my memory is fuzzy.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        He advocates them as something parents can do. But not as something parents must do. In the state in which I live, training your babies and forcing yourself to not listen to their needs is the dominant culture, so his perspective of doing the opposite, specifically listening to your baby’s needs, is welcome as an alternative.

      • bogart Says:

        In fairness to Dr. S, I read him as a sleep-deprived new mom and it’s remotely possible I misremember parts of what I read. But I do distinctly remember a rather moralistic tone to parts of his tome. One evening as my son, having spent all day in my arms, was peacefully being rocked in his electric swing, I read Sears who pointed out that, sure, I could put my baby in some sort of device that would swing and soothe him, but why would I do that when I could swing and soothe him myself? Even (or especially) in that state, the answer was obvious to me: so that I don’t go crazy and strangle him, that’s why.

        Aw, heck, it’s 2011 and we have google books. Go there and search on the phrase “try a mechanical mother” and read the paragraph that results. I find the tone of the concluding sentences, “Personally, we were not keen on our babies going to sleep to someone else’s canned voice. Why not use the real parent?” resoundingly patronizing. Do you not?

        Heck, if Sears works for you, and/or is better than other available messages, great, but I don’t recommend him, myself, and am waiting to see whether his wife — if he predeceases her — writes a tell-all.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        In The Baby Book he says over and over, “Do what works for you.” Don’t cosleep if cosleeping doesn’t work. Don’t sling if the baby doesn’t like the sling. Don’t beat yourself up if you tried breastfeeding but could not. Etc. It also has some commentary from his wife that talks about how he changed his mind on the issue of working mothers. His tone is sometimes moralistic in that, “why don’t you do this instead of what society is cramming down your throat here are some reasons why what I suggest is superior” but in his definition he is very clear that it is not a list of things you must do and to pick and choose among what works for your family. He also talks about how his first couple kids were not raised with cosleeping, slinging, or any notion of doing anything different than what culture and medical training suggests, and they turned out just fine. The next kid was the one who needed a different parenting style as an infant and caused them to re-examine their parenting styles and what Sears had learned as a pediatrician.

        Our kid hated to be strapped in to anything (other than a sling), so it was nice having one voice out there saying that didn’t mean there was anything wrong with us as parents (though “mechanical mother” is not in The Baby Book). In some ways I think his moralistic tone is necessary to counter the pressure we feel in some parts of the country (and in some time periods) to do the exact opposite. Sort of like Dave Ramsey’s over the top superiority about various aspects of his plan. Living like no one else to live like no one else. But unlike Ramsey, Sears is still prefaced with a “Do what works for your family” instead of “You must do it my way.” (In that aspect, he’s more like JD who has a preferred method of getting rich slowly but understands different people have different needs.)

      • bogart Says:

        Yes, OK, fair enough. I still find him irritating, but it’s useful to me to know that otherwise-sensible-seeming people ;) may find him helpful in terms of telling others about books that might be worth reading.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I can see how he might be irritating if you were living in Los Angeles, but where I’m currently living everything is so extreme in the other direction that it is nice to have that counterpoint. Somewhere in between blanket training and hard-core AP there’s a number of happy mediums. And the core definition really is, Do what works for you. The folks with the lists of things you must do are not really AP because they’re not allowing you to listen to your baby and your instincts, which is the core philosophy (and core definition… everything else is details).

        AP is supposed to make you *less* stressed, not more.

      • Dr. O Says:

        I never read Dr. Sears, but I got a lot of pressure from people here to pick Monkey up EVERY. TIME. HE. WHIMPERED. Combined with the PPD, I ended up feeling horribly guilty. All I wanted to do when I heard him make a noise was give him away. I had no problem with crying it out early on because I didn’t really have an attachment to him…just guilt. Now I can’t stand it, but I’m learning to deal with it for short periods of time.

        Both views can go to extremes (as with the feminists), and it’s generally the detractors of one view that take things over the edge in the other direction. I tell all my new mommy friends (the ones that are newer than me, at least ;) to listen to their own instincts and not let ANYBODY make them feel guilty for the choices they make.

        Unless they’ve chosen to not vaccinate their kids, but that’s another story…

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Our Babies, Ourselves is a fantastic book for getting out the message about how our culture shapes what we think is the “right” way to raise a child and how there are an infinite number of ways to raise a child, and they do result in different children, but not better or worse children.

        Around here you get guilt-tripped for picking up your child depending on your social group. Don’t spoil the kid, you should beat hir when ze cries. (Obviously not everybody, but that’s kind of the dominant underlying philosophy.) Denying your instincts is what’s big here. You see a lot of moms hitting their small children at playgrounds.

  3. Dr. O Says:

    I liked reading and thinking about the different definitions. I agree that I am (mostly) a liberal feminist, but possibly also a cultural feminist due to my Southern upbringing. I also happen to believe that some of those unique characteristics that women have allow them to do all jobs just as well as men, but differently than a man would do them. Whether or not those unique characteristics are due to society or two X chromosomes is another story…

    I’ve heard some women defend extreme (radical) feminism with the argument that men don’t consider their spouse when they choose a career, etc… I don’t like this argument, because I don’t think men should NOT consider their spouse when they choose a career. If they have a spouse that doesn’t mind following them, that’s one thing (IMO, they’ve considered their spouse’s feelings, so long as they know their spouse doesn’t mind trailing). But if they ignore their desires to have their own career, I think they are selfish.

    The same should go for women. My husband was willing to follow me to many different places (so long as he could find a good job) several years ago. At that time he was making less than me and hated his job. Now he’s making almost twice as much and loves his job. Things have changed, and I love him, so I’m want to consider his feelings. If I wasn’t willing to do this, then I would be just as selfish as the man who ignored what his wife wanted. This is the kind of thing that I think makes feminism look bad.

  4. becca Says:

    nicoleandmaggie*-yes, absolutely. Sometimes the movement does need to take a firm stand against some individuals, or else people of conscience need to leave the movement. That is why I don’t identify as an ‘animal rights supporter’, even though I’m vegetarian and wish factory farming was a lot more regulated.
    That said, it also depends on the person’s profile in the movement, and we need to be aware of one important feature of the kyriarchy. In general, if a group is relatively empowered in society (e.g. Christians in the US), then fringe elements are looked at as random loons… few people would claim that Christians of conscience must leave the religion because of Phelps in particular. In contrast, if a group has less power in society (e.g. women), then fringe elements might be looked upon as *representative* by those outside the movement. This is a tool people use to marginalize and silence others. This is Limbaugh using “feminazi”.
    It’s also very important to recognize that the relatively ‘fringe’ person doesn’t have to actually *exist* for this to happen (though it’s always worth actually *listening* to people on this… for example, when I actually read Dworkin I was primarily impressed with how positive/inspiring she was, not at ALL how certain people had characterized her. I didn’t have to agree with everything she said to understand that people were simply not characterizing her views reasonably).
    So policing your own tent against ‘extremists’ is not guaranteed protection against marginalization. That’s why the appropriate target is Limbaugh and not feminists whose views we may see as more intense than our own.

    *(BTW- I think the coblogging is great, you two have a neat dynamic and it’s nice to see the interplay, but sometimes the ambiguity in who is speaking is a little strange)

    Dr. O- I agree with your comment about the *way* women do certain jobs may be equally-competent-but-different.

    Personally, I don’t think people who consider career over spousal preferences should be condemned as selfish… there are cases (e.g. the military) where you just don’t have a lot of flexibility, and you may have chosen your career before you chose your spouse. In addition, it should probably be noted that it’s unwise to judge others on this issue because we rarely have enough information to know how the spouse felt about it.

    That said, saying “I can respect someone who chose to put career first” is quite different from saying “I want to be in a relationship where either I or my spouse puts their career ahead of the other person”. I’m encouraging you to consider the former, not the later!

    • Dr. O Says:

      I have no problem with someone who puts career first, but I do think there’s something inherently sad about ignoring your family’s needs to pursue any career. Of course, there’s a whole spectrum of work-life balance from spending 24-7 with your children to working 100 hours of week and forgetting your children’s names. And we all need to find the appropriate place in this spectrum.

      That said, I don’t disrespect anyone who chooses to pursue a career in lieu of having a family. I DO disrespect someone who chooses to have a family, then decides their family’s/partner’s needs are second to their own.

      • becca Says:

        I don’t think you are being an equal-opportunity disrespecter though. I think when a d00d chooses work over family, you think he’s a jerk. When a woman chooses work over family, you say she’s ‘giving feminists a bad name’, intrinsically a NOT real feminist herself, AND a jerk.
        That’s the limitation of liberal feminism- even when we have the *same* standards for men and women, it’s easy to end up policing the behavior of women much more than men.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I don’t think that’s quite what Dr. O is saying. If I’m getting this correct, when a man chooses work over family, he’s a jerk. When a woman chooses work over family, she’s a jerk.

        When either a man or a woman tells you that as a feminist you must choose work over family, then they are not feminists (under this definition) and are making feminists look bad.

        Under the post-modern definition, one could argue that in the patriarchal society it is difficult to believe that a man making those statements would be considered a feminist by society and thus he is less likely to give feminists a bad name under that scenario, but one would also have to subscribe to that belief structure to make that argument.

        One could also give an argument about societal pressures regarding work and family being different for the two genders, but that wasn’t the argument either of you are making, I think.

      • Dr. O Says:

        What NaM says. Although I think one of my statements here (or on my own blog) may have led to Becca’s comment. It’s not that I think choosing career over family makes someone a “bad feminist” or not a feminist at all. It’s that I don’t think choosing career over family is a requirement for being a feminist. Yet I’ve had some women (and men) suggest that I’m not a feminist if I let my family/husband guide my career decisions.

        Right now, I’m trying very hard to focus on what my own path will/should be, and think less about what others’ paths should be. At the same time, I think everyone should think long and hard about how decisions they make for their career will affect their families and the rest of their lives, just as a matter of being a *whole* person. If someone (male or female) can honestly say they’re thinking about the whole picture, who am I to judge their final decision? (Although I’m sure I’ll be caught judging from time to time anyways…I am only human after all :)

        BTW, there’s a good post on all of this discussion from Dr. Sneetch: http://thesneetchblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-feminism-and-cat-fights.html

  5. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    BTW, I am enjoying this discussion immensely and even though I don’t think my mind has been changed on some basic issues, I had to do some hard thinking and I think my mind has expanded.

    I also really appreciate the lack of, “Shut your pie hole”s.

  6. becca Says:

    I certainly agree with the argument that if a woman said ‘you aren’t putting your career first, you must not be a feminist’ that is giving feminism a bad name.
    What I would disagree with is the notion that a woman who says ‘I am going to put career first because many men do and I believe it is intrinsically a justifiable choice’ is giving feminism a bad name.

    I suppose if someone said ‘I am going to put career first because many men do and I don’t care whether it is a justifiable choice, or I know it isn’t normally a justifiable choice but it’s more justifiable for me to do it in the name of feminism than for men to do it out of pure selfishness’ that would be a little complicated. It would be hard to know how much self-delusion was involved (i.e. how much motivation was actually selfish and then rationalized after the fact with the feminism). But “just because a rationalization is useful doesn’t make it false”. Women who prioritize their career instead of their family help make that a more viable choice for other women. To my mind, careers should be satisfying, but they ideally should involve some contribution to society- and there are different ways of thinking about that. It may be that one spouse making less of a contribution can maximize the net contribution of the family-unit.

    In addition, in the heteronormative case, women who prioritize work over their husband’s preferences may also help us examine why it seems like women are more content to maximize their family-unit level of contribution (rather than their personal contribution) and why it seems like men have an intrinsic desire for significant personal contribution.

    This is one of those horrible cases where I’m arguing that some behavior should be seen as acceptable and perhaps commendable, even though it’s not particularly what I would prefer to do and I think that given real-world constraints it’s unlikely to make an average person happier to have the option to pursue things that way. But society will be richer for having some people who it truly is a good choice for.

  7. Spanish Prof Says:

    Oh…definitions!!! I’ve struggled with them quite a few times. An excellent example of “communication difficulties” (or tone-deafness, as somebody else put it), is the recent controversy at Tenured Radical over what an “adjunct” is.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #2 and I were just discussing that. Yeah, on that TR thread I saw right away that TR’s definition of “adjunct” and the standard definition of “adjunct” were not the same thing… she was referring to a VAP with salary and benes and most of the upset commenters were referring to people who teach classes without benes at a much lower pay. But I so did not want to go there because I didn’t want to get my head bitten off. Then I saw you posted the post I would have posted and the response was kind of what I had predicted and I thought… glad I didn’t go there.

  8. Spanish Prof Says:

    Another one on definitions. When I came to the US to live, one of the things that shocked/annoyed me was everybody’s insistence of putting you in a category. I am a white Argentine Jew, so I really don’t fit in the category Hispanic/Latina, at least not in the stereotypes people have about this construction. So at first, I avoided defining myself as anything. Then, I asked somebody with whom I was friends, a nice lady doing her PhD in English/Film Studies, why she never thought of learning Spanish, giving the fact that she lives in South Florida and speaks flawless German and French. Her answer: “Oh, because Spanish is an ugly language. It doesn’t have the aura and the past of German and French”. I was appalled, and asked her: “You know Spanish is my first language, right?”. She answered: “Oh yes, but you are not like them”. Me: “Like them?” Her: “Yes, like all those Hispanics. I mean, you know more about French cinema than I do”. Which happened to be truth. That was my first introduction to definitions, categories and stereotypes. After that, I am a proud Latina/Hispanic or whatever you want to call it. Even though the only difference between me and a Jewish professor from New York is that my great-grandparents took a different ship when they emigrated from Russia.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh dear. That’s pretty awful. And Spanish is a much more beautiful language than either German (which sounds like hacking) or French (which is so nasal). It’s up there with Italian in terms of melodic languages.

  9. Link love « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured Says:

    [...] fights this week among academics about adjuncting and what that all means.  Despite our post On Definitions coming out the same day as the original from Tenured Radical (which conflated part-time adjuncting [...]

  10. So… I kinda dislike “radical feminism” « Congratulations, it's a grain of rice! Says:

    [...] is not a one-size-fits-all term. NicoleandMaggie have caught some flack for their post describing the various schools of feminism, but I like it. It helps clarify a great deal – such as why I can call myself feminist, yet [...]

  11. “Radical Feminism” Actually Means Something | Reasonable Conversation Says:

    [...] is that while she is a feminist, she is not a “radical feminist”. It is based on this article from nicoleandmaggie about types of feminism. Kristycat takes this time to explain why she identifies as feminist in the [...]

  12. eemusings Says:

    Just wanted to say: Loving the feminism discussion.


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