Joanna Russ – Who’s a Feminist?

“What seem to me really ominous are two signs often taken as positive: that the caricaturing of feminism and feminists has significantly lessened in the past few years (as of this writing), and that more and more women are willing to call themselves feminists, even if their position on the issues certainly doesn’t match anything those of us who were active in the 1970s consider feminism.

First, caricature stops when confrontation stops. When the air no longer rings with horrid tales of ball-breaking dykes, man-hating neurotics, vicious and parasitic wives, and the rest of the tiny train of male-imagined phantoms, that’s not because feminism has influenced patriarchy but because patriarchy has influenced feminism almost out of existence. Redefining “feminism” to mean anything having to do with women (or anything having to do sympathetically with women) without the context of the explicit political analysis that ignited the subject in the early 1970s may meet with less direct opposition–but try speaking about ‘exploitation’ and ‘oppression’ and you will be met with the same attacks, the same mockery, and the same snide complaints with which we are all so dismally familiar. Or at best you will be faced with the nervousness that signals: I’m willing to assume that we’re all friends again, but only as long as you pretend that the whole issue is a dead letter and never, never bring it up again.

Second, feminism is something you do, not something you are. Women who say ‘I’m not a feminist’ and proceed to do feminist work are allies no matter what they call themselves. Those who call themselves ‘feminists’ and don’t substantiate that claim by their actions are another story entirely…

From “Advancing Backward” in What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism by Joanna Russ (St. Martin’s Press, 1998)


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