~ When I started teaching freshman English at BYU seventeen years ago, we had one day where we talked about sexist language. I handed out the definition of “feminism” found in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and began the discussion as I watched the eyes start to roll. (The definition, by the way, is one I like. It begins, “Feminism is the philosophical belief that advocates the equality of women and men and seeks to remove inequalities and to redress injustices against women.” You can read the rest here.) I’d like to hope that, seventeen years later, not as many eyes would roll with such a discussion.
~ Six years ago, I sat in a room for three hours as a panel of professors at my university asked me questions as the last part of my area exams, the most painful hurdle for me in my doctoral journey. One of my lesser areas was on feminist research methodologies. I focused most of the reading and writing I did for this area on the actual research methodologies and the ethics involved in them, rather than on the initial term “feminist.” When one of the professors on the panel asked me to define “feminism” at length, I stammered something about knowing that there are multiple feminisms—cultural, liberal, radical, postmodern—but that I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to answer. My inability to succinctly define “feminism” for myself almost resulted in me not passing the exam.
~A couple of weeks ago, a woman contacted me about collaborating on a scholarly project, given that my past research involved Mormon women writing in an online discussion board and that her current research involves the online Mormon feminist movement. I’m excited about the possibilities for collaboration, but I’m also concerned about a few things, one of which is that in her research, people aren’t considered feminists unless they define themselves feminists. I can see the reason for that. Who likes someone defining them? Especially with a term as loaded as “feminist.” And yet, I’ve also seen the strong—and usually misguided, in my opinion–reactions many Mormons have to the term, reactions based on a different definition of feminism than I espouse. But these same people who react strongly against “feminism,” often act in ways very much aligned with feminism. Not recognizing this ignores complexities within individuals and within the membership of the Church.
~In his introductory essay in Great Books of the Western World, Mortimer Alder attaches great significance to definitions, saying, “The search for definitions basically belongs to the activity of the human mind in all its scientific or dialectical efforts to clarify discourse, to achieve precision of thought, to focus issues and to resolve them. [People] have no other way of coming to terms with one another than by defining the words they use to express their concepts or meanings. They make terms out of words by endowing words with exactness or precision of meaning. Definition does this and makes possible the meeting of minds . . . “
So what do you think? Do you define yourself as a feminist? Does being defined as a feminist or not being defined as a feminist matter to you in particular? Do you think it matters in general? When you define yourself as something (feminist or otherwise), is it empowering for you, as Mortimer Alder argues? Or are definitions not relevant to you—should we focus our efforts on supporting each other, regardless of any definition?