The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits By Gina Messina-Dysert

Last week Cynthia Garrity-Bond shared a post about Michele Bachmann and the misuse of the word feminism to describe her.  Commenter Kate Barker noted that Bachmann does not self-identify as a feminist, a very important point I think.  It led me to wonder whether there are any women in politics who self-identify as feminist, and while there may certainly be some or even many, I cannot think of any who do so publicly.

During the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Hillary Clinton spoke of working towards women’s rights around the world, putting 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, and being a member of the “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits,” but did not directly identify herself as a feminist.  I found Clinton’s membership to this “sisterhood” an interesting method of feminist self-identifying without employing the label.

It seems to me, to call oneself a “feminist” in the world of politics today would be to commit career suicide.  This term has joined the likes of “communist” or “socialist” and is utilized to create fear.  “Feminism” has become the new “F-word” and to self-identify as such, in politics, in religion, and in other spheres, often leads to marginalization.

Although we have been having conversations about feminism for quite sometime, entering the 21st century, we – society in general – continue to struggle with the meaning of the word.  Does it only acknowledge women? Does it exclude men?  Is it a Western term supporting a Western agenda?

Rosemary Radford Ruether’s definition (“What is Feminism and Why Should we do it?”) addresses these questions stating that feminism is “the affirmation of the full humanity of women… a critique of patriarchy as a system that distorts the humanity of both women and men…[and] is relevant cross culturally because all known cultures presently existing have been shaped in one way or another by patriarchy.”  This is why her article has become such a central piece to this blog.

All this being said, we continue to struggle with feminism as an ugly word and thus women and men look for creative ways to identify with feminist values, like Clinton’s reference to the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits.”  While teaching a theology course this past semester I had several students comment that they felt the word “feminism” should be trashed in favor of a new term that doesn’t have such baggage.  An interesting idea, but would we simply be throwing in the towel and allowing a patriarchal system to define a term meant to support women’s full humanity?

To wrap up, I think this video from IFC’s Portlandia (which is highly amusing) does a great job of mocking some of the issues we face with feminism.  For your entertainment: 

Categories: Feminism, Politics, Rosemary Radford Ruether

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Great observations, Gina. This debate about the use of the f-word is alive and well in Mormonism. Many Mormon feminists have abandoned the word because they think it connotes man-haters. Which is a bit of a shame, I think. Feminism and feminists have done wonderful things for our world, and a desire to abandon the word seems to me to indicate a lack of recognition that there are many varieties of feminism, some more radical than others.

    By the way, I’ve never actually met a feminist who is a ‘man-hater.’ Has anyone else? Have they ever existed? (I believe some versions of radical feminism do advocate a separatist stance, but that’s not really man-hating, is it?) Besides, to be a man-hater seems to me to go against the ideals of feminism, which is to recognize the full humanity of all people.


  2. Thanks so much for your comment Caroline! I absolutely agree with you; it would be very problematic to abandon the words “feminism” and “feminist.” To do so, I think, would be another “win” for patriarchy, another way to take power from women.

    And, as you state, while there are many forms of feminism, none advocate hate for men. Feminism instead affirms the humanity of men. The real problem here is the lack of understanding of what feminism represents. Hence, I love Rosemary Radford Ruether’s article as it really addresses the issues much of society struggles with around this term.


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