Recently Susan Sarandon was asked if she is a feminist and her response left many asking if perhaps we are moving towards a post-feminist world. Of course, the very fact that Sarandon was asked if she is a feminist well demonstrates that gender politics continue (certainly, men are not asked such questions).
According to Sarandon, “I think of myself as a humanist because I think it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches.” She went on to explain that “feminist” is an “old-fashioned word” and is actually used to minimize women and girls.
Sarandon’s comments left many questioning what the difference is between humanism and feminism, particularly when a definition of feminism calls for the honoring of the full humanity of all women and all men, as it does here on Feminism and Religion. Why not move to a humanist identification and leave behind the baggage of feminism? While feminism is not anti-male, it is often mistakenly interpreted as such. Lady Gaga’s ridiculous and ill-informed comment, “I’m not a feminist, I hail men, I love men,” doesn’t help matters. Ergo, the “f-word” is still alienating.
Certainly, humanism emphasizes the value of all human beings. The 2002 Amsterdam Declaration of the World Humanist Congress “affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others.” This said, while feminism and humanism seem to be working toward the same objective, the foundations of humanism contradict the feminist mission of justice.
First, the European Enlightenment is responsible for the foundation of humanism. As Emily Lindsay Jackson points out, European privileged white men sought to remake humans of the New World in their own image. Likewise, as Judith Butler explains, contemporary humanism does not value diversity and difference, but rather presumes only one way to be human.
While feminism calls for justice in all forms and honors diversity, humanism demands we all conform to an “enlightened” understanding of what it means to be human. Thus, as Jackson states, “humanist solutions to current social problems – based on science, secularism, and “artistic creativity” – at the same time reinforce western, privileged, patriarchal values…” Whereas feminism is concerned with gender politics, humanism is founded on patriarchal values that ignore the gender based injustice endured by women around the globe.
I am often criticized for my feminist identity. Some say it is disturbing, passe, ignorant. Some claim to offer me advice by encouraging me not to put “my feminism” in anyone’s face – there is no need to talk about I’m told. Still others say, “why not identify as a humanist? It’s so much less controversial.” And to all of these I respond, my feminist identity is crucial to my world view and to who I am as a person. Feminism gives me the tools to continue in the struggle against all that encourages oppression based on gender or any differentiating factor. To those who feel burdened by my feminism, I must ask, is not the lack of justice for women around the world more burdensome?
Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is a Feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist. She is Dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. In addition, Gina has taught at multiple universities including Claremont Graduate University, Loyola Marymount University, John Carroll University and Notre Dame College. Gina has authored multiple articles and the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence, and is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the forthcoming anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.