Feminism has a “brand”? A recent contest – still running, if you want to get in on it! – asks for suggestions about how to “rebrand feminism.” The contest has corporate sponsors. Saying that although feminism “has brought us the right to vote, drive and have our own bank accounts,” it is nonetheless the case that “Feminism has been given a bad rap, and gotten a bad rep.” Elle UK’s November issue does the same, claiming to rebrand “a term that many feel has become burdened with complications and negativity.”
I suspect that most readers here at Feminism and Religion will have similar reactions to this development: disgust and distaste. Why do feminists need to overcome the negative stereotypes and reactions that are used to dismiss them by anti-feminists? Most of us have heard the usual derisive responses, I suspect, and are tired of being instructed that it is our responsibility to overcome stereotypes we have done nothing to earn. I once wrote the words “feminist” and “Christian” on the board in an introductory theology class, and asked students what the first word that came to mind was in each case. Predictably, the first response for “feminist” was “femi-Nazi.” The student wasn’t intending to imply that such a designation was fair, but the immediacy of the reaction was telling. So why should feminists subordinate our political and social aims to corporate self-promotion? And is feminism really just about getting the vote, being able to drive, and having bank accounts? This list of issues brings together the trivial (when were women unable to drive in the UK or USA?), the liberal status quo (voting), and the assumption that feminism means the full ability to participate in the capitalist system. That’s not to suggest that these concerns are unimportant. But all of them involve acceding to an already-constituted public, financial, political, and social space. Is feminism simply about, as so many popular invocations have it these days, equality and giving women the same opportunities as men?
Even within feminist spheres, a version of rebranding is often practiced. We’re not like those old-school feminists, many say. We’re sex-positive! We’re no longer engaged in the sex wars. We’re trans*-affirming! Not transphobic like those 70s feminists were. We’re intersectional! Not engaged in single-issue politics like those older generations of feminists. These generational politics in feminist circles tend to divide older and younger feminists from each other, allowing younger feminists to congratulate themselves on their own wisdom and progressiveness, and leaving older feminists to wonder why they get no respect from the younger generation that benefits so substantially from the trails they blazed for us.
Rebranding, then – from “the personal is political” to “intersectionality”? – may be a more common feminist practice than it ought to be. What are we claiming when we distinguish ourselves from feminists who come before or after us? What is at stake in the generational politics of feminism? To ask that question is not, of course, to assume that newer developments are necessarily bad, and older good. Instead, it is a question about what we gain in identifying generations and trends, and distinguishing ourselves from our foremothers. Has the intersectionality of the Combahee River Collective’s statement ever been fully surpassed? What would it even mean to surpass it?
That said, I’d want to distinguish between developments in feminist language and the rebranding practiced by Elle UK and the corporate sponsors of the contest. Intersectionality has been a useful term for highlighting the ultimate insufficiency of single-issue social analyses, which is just what “the personal is political” implies in its radical specificity. Such developments reflect both the way that newer analyses benefit from older and the way that language inevitably shifts. In contrast, attempts to rebrand feminism through contests or advertising campaigns subvert its very nature. Feminism is about something deeper, something more difficult, something that goes far beyond equal rights under late capitalism or neoliberalism. Feminists want to throw a spanner into the systems of social reproduction and production, and into the systems of hierarchical value and self-interest that these orders assume and promote.
Such a task is far riskier than submitting a new feminist slogan or ad campaign to a contest. Becoming a feminist then requires a much more fundamental and ongoing restructuring and reorientation of one’s values and loves. If I am marked and shaped by all that surrounds me, as we all inevitably are, then I have to come to terms with the reality that I too am at best on my way to becoming a feminist (and that’s on a good day). Such a fundamental reorientation causes the world to appear in a new light, though. Old patterns of reference now appear stunted and limiting. New possibilities for life, love, and social organization appear on the horizon. In that sense, to become a feminist is a religious conversion, involving a reorientation of heart, mind, and self.
Linn Marie Tonstad is assistant professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. She is currently completing her first book, tentatively titled “God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology.”