Who “Gets” to be a Feminist? by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergLast year a friend of mine who is also a professor, a professor of Philosophy, initiated an email conversation with me to casually dialogue and ask some questions about feminism, a topic about which he had only limited knowledge. During this conversation, he asked a particularly pointed question which I will paraphrase here:

“Sara, do you think that ‘popular feminism’ or the kind of feminism we see in social media, particular political organizations or popular culture ends up getting to define feminism for larger society (and isn’t this representation a bit limited or behind what feminism has actually become)?”

His question stayed with me for quite some time and was echoed by members of the Women’s Caucus at the 2014 meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Western Religion (AAR/WR). Who defines feminism for society today? Who is defining what feminism is becoming? Who wants to be a feminist? Who ‘gets’ to be a feminist now?

Reflecting on these questions personally last year, I found myself a little lost… My daily exposure to feminism via social media sometimes felt like I was watching a constant battle between those who identified as feminists and those who found feminism wanting, inadequate, harmful or even hateful. Yet, much of my professional experience working with feminism, at the same time, also involved the opposite: purposeful coalition building, training and discussions about allied relationships, and efforts to create inclusive, if agonistic community.

Teaming up to address this issue of representation, power, naming and justice-making, the Queer Caucus and the Women’s Caucus of the AAR/WR co-hosted a panel and groups discussion at the 2015 regional conference this year in March. We asked the panelists to consider the question: “Who ‘gets’ to be a feminist,” encouraging each panelist to directly engage her, his or their own social location, institution and activism when addressing the workshop theme.

The prompt created by the QC and WC team (AAR/WR Queer Studies in Religion Co-Chairs, Marie Cartier and John Erickson, and myself) was broad, and I will include it here for your own consideration:

Who “Gets” to be a Feminist Now?

The Women’s Caucus and Queer Caucus of the AAR/WR invite panelists to consider the idea of feminist identity as this relates to power and naming, our own particular communities, and the larger work of justice-making in our regional community.

Not everyone has been included in the label “feminism” historically, nor does everyone want to be. Yet, the word feminism has far reaching political implications in society, popular culture, the schools that we attend/ at which we teach, etc.. Asking “Who ‘gets’ to be a feminist now,” the WC and QC hope to interrogate not only the meaning of feminist identity, but also the ways in which we practice and define justice-making. Who ‘gets’ to fight for particular visions of justice, why, and how? What does the “fight” look like today? What does it look like in our region? Who or what sets these standards, and how does this impact the work that we do?

 The panelist should respond to the overall theme in light of her, his or their particular intersectionality and communities. We recommend that panelists consider and/ or address the following questions:

  1. Who “gets” to be a feminist? What does “feminism” mean to you? Who can “fight” for feminist causes (and how is this defined, in your view)?
  2. Do you identify as feminist or not, and why? How do you name/ identify your own particular works of justice-making?
  3. How do the communities in which you work and live define feminist identity? What does feminism look like in your discipline/ field? How does all of this impact your practice of this type of justice-making?
  4. Is “feminism” activism, or is it teaching? If it is activism, what does this look like to you? If it is teaching, what does this mean for those of us who are unable to find jobs/ find sustainable jobs?
  5. How does praxis need to evolve/ change? What does the “fight” for justice look like today, and how can we translate this into practical strategies for justice, community building and alliship?

The workshop resulted in very fruitful dialogue for us in March.  Themes addressed by the panelists and participants included (but were not limited to):

  • How we can incorporate our own personal history into definitions of feminism
  • Pedagogical strategies
  • Issues of class, and the way that class impacts access to feminist discourse
  • How we raise boys in particular to see in feminist ways
  • How we deal with/ protect from the wounding of misogyny experienced by all genders and sexes in society
  • Intersectionality & symbiotic power
  • How and who can speak, and when
  • The “sanitization” of the term feminism in the academy
  • Feminist work (and the work of survival) that hasn’t been included in Western feminist discourses
  • Etc.

Sharing the workshop questions and some of our group’s thoughts in this blog, my hope is to expand this discussion beyond our March workshop. What do you make of these questions? Which of these questions are applicable to you and in your work for justice? Who ‘gets’ to be a feminist now (and are your okay with this)? What is feminism becoming?

Lost in the political tides of feminist discourse, I found this reflection, rooted in particular experiences, practical concerns, meditation (thank you Marie!) and actual strategy to be grounding. And while I realize that this ground is still changing because justice-making is an action, not an endpoint, I believe there is great value in stopping for a moment to consider where we are right now.

I want to thank our panelists: Shanshan Yang of the California Institute of Integral Studies, Sakena Young-Scaggs of Arizona State University and John Erickson of Claremont Graduate University, as well as all participants in the 2015 WC/QC Event.

I look forward to continuing this discussion with the feminismandreligion.com community.


Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

14 thoughts on “Who “Gets” to be a Feminist? by Sara Frykenberg”

  1. Great questions. The throw-away line in your post is at the beginning. How does anyone “get” to be a professor of philosophy without even having thought seriously about what feminism is?


  2. That there is even the Latin-derived term ‘feminism’ is a symptom of how deeply rooted the appropriation of thought and behavior is that privileges one gender and one sexuality over all others. Arguably a far better term would be the Greek-derived term ‘philosophy’ and its cognates. Regardless of who coined the compound ‘philosophy,’ it is clear that its earliest and most authoritative expression was in poetry celebrating gender and sexual equality. The ‘father’ of ‘philosophy,’ Parmenides, was above all else a consummate poet and it is hard to see how anyone could take his quasi-tantric image of an unnamed goddess holding his hand as she lectures him as anything other than just such a celebration. That, however, is an inconvenient truth for academic philosophers intent on reducing philosophy to blasting salvos of footnote congested prose at each other. A case can be made that the first use of ‘sophia’ (feminine in Greek) as a term for a way not just of thinking but of living (i.e., as a reference to thought and behavior, mind and body) is in Sappho’s characterization of an unnamed, unmarried woman (parthenos)(fragment 56). Confirmation of such a reading would seem to be bolstered by the 2004 discovery of a plainly philosophical poem by Sappho, but that has been all but ignored except by a handful of specialists. In my odd way of seeing things it is fair to conclude she should be deemed the ‘father’ of philosophy. No one would understand that so I will just say she was the first feminist.


    1. The newly discovered in 2004 poem by Sappho you mention, Stuart, is I think deeply and directly feminist in content, not just philosophical, since Sappho is celebrating her own very difficult aging process as a fit and beautiful subject for poetry. That’s radical feminism, because it challenges our underlying prejudices toward elderly women, and in addition, in terms of aging, notice at the end of the poem how she equalizes her difficulties with the struggles men have too — Sappho says:

      “You, for the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts,
      be zealous, girls, and the clear melodious lyre:

      But my once tender body — old age now
      has seized; my hair’s turned white instead of dark;

      My heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
      that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

      This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
      Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

      Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
      love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,

      Handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
      o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.”


  3. It was a honor to participate in this session Sara! You did a great job setting it up and it was so much fun! Sad you’re no longer the liaison but happy you can finally rest :)


    1. Thank you John and Marie! I couldn’t have done this session without you two; and I really enjoyed our collaborative efforts and the results… minus the technical difficulties of the day!

      My best to you both! :)


  4. Hi, Sara, great topic!

    This issue touches on a lot of interesting and sensitive points, from neo-liberal Western colonialist normativity to locational, situated, “in her own voice” diversity, and everything in between! If we consider feminist self-identity (or projected other-identity) to largely depend on what definitions of feminism are respectively in play, we can easily see how a kaleidoscope of diverse possibilities emerge. For example, I myself consider myself to subscribe to the bell hooks definition (struggle to end sexist oppression), and Audre Lorde and Alice Walker themes, which would thus also make me a womanist too, and Sandra Cisneros, Rebecca Chopp, etc., which brings in a mujerista genus too. Thus I would seem to abide in the “big tent” feminism, which overlaps somewhat with what I have recently proposed as an example of Vajrayana Buddhist ecofeminism, too!

    I recently published a paper that goes into this topic in great detail; it also has quite a few interesting and relevant references that you might find interesting:

    Is South Asia’s Buddhist Leader the Gyalwang Drukpa an Ecofeminist? Dialectical, Grounded Analysis of Eminent Feminist Theology Illuminates the Foundations for a Vajrayana Buddhist Ecofeminism



  5. One of the ideas your post made me think of is the recent movement rejecting feminism(s) and claiming instead the term humanist, as if it is more inclusive of everyone and less associated for some with myths about feminism, including that we are all “radical man-hating lesbians.”


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