What is Feminism?

“What is Feminism and Why Should We Do it?”

By Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ph.D. Professor of Feminist Theology at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont School of Theology.

What is Feminism and why should we do it? Is it still relevant? Is it relevant cross culturally? Feminism basically means the affirmation of the full humanity of women.  This means that all the ways women have been defined as inferior, secondary and dependent on men since the rise of Patriarchy roughly six-to ten thousand years ago are rejected. It means that women are affirmed as fully human, not partly human or complementary to the male, but with all human attributes and capacities, in relationships of both autonomy and mutually with other humans, male and female, as well as the ecosystem.

Feminism is relevant cross culturally because all known cultures presently existing have been shaped in one way or another by patriarchy, although in different ways. Thus feminism must take a vast plurality of cultural contexts and forms. What it means will be different for working class African-American women than for middle class white women; different for Jewish or for Muslim women than for Christian women. These differences do not negate one another, unless some feminists make the mistake of thinking that their feminist context is normative. Rather this diversity is precisely the wonderful richness of feminism, its capacity and necessity of being articulated in many contexts and cultural locations.

Feminism has accomplished a lot in the last hundred years since it began to reform law, culture and social relations in the late nineteenth century, but it has still only barely begun. Patriarchy is very deeply entrenched and has endless ways of reasserting its patterns of male domination, covertly and overtly. In some areas it asserts itself aggressively and violently, as in Afghanistan when women are forced to wear all-encompassing burkas, acid thrown in their face when they have uncovered heads and schools for girls are burned. In other areas such as the West women are seduced by dress and appearance to play the roles of bodily mirroring of male power. Religious is evoked to shame and enforce patriarchy; but psychiatry and biological science can also been used to claim unquestionable authorization for women’s dependency.

The accomplishments of feminism are made ephemeral. Their historical developments are eroded. Its history is not included in the collective memory of the society taught in school. Feminism has to be rediscovered and remade again and again. And yet patriarchy never fully wins because each generation of girl children is born with basic intuitions of their full humanity, their equal creative capacity, and rediscovers this in new ways.  Their mothers and fathers remember some of what was accomplished by feminism as valuable human flourishing and pass it in to daughters and sons.

Feminism is about both women and men. It affirms women’s full humanity, but it is not a putdown of men’s humanity. Rather it is a critique of patriarchy as a system that distorts the humanity of both women and men. Men are distorted by patriarchy both in being socialized into aggression, but also shamed when they seek their other creativities. Feminism critiques both distortions, and liberates men as well as women.

To ask if it is still relevant in 2011 is to have a very dim and inadequate grasp of the vastness of the feminist task, and the extent of the human history in so many different cultures around the world have been deformed and are still being deformed by patriarchy. Yet the capacity of patriarchal culture to repress the feminist questions, to shame those who ask them, to make it appear that the success of a few exceptional ruling class women have finished to work of feminism, means that it takes courage to speak up, to oppress ridicule and negation and to rethink in each different situation what needs to be done to affirm women’s full humanness in community with other women and men, here, now and in this context.


More Definitions of Feminisms: 

Simply put feminism is a movement to end sexism. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than ten years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.

– bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody, p. 1



1. From womanish.  (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.)  A black feminist or feminist of color.  From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman.  Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.  Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one.  Interested in grown up doings.  Acting grown up.  Being grown up.  Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.”  Responsible.  In charge. Serious.
2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually.  Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength.  Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually.  Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.  Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.  Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.”  Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
3. Loves music.  Loves dance.  Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness.  Loves struggle. Loves the Folk.  Loves herself. Regardless.
4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.

– Alice Walker’s Definition of a “Womanist” from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose Copyright 1983.



24 thoughts on “What is Feminism?”

  1. This explanation needs to acknowledge wrongs committed by certain groups of women against other groups of women in the name of feminism. For example, US feminists’ support of imperialist US intervention in Afghanistan to “free” Afghan women, a position Afghan feminists strongly opposed.


  2. I enjoyed reading what you had to say Rosemary and your right it does take courage to stand up and speak out and to speak on issues a person strongly believes in. As women we need to keep sharing, speaking out and helping our sisters who still suffer in different ways under the patriarchal thumb whether it be from a husband, priest or a young girls father. As you know patriarchy begins in the home and for those young women who have no male figure at home, they will turn to a man in society that will convince them his words and wisdom are correct because she knows nothing different. The more we as women who create bonds with each other, growing and educating will find them self turning less to a man to be aided or in need of and believe more in themselves to create greater change over time. I don’t know if we as a society will ever get away or completely destroy this patriarchal rule we as women have lived under for centuries, but I do hope to see a more matriarchal communities develop strong that us women can choose to live in without man. Religion being so deeply instilled that man uses it to rule over women has brought much violence against many women in other countries and here as well in our Western Culture.

    You mentioned the Afghanistan women and the burka they are told to wear. The burka originally was only an option from what I understood many, many years ago, however there was a group of people who were strongly against this as their religion is superior to the culture of the Muslim people. For those who ruled at the time who told the people that women don’t have to wear this burka and up roar took place against them. This country has endure some radical changes over the many years because of the fundamentalist and the U.S has continued to interfere with Afghanistan is one of the reasons why the Muslim men are so violent towards their women in addition to their radical way of twisting the Holy Koran and using their religion to kill and torcher their women. The greatest fear they have is that their society will think and be influenced by the Western Culture, that the women of the Muslim religion will change like the women in the West.

    They will not allow this to happen. I have been working academically to wanting to understand these people because, its so easy to judge them and see only the violence and I ask why? I to strongly feel the “burka” has oppressed the women of Muslim belief. My thoughts are that people can still hold on and practice a religion, how they dress and behave shouldn’t reflect in the belief system. Unfortunately its not the case here because these men use their religion to cover their crimes and abuse on their people, all because of fear and lack of understanding, they are so consumed with fighting they can’t see the big picture. Not everyone feels the same way who is a Muslim. Its seems as if they are savages because of the violence they have on the women, but doesn’t the Western Culture place violence on the women here? Of course it does, we just don’t see it in the same way. Maybe we should look closer, we can start with the prison system and why law enforcement is raping and killing women right here in California , the same goes for the men central jail. It brings a question to mind, a man being a police office beating and raping another man in prison, because he is a rookie and is instructed to by his superiors, what does that say about the law here and our Judaical system?


  3. I am a now very new feminist after reading and knowing the truth about the world we live in and the masculine power and authority that rules it, unfairly so with the non allowance of women even entertained to to do the job that man in all of history has done quite well. I am not all the way a liberated woman yet but I am learning and growing, shifting and being molded by God himself into one. Thanks for all the information and knowledge this article gave to me. Michelle Baum Atlanta, GA 44 years old but never too old to change, be all new, and have myself as a person different from who I was in the past here in the present and future!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Feminism has to be rediscovered and remade again and again.” I could not agree with this wonderful statement more. One of my daughters wrote a beautiful piece for school on “modern feminism” yesterday in which, among other things, she explained how boys could also be feminists because my (very traditional) son is one, and my other daughter got into a big debate on Twitter over feminism in the context of the American election.

    Lovely post and lets all keep developing feminism as it still has a long way to go in this world.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. great article and as a woman born in 1949 and part of the “burn the bra” movement and who had to literally program her brain to keep pushing forward and to progress in education and art and move on from the patriarch society I am one of the first feminist in my generation> maybe. I was told I could only do three things; be a housewife, nurse or secretary and maybe a school teacher. Most women went to college to trap a man. Baa humbug. I say to that then and now. I can not believe we are going back through the abortion thing again and these male chauvinist pigs of the tea party again. We do have create feminism over and over again due to the male ego of control and low self esteem. I sometimes say low ego and small dicks. lol I have been married four times. the first time was to please mommy. the second time was to please mommy. the third time not sure, other than race against time and had babies(still a feminist) married out of my culture sortav’ part of the layover from the 70s liberation s. Divorced and it was awful. married a fourth and married happily to another artist and he beat me up after 10 years. No more marriage for me. Have a companion to help out with finances. Still an artist and feminist and still believe the same way that actually my dad raised me to be. My father wanted to teach me basic mechanics on the car just because it would make more independent and my mommy said no that was a mans game. My mommy and daddy had a fight about so how about that? my dad was a peace loving man who worked on jeeps in the war. he said thank God. i was taught guns are for cops and for people who need them not recreational. we did not go out and shoot deer as we thought they were too cute. i was taught to love my neighbor and peace and love. this was taught me a lot by father. he also taught me women were important people and that if i wanted to worship God and nature at the beach then go for it. Some men are feminist because they appreciate the woman as a human being not a sex thing or added addition to their rib. Peace sister…..carry on……


  6. I agree with you when you say feminism has accomplished a lot yet still has a long ways to go. I couldn’t agree more. Ways of life for women have changed so much in a good way yet there are still some nicks and crooks to be smoothed out. Women are still being denied jobs some say are meant for men, and there are still women who are working that same job as a man yet are not being paid nearly as much. “Feminist ethics has become one of the most important influences in ethics today. The feminist argument reminds us of the important role of the moral sentiments and close and intimate relationships in happiness and the good life. It suggests that dispassionate reason need not be seen as the highest virtue and insists that an admirable person will also be a passionate person who is concerned with other people and cares deeply about his or her family and loved ones.” (Johannesen, 2008) This statement states how we should embrace each other as a passionate being. I think learning to love and accept one another and see one another as equal is an important step in removing the way people see women in society and the work force.

    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K.S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in Human Communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc


  7. Great What is Feminism? ,
    Hmm is anyone else having problems with the pictures on
    this blog loading? I’m trying to figure out if
    its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog. Any feed-back
    would be greatly appreciated.


  8. thank you for the wonderful and academic artical because for my case it is more of my academic understanding


  9. thank you for this post. I was introduced to this website through my professor and I always had a misconception of what feminism is and I had only known what was painted in the media. I learned a lot from this post and I now believe that we should all be feminists. As a women I would never want to be seen as inferior just because of my gender. Everyone in this day and age should be a feminists. I believe that everyone is equal in this life regardless of age, race, gender, social status etc.


  10. Thanks for your wonderful website. I especially like the quote about how feminism is an attempt to end sexism. I work and plant seeds in the minds of my community college students daily about this topic. I see there is plenty of great resources to check out. I’m looking forward to reading more. I post occasionally on the topic of feminism, but my blog is mainly dedicated to spirituality. https://triciabarkernde.com/2016/07/06/loving-feminist/

    Liked by 2 people

  11. The feminism we know of is really patriarchally directed. It’s women trying to wangle the male system to their liking. I say true feminism is having our own vision, our own system and repudiating patriarchy wholesale and bringing total sovereignty to every individual in the world. No half measures – we either have a vision as women or we use men’s vision and live within it. I say throw it all into the compost heap and build a new model. We can do this while patriarchy extinguisheds into the ground.


  12. What if we took a look at the Chinese, Yin (ladies) and Yang (men). On the Tao symbol, the black side symbolizes undifferentiated matter while also fostering the “egg” or potential. The White side of the Tao is the Male, which is differentiated matter. I’m being over simplistic. I wrote a book regarding religions and spoke to Sophia Episteme (Greek), and other “Goddesses” such as Thinking Woman in Keres Pueblo (which is one with Sophia, i.e., Wisdom and Intelligence. You can say that due to the Yang over the Yin, we have a planet that is probably close to being murdered due to our stupidity. And, yes, the Earth is Feminine, Nature and what is Nature? Birds, bees, coconut trees AND Essence. Our Essence is our Truth and our Truth is our Nature!


  13. Feminism is about gender and sex equality (socially, politically, economically, psychologically). It’s not only about the affirmation of women’s humanity, it’s about the affirmation of the human being, female, male, non-binary, whatever.

    What I truly mean is that, for instance, the distinction between male and female rape shouldn’t exist: it’s rape, period! Rape concerns the human being, it’s violence against a human being and it should be defeated as such.

    We are entering a new wave of feminism that defines itself in that way. I’m honored to be the son of the feminists’ movement that was historically set up during the XIX century, but there have been new waves of feminism after the first one. Our is the 4th. So, I know it could be difficult to change, but changing the direction doesn’t mean changing the aim or the conditions of a fight: we must look wider, in order to achive wider success as human beings.

    Thank you Rosemary for your article.


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