Mainstreaming = Problem

In a recent article in Time magazine entitled, The New Liberal Order, Peter Beinart asserts that "feminism is so mainstream that even Sarah Palin* embraces the term." 

And with that, Beinart touches on two of the deepest problems of contemporary feminism, mainstreaming and the politics of verbal identity.  Membership, inclusion, participation - whatever term you want to use - is fast becoming a backlash as feminism goes Main Stream.

Can feminism - an ever-evolving charge of empowerment and energy - be mainstreamed?  I say no.  At least, not in its entirety.  One of the most disturbing trends happening is the political mainstreaming of one specific strand of feminism as feminism whole.  This marketing of feminism sells one kind of history, work and concept of female empowerment and, for the right price, conflates mainstream feminism with Feminism (plural). When feminism is explored in media, it is typically referring to White, middle class, educated, US-citizen heterosexual women.  

There are two problems that unfold with this mainstreaming.  The first problem is that it markets feminism as a monolithic group; a group of feminists who desire, believe, and work for the same ideal, which is wildly simplistic and erroneous.  This faux claim of sameness and singularity ignores the diverse work and accomplishments of other feminists who do not fit that category and often go unrecognized. This portrayal of feminism also feeds its gritty US-history of exploitation, racism, neglect, and betrayal of women of color and their communities.

Feminism, as a collective movement, needs to sustain a habit of frequent communication between the movements. Borrowing from astronomy, the Orion is a sisterhood of stars that make up one constellation.  Few can name the individual stars that align the famous celestial sighting, but the sight, in its entirety, is easily recognized by children and sky watchers alike.  Similarly, feminists need to promote and advocate its own plural make-up, and also need to demand that same understanding from reporters, writers, bloggers, educators, and activists. 

Mainstreaming reinforces the one size fits most feminism.  It dissolves the diverse and bright faces of feminism and, in its place, creates an illusion of a bull's eye, with the middle target being the most significant feminists to focus upon.  The problem with the bull's eye visual is the outer circles, once again, become the marginalized.  

Not one group of feminists is more important than others, but it would be naive and foolish to ignore the layered oppression of poor women of color, single mothers with no healthcare or access medical treatment, or violence at the border or against transwomen.  Those most vulnerable need not be in the center, but feminists must be able to distinguish between centrality and urgency.  Not one group is more significant, but there are steep levels of immediacy and severity.  While needs are different, they're equally critical to the plural movement of feminism.  Think of the Olympic rings.  You cannot pick one circle without choosing the others as well.  You cannot identify the Mintaka as one star and claim it is the entire Orion belt. Mintaka may be a bright star, it may be necessary, but it's not the Orion.  It's merely a part of it.  

The individual over collective mentality breeds another type of ugliness within feminism.  More and more pop culture is featuring Sex and the City with its racist and classist depictions as the playground for empowerment.  And, more and more are agreeing to sell this one type of feminism for personal gain.  bell hooks wrote in Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory, "As more and more women acquired prestige, fame, or money from feminist writings or from gains from feminist movement for equality in the workforce, individual opportunism undermined appeals for collective struggle.  Women who were not opposed to patriarchy, capitalism, classism, or racism labeled themselves 'feminist.' Their expectations were varied."  

As radical liberation is now confused with sexual freedom, reproductive health is overshadowed by abortion, and the term "women's interest" is conflated with "fashion," it opens the door wider to misrepresentation and feminist evasion. On one hand, you have Sarah Palin, a high powered politician who endorses victims to pay for their own rape kit, to claim herself feminist, and then you have other grassroots workers, community organizers, multitasking mothers working two jobs who would never touch the word with a ten foot pole.  Let me be clear, though.  The problem is not filtering out who is "allowed in,"  the problem is that mainstreaming feminism and individual profiting has sacrificed feminism as a collective, its one strength and hope of saving itself from imploding.

The point of feminism is to work for the radical equality and liberation of all.  It does this through the lens of gender that incorporates the other salient factors of race, citizenship, religion, socioeconomic status, education, and sexual preference into analysis.  Feminism is not looking to form a club with prerequisites, but it does necessitate consistency and accountability. The pejorative history of US feminism mandates a rigorous and nuanced exploration of difference. However, to sustain a movement, those differences cannot be in conflict with the goals of equality.  We need to make space for conversation, but we need not make space for kyriarchal practices in the name of inclusion. 

*Palin later rejects the term because she does not want to "label" herself.



by Lisa Factora-Borchers
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Lisa Factora-Borchers is the formal editorial director at Bitch Media. Her work is widely published and she is the editor of the anthology, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence.



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5 Comments Have Been Posted


Nice, Lisa! :D


Great piece!

There is a lot of effort being put into this "feminism is for everybody" sentiment (if you support equal pay then you're a feminist. if you support sex education then you're a feminist. i picture a little feminist fairy running around with a sparkly wand bopping people on the head and magically re-identifying them.), and while this idea certainly can increase the number of people who identify as feminists, increased numbers does not always lead to an increased amount of progressive (dare I say radical) social change. I think that the past 30 or so years shows that it simply creates a 'movement' (can we even call feminism a movement anymore?) that consistently loses more and more of the teeth that it may have one had. By definition, for something to be radical it must depart from what is usual or traditional, and this particular brand of feminism (the one where everyone is included) has the tendency to only reinforce the norm, to the point where I have to consider jumping out of this ship because the world that I experience is not one that I want to conform to, and I'm not trying to be mistaken for "that kind" of feminist. And the reason why I keep my seat is because I agree with Lisa that there are many different feminisms, and I struggle with so many others for recognition of the kind of feminism that I subscribe to, the kind that no one would ever mistake for mainstream because it's nowhere near the status quo, challenging it and "that kind" of feminism day by day, while also trying to remember that we don't all need to be on the same page or use the same pen in order to rewrite the book.

Ta for yet another thought provoking piece

Lisa and Mandy,

Thank you. Your pieces are both a joy to read. I have been devoting much thought recently to the diversity within feminism and to my frustration with the mainstream media's acknowledgment of a one-size-fits all kind of feminism: that which is now palatable to mainstream society and wrapped in an easy to digest Sex and the City package.

As the term feminism has become so diluted (by some) that even Sarah Palin felt comfortable taking it on for a time, has anyone thought about how this is just branding? How easy it is in these times for a person, a group, a corporation to say that they are feminist in their views to intentionally deceive and manipulate in order to present themselves as being "progressive"?

Speaking (or technically, writing) of massive BS that annoys me, has anyone checked this out from the Irish Times?

When I first moved to Ireland, over 13 years ago, I honestly thought people were taking the piss when they referred to "man colds". I mean come on, who could honestly believe a man suffers more with a cold (and therefore needs more comfort/sympathy/care) than a woman?


I support the never ending quest to improving female equality.

Out of curiosity, how much money per year is spent towards the feminism movement? Estimated.

Could that money be used towards something more productive?


<p>Hey there Nate,</p><p>Interesting question - one that I don't think I've ever been asked before and I would have to ask for clarification.  Feminism, as a collective movement, is a term used to describe the struggle for equality.  That being said, there is no official Organized Movement that acts as an umbrella with leaders who oversee the different efforts and activities. </p><p>I'd answer that &quot;organized&quot; feminism is make up of so many different orgs - professional, grassroots, non-profit, college - and have different mission statements.  For example, there are urban women centers that focus on domestic violence, or providing advocacy for healing from sexual violence.  Those kinds of centers can be privately funded or receive grants, or solicit donations from companies and local citizens to keep itself running.  Each one is different.</p><p>It would be impossible to measure how much money is spent on &quot;feminism&quot; when it is includes feminist magazines (like make/shift or Bitch), women's centers (both within academy and in metropolitan cities), professional conferences like NWSA, DV shelters, or organized marches in D.C. or campaigns to raise money for individual causes (Women and children with AIDS, Take Back the Night rallies, etc).   All of these, in my opinion, would be included in your question, and, for me, is impossible to measure, or even estimate.</p><p>Whatever the number, I believe that (typically) funding for women's needs is stretched to the penny so that not one cent is wasted.  I have found this particularly true for the non-profit sector and grassroots conferences like the Allied Media Conference which is slowly becoming the home for many blogging feminists of color.</p><p>Sorry I don't have a number for you, but hope my explanation helped a bit! </p>

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