While reading Notre Dame's daily newspaper, the Observer, yesterday, I happened across a letter to the editor entitled "Feminism is for everyone."
The article began,
For some reason, men and women alike often look at me strangely when I tell them I am a feminist. They assume I hate men and the concept of marriage, burn bras, reject future motherhood or advocate for loose morals when it comes to sexuality. They assume I am physically unattractive, bitter about “not finding a man,” or a soon-to-be spinster or workaholic.
None of these statements is true about me, nor do they define the majority of feminists. These are common and unfortunate misconceptions about what feminism really is. Feminism, at its core, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. The movement’s aim is to advocate for women’s rights on the grounds of political, economic and social equality to men. These principles should not be controversial, and it saddens me to know that so many uninformed individuals hold a false image of such an important movement.
The author goes on to note:
According to a recent, national YouGov poll, only 20 percent of Americans consider themselves “feminists.” However, 82 percent say “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” This is preposterous, considering that the two phrases are synonymous. “Feminist” has come to be regarded as an extremist, outlandish view, as people associate it with things that do not, in any way, define the feminist movement. If you believe in equality between the sexes, then you are a feminist. Period.
A few things can be said in response to these paragraphs. For one thing, I can think of a few terms that capture "the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities" — "human dignity" and "natural rights" come to mind—but "feminism" is not one of them. I want to say, with Inigo Montoya, that the word does not mean what the author seems to think it means.
For another thing, I can't see why my believing in "equality between the sexes"—meaning, I hope, a belief in that both men and women are humans, and therefore share the same human dignity—makes me a "feminist" any more than a "masculinist" or even a "humanist."
There's also the fact that constitutive of some expressions of contemporary "feminism" is not just the conviction that men and women should have equal social, political and economic opportunities, but that they must be "equals" in these arenas. Women will probably never occupy as many high-powered positions in society as men do for entirely natural (dare I say biological?) reasons. Many self-described "feminists," among whose chief determinations is the insistence that biology not come between "equality of the sexes," don't seem to grasp this simple truth.
Most importantly, I would suggest that the discrepancy bespoken by the polls cited in the Observer article is less "preposterous" than the author believes.
"Feminism" is as ambiguous a term as exists in the American socio-political lexicon. The reason that a majority of Americans do not share the author's confident definition of "feminism" is that "feminism" is a term that encompasses broad (and sometimes competing) arrangements of beliefs, commitments, ideologies, and dogmas.
John Paul II was a feminist, as he expressed in his apostolic letter "Mulieris Dignitatem." Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was a feminist. They would both eschew as antithetical to their own "feminisms" many of the projects of contemporary, self-described American "feminists."
I raise these objections to my fellow Domer's article by way of introducing what I think is the most interesting point that she presents, albeit inadvertently: It matters enormously for intelligent and intelligible discourse that we define clearly the words we employ. Such is not merely the vocational task of the philosopher or the linguist; this is a duty of any responsible person whose "rhetorical virtues," as one of my Notre Dame professors calls them, include clarity and precision of word (and therefore thought). When interlocutors aren't careful to speak precisely and definitely, their discourse is doomed to mutual misunderstanding and susceptible to accusations of bad faith.
Josef Pieper provides, I think, a masterful example of a deep and thorough investigation of the underlying unity expressed by a word when he explores the meaning of "love" in his work of the same name. (Pieper concludes that in every usage of the word "love" the speaker is affirming the goodness of the beloved; "It's good that you exist!" is how Pieper puts it.)
Additionally, a passage from G. K. Chesteron's The Ball and The Cross comes to mind in this connection, and as I've done before, I'll cede the last word to Chesterton (from Chapter 5):
"Now, let us put the matter very plainly, and without any romantic nonsense about honour or anything of that sort. Is not bloodshed a great sin?"
"No," said MacIan, speaking for the first time.
"Well, really, really!" said the peacemaker.
"Murder is a sin," said the immovable Highlander. "There is no sin of
"Well, we won't quarrel about a word," said the other, pleasantly.
"Why on earth not?" said MacIan, with a sudden asperity. "Why shouldn't we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn't any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn't there be a quarrel about a word? If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about. I say that murder is a sin, and bloodshed is not, and that there is as much difference between those words as there is between the word 'yes' and the word 'no'; or rather more difference, for 'yes' and 'no', at least, belong to the same category. Murder is a spiritual incident. Bloodshed is a physical incident. A surgeon commits bloodshed.
"Ah, you're a casuist!" said the large man, wagging his head. "Now, do you know what I always say to casuists...?"