Women step out from behind shadows of men

Yohanna Figueroa

That man over there say a woman needs to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helped me into carriages or over mud puddles or gives me a best place… And ain’t I a woman?” – Sojourner Truth, abolitionist, from her speech in 1851 at a Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.

The original leaders of the feminist movement in the United States were women aiming to gain voting rights, “equal pay for equal work” and “no fault” divorce. Yet, as more of these goals were won, more issues were raised, and with every concern raised, more remained.

Today, some of these issues have birthed a new diaspora of definitions. Depending on a woman’s culture, race and sexuality the definition of feminism can be different.

The concept of feminism has come a long way. From the women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, today’s feminist movement is defined by its diversity of views.

Ordained in 1991 from the Hebrew Union College in New York, female Rabbi Michele Paskow, CSUN Jewish Studies Department, said even within the Jewish community there is a “diversity of opinion” when it comes to the participation of women in Judaism. Paskow said all denominations of Judaism embrace the full participation of women in society but some traditional values continue to divide the sexes.

“Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis, women do not get to lead prayer services,” Paskow said. “They even sit separately from men.”

Even women who are highly educated find themselves struggling with traditional gender roles.

” Within orthodoxy, many of the orthodox women you meet are educated, certainly intelligent and articulate,” Paskow said. “They can be doctors or lawyers and then when they go to the synagogue, they are respected by the men and not considered inferior, but if they adhere to that tradition, it restricts them in some ways.”

She said the founders of the feminist movement wanted to create social change through economic, political and gender equality.

“Some of the founders of all feminism were Jewish, (like) Betty Friedan, and they came from a community where they were secondary citizens. That’s what spawned all that,” Paskow said.

“Judaism is a mirror of what is going on in the general society and part of being Jewish is about bringing social change, bringing changes for the better,” she said.

Paskow said her definition of feminism is different from the traditional feminist definition. Traditional Jewish religion believes in men and women having complementary roles in life, where each sex has a certain set of responsibilities and both sets of duties are equal in importance.

“I like to look at it as not a competition,” Paskow said.” I think we’ve broken that barrier. We’ve broken a lot of barriers.”

Mary Pardo, chair of the Chicano/a Studies Department, said while the feminist movement has become more unified there are still issues with identity.

“I think now we’ve got a more inclusive definition of feminism, although we always have to struggle to be part of it,” Pardo said.

“One of the biggest criticisms from a Chicano perspective has been that feminism was conceived as kind of narrow and that it excluded women of color and working class women. In this century I think there has been a kind of broadening of that definition,” she said.

In this century, women have been able to make large strides in terms of influencing power. Women are heads of corporations and have powerful government positions, and are presidents of some countries. The early core definition of feminism helped to gain this type of power, but the new era of feminists do not see this type of power as their main goal.

“I think there is a tendency to think of feminism as women getting their space in corporate positions and from a Chicano perspective we’re not talking about that,” Pardo said. “We are talking about equality for women who are also working class, we’re talking about women who should have the right to a decent wage.”

The early feminist movement’s concern with equality in power has spread internationally. Jamaica elected its first female Prime Minister while Liberia and Chile have elected their first women presidents.

Having women in positions of power does not mean that the earlier definition of feminism has been fulfilled. Many concerns still exist.

Simply giving women positions of power is not enough, said Marta Lopez-Garza, chair of the Women’s Studies department.” Unless women are willing to change the system.”

“If we keep concentrating on getting individual women in power, we’re not looking at what happens to the majority of women,” Lopez-Garza said. “We can have women increasingly become senators in congress but what does that mean when we have increasing poverty among women in this country? What does it mean to them that there are more women in congress?”

The core definition of feminism does not consider how exercised power could have nothing to do with gender, Lopez-Garza said.

“I think power is often misused and is usually used for self-aggrandizement, meaning just for me or just for my people,” Lopez-Garza said.

“Once you get in a position of power somehow your interests become the same as other people with power. Are you going to go along with the other people in power or are you going to totally change the government? And people in power rarely do that, even women,” she said.

Some believe that the power that has been gained by women in the last century was not and is not being equally distributed. The “splintering” of the definition of feminism helps to weaken the cause, said Monica L. Turner, Pan-African Studies professor.

“I just see that we are splintering off more and more and I do not see that we have made a lot of progress,” Turner said.

“Labeling is problematic because it keeps us defending these social constructions and those social constructions are ideologically polarizing,” she said.

Turner said when you have one group focused on societal problems and another group concentrating on gender issues, when all issues are of importance, it is “alienating and exclusive.”

“The problem I have had in looking at feminism is because it is so fragmented, it keeps women from struggling together on common issues,” Turner said. “Now that we have gotten a chance to claim our territory what do we do with it besides produce more literature?”

From Truth’s struggles in the past to today, the theorizing of the poor black, white, Chicana or Asian woman in literature is tiring, Turner said.

“I would like to see more praxis. Less theorizing on those people down there and more actual fieldwork looking for solutions to the problems we have been naming over and over again,” Turner said.

She said that according to Alice Walker, African feminism is coined as a “Womanist Movement,” a move towards inclusiveness.

“Feminism is not just limited to women, it also deals with the issues related to any kind of oppression, whether it’s children, the insane, the disabled, it’s supposed to be inclusive in practice and theory,” she said.

“The very definition of a humanistic movement for social justice is not just limited to the issues related to women.”

Yohanna Figueroa can be reached at features@csun.edu.