Feminism: The Quest for an African Variant

Article excerpt

The Origin of Gender Discourse

Feminism has its origin in the struggle for women's rights. It began in the late eighteenth century. The growth of feminism began in Europe and America when women became conscious of their oppression and took steps to redress this oppression. At present, feminism has spread all over the globe although in many countries it has become tagged with different labels. Feminist ideas are now part of everyday thinking, and is historically a diverse and culturally varied international movement with has been variously defined and described by many people. As such, it becomes difficult to have a concise universal definition of the term. While recognizing the implications of a sweeping definition, the following definitions throw light on the concept of feminism. According to Barrow and Millburn (1990:128), feminism is "a label for a commitment or movement to achieve equality for women"; J.A. Cuddon (1991:338) defines it as "an attempt to describe and interpret (or reinterpret) women's experiences as depicted in various kinds of literature", and sociologically, Maggie Humm (1992:1) says "the word feminism can stand for a belief in sexual equality combined with a commitment to transform society."

Ruth Sheila (1980:4) in her work rightly observes that feminists do not agree among themselves on one all-inclusive and universally acceptable definition of the term and thus says that what feminism means to various people depends on one's political or sociological observations and goals, one's understanding or interpretation of the word 'woman' and several other factors. Feminism, she emphasizes, may be 'a perspective, a world-view, a political theory, or a kind of activism."

Conversantly, feminism originates from the Latin word 'femina' which describes women's issues. Hence, it is clear from the above definitions that whatever feminism means to different people, it revolves primarily around the female experience. Feminism is concerned with females not just as a biological category, but the female gender as a social category, and therefore feminists share the view that women's oppression is tied to their sexuality. This is so because women and men's biological differences are reflected in the organization of society, and based on these differences, women are treated as inferior to men. Whether as a theory, a social movement or a political movement, feminism specifically focuses on women's experiences and highlights various forms of oppression which the female gender is subjected to in the society.

Since feminists are of the view that male domination is found in virtually all important aspects of life, this male domination is seen as the source of social inequalities and injustice which affect the life of women. Feminists therefore seek to remove all the barriers to equal social, political and economic opportunities for women and object to the notion that a women's worth is determined principally by her gender and that women are inherently inferior, subservient or less intelligent than men. Thus, feminist scholarship is aimed at 'deconstructing' the established predominant male paradigms and 'constructing' a female perspective which foregrounds the female experience.

Womanism--The African American Variant

Although feminism claimed as its goal the emancipation of all women from sexist oppression, it failed to take into consideration the peculiarities of Black females and men of colour. In practice, feminism concentrated on the needs of middle class white women in Britain and America while posing as the movement for the emancipation of women globally. Patricia Collins (1990:7) contends:

   Even though Black women intellectuals have long expressed a unique
   feminist consciousness about the intersection of race and class in
   structuring gender, historically we have not been full participants
   in white feminist organizations.

bell hooks (1998:1,844) also accuses feminism of excluding Blacks from participating fully in the movement, thus she criticizes Betty Freidan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) because though it is heralded as paving the way for contemporary feminist movement, it is written as if the Black/lower class women did not exist. …