A Definition of Civic Feminism

A Definition of Civic Feminism

The struggle of American feminism was to make women equal to men: as human beings, with equal access to work and education, to control not only their inheritance, but also their wages and other property, and to reduce (if not entirely eliminate) the scope of violence men could inflict upon them with impunity. And this means as citizens. For man or woman, a citizen is neither a taxpayer nor a consumer: we all consume, but that is not what we are, and even though taxes are essential to maintain a civilization, the poorest illegal alien pays taxes. And finally, a citizen is not a voter: residents of totalitarian societies vote and the results are usually trumpeted, even though they protect no one from arbitrary arrest, torture, and execution.

There are several markers of citizenship.

Formally, there is the right to vote, to serve on a jury, and in the United States be part of the militia, organized or unorganized, in order to provide for the common defense. These are all rights that can only be exercised collectively.

Then there are these informal rights: the right to marry whom you choose, without needing to obtain permission for yourself, either to give your hand, or end the partnership. The right to be free from public torture, for example, by the police during interrogation, or the judiciary, after sentencing, and legal protection against private torture, be it wife-beating, lynching, or gay-bashing or any other form. And the right to serve in the military in any position and at any rank that you personally are capable of filling and obtaining.

Finally, like the Greeks and early Romans before them, the American Founders viewed education, both practical and liberal, as well as work at a scale that enabled one to be more than just a waged slave, as inherent to citizenship: you needed to be educated, and you needed economic insulation from political and other pressures in order to make your civic—political—decisions freely. And your intellect and your work were needed in the public realm.

Taken together, all this means something very specific. A citizen’s intellect, labor, and body are his (and now in America, hers as well), and citizens actively participate in their community and the Republic as members of both, who can count upon both to uphold their rights, just as citizens are responsible for the survival and prosperity of both community and Republic.

It is foolish to ignore how deeply radical was the generations-long struggle of the American feminist movement to make women citizens, even if that struggle was deeply rooted in American political ideas that preceded the actual Revolution. And if that struggle has profoundly and powerfully changed the American political and social landscape very much for the better, in a very short time since the revival of second-stage feminism in the mid-1960s, these ideas are still deeply radical throughout much of the world today. For that matter, there are people in our own country that still haven’t got the word. Yet American women are almost complete citizens. The military is more and more open to women, and we are in the midst of a long, deep sea-change in attitudes towards rape and other violence directed against women: we are well along in the process of being able to count upon our polity to uphold our rights, well along in the process of our polity being able to count upon us to ensure its survival. And if it is time for American women—as feminists, or if you prefer it, as citizens—to accelerate and finalize the change in our status from non-citizens to citizens, it is time we did so together with men to revive what it means to be an American citizen.

A citizen, native-born or naturalized, is a participant in the life of the polity, from a child being educated for adulthood, to an adult who has meaningful work enabling a dignified life, to a participant in the activities that define, shape, and protect the polity: voting, jury service and the common defense, on a spectrum ranging from community watch up to the federal uniformed services. Civic feminism should strive to revive this concept of citizen, and reinvigorate and complete its extension to all Americans, native-born and naturalized, regardless of ethnicity, sex, or orientation, as equals, in public and private.


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