Feminism's Uncertainty Principle

In the 1970s, my mother wore do-rags, men’s trousers and no bra. She breast-fed my little sister in public. Her legs were unshaven. She was outspoken about the subjugation of women, and spoke with embarrassing nonchalance about the pill, Fear of Flying and female sexuality. I adored my mother. But when I was a teenager, her uniform-like brand of feminism began to mortify me. I didn’t understand until later that my mother was rejecting the gender expectations she carried from her family, that as a woman she existed to be merely decorative. Her feminism was appropriate to her context, inappropriate to mine.

By the time I was politically aware, forcing myself into the shape of my mother’s feminism seemed as claustrophobic as my mother felt in pancake makeup and a beehive. Her feminism seemed to promote agitation for agitation’s sake, not as a means to social change. I also found that it equated strength with masculinity, which seemed a self-defeating paradox. When I became a young adult, I adopted the left-wing-yet-politically-inactive affect of practiced, erudite cynicism, like my other “Generation X” compatriots.

I am older now, and hopefully wiser, but I still cringe inwardly when I come across essays such as Jane Gallop’s “Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.” My mind rebels against her whiny, narcissistic meanness, even as I agree in part with her thesis. She argues that a woman, by definition, cannot be guilty of sexual harassment because sexual harassment is a symptom of male domination. It occurs in societies where men wield institutionalized power over women. As a feminist issue, it concerns gender, not power. “Feminists took up the issue because we saw it as a form of sex discrimination,” says Gallop, “but sexual harassment is increasingly understood as having no necessary link to either discrimination or gender” (844). Though Gallop makes a compelling point, I recoil from the idea that she, as a feminist, is morally pure by definition, and thus beyond reproach. I show the article to my mother, who, at sixty-five, is dignified, beautiful, and scholarly (I cannot now imagine what ever embarrassed me about her). She dons her reading glasses, scans the essay, and shakes her head sadly. “I wish it was easier to like Gallop,” she says, “but she is doing feminists a disservice. She is using her position of authority to excuse her own bad behavior. That’s just what men do.”

And so I begin to rethink my prejudices about feminism. After all, fundamental rights such as suffrage, property ownership, and access to education are luxuries purchased for me by the activism of previous generations of feminists. My mother’s generation championed sexual liberation, acknowledged gender-based wage discrepancies and began to tackle such endemic social problems as sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace. So I cannot credit my reaction to Gallop’s essay to a distaste for feminism itself. What bothers me is that Gallop has not evolved along with feminism, which has been evolving since long before she was born and will continue to evolve when I am no longer here to critique her. There is an unfortunate and specifically contemporary distortion of feminismand sexual harassment, and many other formerly noble civil rights movementswherein the creation of oppressors and victims has taken on more importance than their elimination, and where the “oppressed” need take no responsibility for their actions. In the past, when women were subject to draconian and hypocritical moral laws, a respite from responsibility might have served us well. In 1994, Gallop’s essay does not.

Gallop uses a feminist pretext to exonerate herself from charges of sexual harassment filed against her by her own graduate students. This motive would be suspicious even if she disclosed the nature of the offenses. That she remains secretive about them discredits her further. In her own argument, she cannot possibly be wrong because she is a feminist. Now that feminists are faculty members, “…students can experience their feminist teachers as having power over them. And that makes it possible to imagine a feminist teacher as a sexual harasser” (841). Her gender and her job are cited as evidence in her favor, though it is clear, even to a reader who has read no other accounts of the charges, that she has abused her power. Gallop weakens her valid points about the dangers of turning harassment into a gender-neutral issue by arrogantly excusing herself from any misconduct. She has taken on the posture of male hegemony. Her behavior imitates the most shameful qualities of the oppressor.

In our society, it is still a fact that women are at a physiological and economic disadvantage. They are more vulnerable to sexual attack and coercion. The combination of men’s physiology and their social position makes them more likely to be sexual harassersand get away with itthan women. Gallop takes issue with the law and the public for refusing to distinguish between the genders. We cannot pretend that men and women have equal faculty to exploit one another, but we also should not pretend that women are incapable of abusing their authority. An abuse of power is what it is, whoever the perpetrator. Until there is true equality, and despite the inefficiency of such measures, our current world calls for separate offenses to be named separately.


Women are granted unprecedented equality by sexual harassment laws. The legal definition of sexual harassment, according to The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that, “…the victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man.” Gallop and I reject this definition of sexual harassment. Audre Lorde, in her essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”, says succinctly, “…it is… not black lesbians who are assaulting women and raping children in our community…” (122). But if I want justice, I am obliged to practice what I preach. Lorde is not saying that black lesbians cannot commit abuses, just that they are less likely to commit certain kinds of abuses. We all must decide through common sense what is too intangibletoo subtly shadedto write into law.  “Too often,” says Lorde, “we pour the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences… do not exist…” (115).

Legal definitions, though indispensable, will always lag behind. They are not substitutes for truth and should not hold back the progress of thought. Over the last 200 years, feminism has changed on a decade-by-decade basis. For the first fifth of the 20th century, women couldn’t vote. Now one can earn a degree in Women’s Studies from most universities. This is progress, from a feminist standpoint. Now we move on to the next issue, and the law must eventually, clumsily follow. In physics, an electron’s position and momentum cannot be simultaneously ascertained, and likewise the definition of feminism is subject to its own “uncertainty principle:” when we define it, we change it. We must understand the limitations of a single definition, and we must even more elegantly and humbly sidestep the pitfalls of legal definitions. In fact, the only definition we can apply with any certainty to feminism is that it is a messy, evolving business that must change constantly as values and priorities change, and, most importantly, as goals are achieved.

My mother knows this. She puts Gallop’s essay aside as she orders her fish, asking the waitress fifteen questions about how ethically it was caught. She is pretty in a blue Chinese silk blouse and slim black slacks. She no longer needs the “uniform” of 70s feminism to know that she is a feminist. She is not fragile and vulnerable, and she is not a bully. “Feminism’s in your hands now,” she jokes. She is not wrong.

I would like to save feminism from both the oppression of institutionalized sexism and from those, like Gallop, who would sully feminism by committing abuses in its name. It is time for a more evolved definition of feminism, one that accounts for the inherent uncertainty involved in defining itself. Our objective is equality, our enemy is the inequality that still exists, and our challenge is to be ethical people without an exact blueprint for what an ethical person is. We cannot use the standards set up for us by our oppressors. Lorde puts it beautifully when she notes “…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (123). Women have not yet achieved parity with men. Such parity is my task, and the task of future generations of feminists.

Cited Sources­­­

Gallop, Jane. “Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.” The Examined Life. Class Handout. 839-845

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider. New York: The Crossing Press, 1984

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC, 28 Feb 2007

Swigart, Jane. Personal Interview. 5 March, 2007