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DEFINING FEMINISM: HISTORICAL A COMPARATIVE APPROACH
What is feminism? Who is a feminist? How do we understand feminism across national boundaries? Across cultures? Across centuries? These questions and their corollaries are raised every day, both here and abroad, by activists in the contemporary women's movement, by scholars, in the press, and in informal conversation. Everyone seems to have different answers, and every answer is infused with a political and emotional charge. To many people, inside and outside of the academy, the word "feminism" continues to inspire controversy and to arouse a visceral response-indeed, even to evoke fear among a sizable portion of the general public. If words and the concepts they convey can be said to be dangerous, then "feminism" and "feminist" must be dangerous words, representing dangerous concepts. Despite Virginia Woolf's attempt some This essay was conceived amid a contestation over the historical content of feminism at the 1976 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, held at Bryn Mawr College. An earlier version circulated as Working Paper no. 22, Center for Research on Women (now the Institute for Research on Women and Gender), Stanford University (1985), under the title, "Toward a Historical Definition of Feminism: The Case of France." I wish to thank many historian colleagues and the reviewers of Signs for their challenging comments, tips, and suggestions on previous drafts. I am also indebted to the Harvard University Center for European Studies; the Women's Studies Seminar of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, and San Diego State University, for inviting me to present these findings; and to Clemson University, for asking me to deliver the first Dorothy Lambert Whisnant Lecture on Women's History. The article is dedicated to my colleagues in the Affiliated and Visiting Scholars' group at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. [Signs: Journal of Women in Culture antd Society 1988, vol. 14, no. 1] ? 1988 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/89/1401-0001$01.(X)
Offen / DEFINING FEMINISM
fifty years ago to kill the word "feminism" by symbolically incinerating its written representation, the word continues to be used, and the concepts it stands for clearly retain "a force of tremendous power."1 As scholars in women's studies who do claim the label of feminism, we owe it to the public and to one another to respond to these...