Confronting Difference and the Construction of the Other


Differences are an integral part of feminism. In the United States, the second wave of feminism began in part because women desired that their differences be recognized and valued, rather than seen as a detriment. Now, women who traditionally have been marginalized both by society in general and by the mainstream feminist movement are demanding that feminists recognize and value their differences and the different issues that they face.

In western society, differences are constructed in binary opposition: male/female, good/evil, and black/white. This both oversimplifies difference, ignoring the shades of gray in between, and constructs the differences as warring opposites. Those feminists who have grown up in the west cannot help but be influenced by this construct, and western society has been culturally imperialistic, spreading its values to other countries.

This construct is especially important to the feminist who wants to confront the issue of difference. Those feminists who have been marginalized because of their difference have been, at least to some extent, been constructed as the 'other.' The 'other' is so different from oneself that she is fundamentally different and may be unintelligible to you. Very often, this label of 'otherness' is accompanied by a value judgement. The 'other' can be seen as having fewer rights, being less intelligent, or as being unable to advocate for herself. She is seen as either deserving of what she gets (as in the case of a prostitute who experiences an act of violence) or deserving of our pity and charity (as in the case of an effort to help the people of a third-world county become more westernized).

All feminists, especially those who are more privileged or who hold more political or economic power, must learn to fight against this internalized construction of difference, and learn to value differences as that which makes us more human, not less so. We must all listen to whomever we have constructed as the 'other,' work together on common goals, and offer assistance in their goals.

By looking at how we construct 'otherness,' we can learn much about ourselves. Defining oneself negatively, as 'not other,' is common and simple for westerners to do. It is harder to define oneself positively, as being something. This can be much more fulfilling, though it can be confusing to those who prefer to label and pigeonhole.

It would be a mistake to attempt to create one global feminism. To do this would continue to marginalize women who are in the minority and to lend more credence to the dominant feminist ideology. It would create the false sense that all women speak with the same voice. We do not all speak with the same voice. We are not unified. As feminists, we should work toward creating a space where all voices can be heard. To some, especially liberal feminists, whose primary focus is political power, this may seem counterproductive. It is much harder to pass a law or to elect a political candidate when you as a group are not unified. But by preserving different opinions and dissent, we preserve discussion and disagreement, which is the agent of change. To do any good, feminism must grow and change so that it can fit the needs of all humanity.