Feminism is rarely defined precisely. Even introductory works on feminism are usually reluctant to provide any definition that one can immediately assess in terms of assent or dissent. This is a shame, since so many people nowadays seem eager to reject feminism without saying exactly what they are rejecting. And there are also those who claim to be feminists (often “liberal” feminists) themselves, but who reject other kinds of wrongheaded feminism. However, some within the latter group should perhaps not call themselves feminists at all if the term feminism is to have a relevant meaning.
The definition I would like to propose is the following: A feminist believes that women are currently unequal to men in one or more normatively relevant ways (and this inequality should be remedied). The assertion put in parenthesis can probably be removed in most cases, since it can be tacitly assumed that if one believes a normatively relevant inequality (as opposed to normatively irrelevant inequalities) exists, then it should, by virtue of moral “logic”, be remedied (at least if it is practically possible).
So, the definition talks about women being currently unequal to men. This would perhaps exclude people who believe that feminism is (only) about granting women and men equal political and civil rights. At least in many countries, this struggle seems to have been fought and won som time ago (but in some countries, this fight still goes on). In a “Western” setting this kind of feminism – if we are to call it feminism it all – seems rather irrelevant, and when feminists of this kind call themselves feminists they should be careful to always label themselves liberal feminists, as well as to acknowledge that there are other legitimate forms of feminism.
Even if “liberal feminism” does not necessarily have to be excluded from being a kind of feminism, there are other kinds of merely “hypothetical” feminisms that should be excluded from this label. One could, for instance, imagine a sort of “libertarian feminist”, who believes that if a society were to exist where men’s rights of self-ownership are respected, while women’s rights are not, then one should be a feminist to remedy this inequality in rights. If we allow for these kinds of hypothetical inequalities, then feminism as a concept would loose all interesting meaning (since almost anyone could be a feminist under some circumstances).
In any case, I believe the proviso about current inequalities adds something important to a meaningful definition of feminism, since it is usually perceived as an “ideology” that wants to rectify injustices that actually exist right now. In the same way, we would hardly call someone who is against slavery an “egalitarian” in any meaningful sense, even though he or she is definitely against the kind of inequality that slavery entails.
The other part of the definition discusses normatively relevant inequalities. This captures the fact that we all believe that there are inequalities that we do not believe are relevant when it comes to moral evaluation, or to assess, for instance, economic outcomes. But there are, of course, different ideas about exactly what should be regarded as normatively relevant. This is where distinctions between different sorts of feminisms come in.
The distinction between normatively relevant and irrelevant inequalities also makes it easy to pinpoint exactly why some people end up on one side of the debate rather than the other. The debate about the gender wage gap, for instance, seems to be all about relevant and irrelevant inequalities. Both sides can agree on the fact that women’s life earnings are on average significantly lower than men’s life earnings; but the non-feminist would maybe claim that this inequality is morally irrelevant, since this reflects women’s life choices (i.e., inequalities based on choices which were not physically forced upon you are not morally, or politically, problematic), whereas the feminist would perhaps claim that this is not only a result of choices, but also of discrimination, or that all choices are to some degree a result of different forms of indoctrination, which might be normatively relevant when assessing outcomes.
The definition proposed here facilitates the categorization of different kinds of feminism, since most moral and political philosophies can be distinguished in terms of (in)equalities. As mentioned above, a liberal feminist would only see inequalities in political and civil rights as normatively relevant. A socialist feminist would perhaps see inequalities in possibilities to lead an unalienated life free from economic exploitation as normatively relevant. A utilitarian feminist would see inequalities in consideration when calculating levels of happiness and unhappiness as normatively relevant. A virtue feminist would see inequalities in possibilities to exercise moral virtues as normatively relevant (and these virtues might be different for men and women). An existentialist feminist would see inequalities in possibilities to lead an authentic life as normatively relevant. (Needless to say, these were just a few examples and not an exhaustive list.)
Again, the definition is that a feminist believes that women are currently unequal to men in one or more normatively relevant ways (and this inequality should be remedied). An advantage with this definition is that it dispenses with controversial concepts like “patriarchy” and “oppression”. Instead it moves the discussion to a more basic normative level, where the differences between viewpoints become clearer and easier to understand. The definition also clearly separates questions about facts, which we can (hopefully) agree on, and values (i.e., whether the facts in question are normatively relevant or not). It is better that people fight about whether some existing inequality is good or bad, rather than fighting about whether the inequality in fact exists or not. (And it is better that they fight about the goodness or badness of currently existing inequalities, rather than those that have already been remedied.)
The definition also has the advantage that it separates the question of methods from the normative (foundational) question. One might, for example, be a “socialist” feminist, because one believes a socialist system will equalize the possibilities to lead authentic lives. In this case, it is more helpful to classify this person as an existentialist feminist, rather than a socialist feminist, since socialism is just a method (and whether this is the best method or not to reach the existentialist utopia is something that can be discussed regardless of agreement or disagreement to either socialism or existentialist feminism). In the same way one could be a utilitarian feminist who believes that liberalism will lead to an equal consideration of women of men in the felicific calculus – but one would not become a liberal feminist because of this.