"What is the most important challenge facing women in the 21st century, and why?"
That one isn't easy for anyone to answer, especially in 300 words or less. But that was the assignment from editors of the University of Texas' web site for faculty members contributing to the "Many Voices of Feminism" collection, which is online at http://www.utexas.edu/features/2009/03/09/feminisms/.
It is an especially tricky question for a man to try to answer. Rather than pretending to speak for women or for feminism, I wanted to explain why I embraced feminism as a method for analyzing hierarchy that could be useful in all social movements. Although men often treat feminism as a threat, in the 20 years I have been involved in feminist projects I have come to recognize it as a gift to men who want to understand and critique not only gender but other oppressive systems. For me, feminism is a crucial part of the struggle for social justice and sustainability.
Below are the 306 words that I came up with, not to answer the question but to hint at the compelling reasons we all should commit to feminism and the other progressive social movements that are necessary if there is to be a hope for a decent future, or any future at all.
Given the disastrous consequences of the human assault on the ecosystem that makes our lives possible, the most important 21st-century challenge for women is the same as for men: Can we change the way we organize ourselves socially, politically, and economically in time to reverse this ecological collapse? Can we learn to live in sustainable balance with the non-human world so that we might make it to the end of the 21st century with our humanity intact?
In facing these social, political, and economic challenges, I believe women have a crucial contribution to make through feminism. My own intellectual and political development is rooted in the feminism I learned from women, both in the classroom and community. Much of my work has addressed men's use and abuse of women and their sexuality in the sexual-exploitation industries: prostitution, stripping, and pornography. But from those women I also learned that feminism was not merely a concern for "women's issues" but also a way of understanding power and critiquing the domination/subordination dynamic that is central to so much of modern life. The roots of that dynamic are in patriarchy, the system of male dominance that arose only a few thousand years ago but that has been so destructive to people and the earth. Patriarchy is incompatible with justice and sustainability.
The challenge for feminism is to articulate an alternative to the illegitimate hierarchies that structure our lives: men over women, white over non-white, rich over poor, First World over Third. That isn't "women's work" but "feminism's work," which we all should undertake, in conjunction with the many other intellectual and political movements concerned with real justice. If we can change the way we treat each other, those new non-hierarchical social arrangements may help us solve the fundamental problem of the destruction inherent in human domination over the non-human world.