I’ve had more than one friend tell me they’re afraid of feminism. Not just that – they’re afraid of feminists. They’re afraid of “doing feminism wrong,” and I understand that. I have the same fear.
There’s an episode of Parks and Recreation where Leslie Knope creates an all-girls club in response to the girls being excluded from Ron Swanson’s Rangers. Her kids have a great time – and one of the boys, seeing this, splinters off from the Rangers and asks if he can join the girls. Leslie says no.
A girl raises her hand and says “But Ms Knope – isn’t saying no to someone because of their gender the same as what they did to us?”
At first Leslie tries to defend herself. I see what she’s saying. She’s created a space for the girls. If she opens it up, what does that mean? The girls call for a debate on the matter. It comes out in favour of including the boy, and Leslie sees that that’s right.
I’m not saying we need to open up our safe spaces. I’m saying we need to think about who we exclude and why.
Last month I read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist for the Rebel Girl Reads challenge.
The essays cover a lot of ground, looking at rape culture, sexism, and racism. Sometimes they’re through a personal lens, sometimes they’re more like literary or film criticism, but even those are in a personal voice.
“My favourite definition of “feminist” is one offered by Su, an Australian woman who, when interviewed for Kathy Bail’s 1996 anthology DIY Feminism, said feminists are “just women who don’t want be treated like shit.” This definition is pointed and succinct, but I run into trouble when I try to expand that definition. I fall short as a feminist. I feel like I am not as committed as I need to be, that I am not living up to feminist ideals because of who and how I choose to be.”
For me, probably the most important part of the book was the section about race. I have not read much written by women of colour, and that’s something I want to work on. It was incredibly eye-opening to be shown life through the eyes of Gay, who is Haitian-American.
As I was reading an essay about the treatment of black characters in the movie The Help, the news broke that Muhiyidin d’Baha, a leader in the Black Lives Matters movement, was gunned down. Against my better judgement, I clicked on the replies to the tweet from CNN about this tragedy.
It was fucking horrifying and I’m not going to reproduce any of it here.
While reading Bad Feminist I was reminded time and again of my privilege. Privilege as a white person, as someone who can pass for straight, as someone who can pass for able-bodied. I am afforded many luxuries, spaces, and accommodations that women of colour do not get. I need to be reminded of this much more often.
Good or Bad Feminism?
To me, being a “good” feminist means admitting you’re a bad feminist. It means being prepared to examine your privilege, question your beliefs, be open to criticism, be open to learning. It means exactly what Gay does – being open about your flaws. Seeing your privilege and using it where you can.
Feminism is something you practice. It’s much more often a thing you do than a thing you are, though a lot of the time it’s both.
None of this is easy. I fuck up all the time. In the past when I have been confronted, I have been defensive and unmoving, instead of listening. I regret that. I hope I have learned from it.
I know that the feminist movement can appear intimidating. I know that because I felt that way, and because I have friends now who feel that way. They worry If they don’t “get it right,” they’ll be attacked and shamed. Unfortunately, in some cases that is what happens. However, let’s make an important distinction.
Being called out on something you’ve said or done and offered an alternate way is not the same as being attacked, though it can feel that way.
A friend of mine asked tentatively about Rebel Girl Reads – “Is it… a feminist book club?” I knew if I said yes, she wouldn’t come.
I can relate to that. I’ve always had feminist beliefs, but I never identified as a feminist. I didn’t understand what it meant, and I had all the usual reasons Clementine Ford gives when looking at the #womenagainstfeminism movement, most of which boil down to ‘I think feminists are hairy lesbian man-haters and I want men to want to fuck me, so I’m not using That Word’
Yeah, so, the 80s called and they want their Second Wave stereotypes back.
Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time labouring under that patriarchal bullshit, while also somehow simultaneously believing feminism was “too cool” for me and I would never belong.
I’m six years on from starting to learn about actual contemporary feminism, and I have never felt more at home.
For me, part of my identification as a feminist is therefore rooted in not denying that home to anyone else. Exclusion is the opposite of what I feel the heart of feminism is.
“I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain . . . interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.”
“Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.”
So what does intersectionality mean?
When we talk about exclusion, we have to talk about intersectionality. This means understanding that trans women, women of colour, queer women and women with disabilities have individual feminist identities. But I didn’t feel that I was the best person to explain that, so I asked my friend Lamia Imam for help.
Intersectional feminism may seem like a buzzword of late but it has been around for a few decades. Developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black civil rights and legal scholar, it shows how overlapping identities need to be part of feminism. Women’s rights cannot be discussed without taking into account race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity, and social status. For example – White women fighting for gender equality need to remember that women of color are fighting additional battles. Women of color need to remember that women with disabilities are fighting additional battles.
Even as a Muslim woman of color, I’m aware of my privilege in being a cis, able-bodied, woman from a middle class family who was afforded higher education and social mobility. Feminism without intersectionality, I would argue, isn’t feminism at all because when we are fighting for equal rights we have to be mindful of all the roadblocks on the path to equality.
One of the lessons I’ve learned in my journey as a self-described feminist is that I don’t know everything and it pays to listen even when it makes me feel uncomfortable because it challenges my existing way of thinking. Surrounded by white feminism that often rejects intersectionality, this has been my biggest frustration with feminists whose initial reaction to being challenged is to double down and claim they are victims. I am ashamed to admit that I get that. I was that person who saw feminism through my unique lens only.
I was raised with a mix of conservative values and with a healthy dose of individualism. While I was encouraged to be successful in my personal life, I was also taught to be mindful of societal expectations and traditions. As long as existing structures did not impede on my ability to be successful I was to keep my head down and subscribe to the status quo. What I learned very quickly is that you cannot fight for your right to exist if you don’t also fight for everyone else’s right to exist too. I learned that empathy wasn’t a natural inclination but rather an active decision. I remember sitting at a Treaty of Waitangi law class and realizing that in many ways I had a more privileged existence in NZ society than tangata whenua despite being an immigrant’s kid and facing my own set of challenges, especially in Christchurch.
I grew up in Midwest America and I went to Uni and worked in New Zealand – these were all extremely white spaces. I am now back in America working in tech which is dominated by men. As I have traversed these worlds I’ve faced a mixture of not being taken seriously for various reasons and also seen as an expert by virtue of my education and experience. I’ve oscillated between having to prove myself and suffering from imposter syndrome. In an ideal world, feminism would take into account those nuances of women’s experiences and be supportive of all women and their unique challenges. We would not value someone like me as a working professional over a sex worker and we would not create barriers to access for women with disability or trans women. Representation would not be reduced to tokenism. Appropriation would not conflated as homage. We would listen to each other and lift each other up to dismantle patriarchal structures rather than seeing each other threats.
Intersectionality isn’t a buzzword. It requires work to be inclusive in our language and in our actions. It requires us to think about those who face challenges that we have not faced and bring them into the fold. It requires the active exercise of empathy and compassion even when we are wired to feel uncomfortable. It forces us to address our own internalized bigotry and dismantle systems that keep people out for our own comfort. Feminism is activism and activism is bringing political and social change to improve the lives of all marginalized people not just our own individual selves.
“We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.” – Roxane Gay
There are a lot of problematic views I have had to un-learn in my life but I can honestly say I have always considered myself a feminist from the time I was aware of the term. Part of the reason is my mum and older sister who have always been the fierce women role models of my life. Although my mum followed a traditional lifestyle of being a wife and mother she was always pushing back on societal expectations without realizing that she was even doing that. I was never taught to believe I was less than a man and even my dad always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do in life without pressure to settle down. So I always thought all women were feminists. But I did see women around me being resistant to “feminism” because they believed it would take away from their femininity and their ability to subscribe to traditional roles for women. This has made feminism a lot less scary for me because at the end of the day nobody is forcing me to be any certain way. I see myself as subscribing to an ethos that wants to lift all of the marginalized voices and people. How can that be a negative thing?
To me, feminism is supporting mothers and the career woman who has no interest in having children. It is supporting trans women who want to exist in society free from harm. It is supporting black and indigenous women so they are no longer over represented in the worst statistics. I’m supportive of hairy lesbian man-haters and women who fuck men. That’s my feminism. I’m here for my asexual, non-binary friends. I am here for the sex workers.
There was a time when I believed sex would taint me as a person and feminist theory is how I became a sex positive person. I believed being unmarried made me a lesser person and feminism is how I learned to be comfortable in my own skin. Feminism has taught me to be professionally confident and assertive. Feminism has taught me to exercise empathy for people around me regardless of who they are.
In all honesty, I was probably a bad feminist at some stage where my feminism was exclusive and was a unique combination of wanting to subscribe to traditional expectations while maintaining my independence. And I really believed that my combination was the right way. The amazing thing about growing as a person and pushing back on accepted notions and learning to be a better feminist has meant that I have learned that no one person has to follow in my exact footsteps.
If the goal of feminism is to empower all women to be their best selves and live their best lives, then we are already all on the same page.