I’m Still a Feminist

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The more I read and write about feminism, the more I observe communities of feminists interacting, and the more I participate in discussions about feminism with my friends and colleagues, the more I realize that feminism is incredibly complicated. It is a movement with a long and contentious history, it has morphed and changed over the decades, and it is currently being championed by people who seldom agree on … anything. It is inextricably tied to countless other issues including racism, ableism, classism, and many other forms of discrimination. It is enmeshed in concepts of privilege. It means many different things to many different people, and most of those people are both passionate and articulate. Which can be quite intimidating.

And because of all that, many of my friends have sworn it off. They feel frustrated by the in-fighting, feel like nothing they say or do measures up, feel like the beliefs and passions that drive feminists are lost in the shuffle of misinterpretation, accusation, and correction. Many of my friends who could be supporting this amazing, important, historic movement have dispensed with feminism because they can’t seem to find a place in it for themselves.

I can understand that. It can be disheartening to stand up and declare yourself a feminist only to be told that you’re not feminist enough, or in the right ways, or that so much of what you’re doing is contrary to feminist beliefs and until you change you aren’t allowed to apply that label to yourself. I’ve been told all of those things over the years. Many times. They make me ponder and consider change, but they also chafe and rankle.

Yet I’m still a feminist. Now and always. And I may not be feminist enough, or in the right ways, and so much of what I’m doing is contrary to feminist beliefs, if you ask certain people. And that’s just fine. Because, just like any far-reaching philosophy or movement, feminism encompasses so much more than what any one group believes or declares. Just like any concept that has shifted and grown over decades of consideration, discussion, and implementation, feminism constitutes an ENORMOUS spectrum of ideas and beliefs. And there’s room on that spectrum for me, for what I believe, and for what I can contribute.

Some of my fellow feminists will shout me down and call me out at every turn, accuse me of selling out or contributing to social norms or feeding the patriarchy. And that’s just fine. I’m still a feminist. Now and always. I will never stop believing that women deserve equal rights and opportunities to men, and I will never stop doing everything I can to support and empower the women I meet. And I know in my heart that those two things make me an ardent feminist.

So maybe feminism isn’t all that complicated after all.

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  • Well, said!

  • Valerie

    Amen, sister! All the infighting has diluted and diminished what could be the most important human potential movement in the history of humankind.

  • I think alot of us women feel the way you so eloquently expressed. Thumbs up!!

  • Yes to this, and that’s why I love that tee-shirt message so much. I saw thousands of these tees when marching in DC for women’s health, on very old women, young ones, men, nuns and more. We’ve come a long way, with a long way to go on our road to equality.

  • Dina

    WELL SAID SAL.

  • Laura

    Bravo! This is just what I hope to convey to students when we have discussions about feminism. There really is a spectrum, and Sally, you are modeling that. Thank you!

  • PK

    Just like fashion, there should be a style of feminism to suit everyone. The important thing to remember is that we are striving for the right to equal opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Keep on trucking, Sally!

  • Angela

    Love it. I back away from calling myself a feminist because I like clothes, fashion, makeup but I always believe in equal rights and opportunities for women, so I will call myself a feminist, again. 🙂

  • Sonia

    Hear, hear, Sally. You just said a mouthful.

  • Liz

    Amen, sister.

    I have a tote pag that says “Eff The Patriarchy” (purchased from a fundraiser for an all women’s theatre group at Vassar, of course.) and I use it all the time. Some of my favorite outfits are girly, floral, and flouncy with my ETP tote. I get asked about it and occasionally called out about the seemingly misaligned pairing, but I think it’s a good thing. It sparks conversation and (hopefully) reminds people that feminism isn’t about not shaving and burning bras, feminism is about choice.

  • Nomi

    You should check out Caitlin Moran’s new book, How to Be a Woman. She’s sort of a more political version of Tina Fey. Here’s a couple of excerpts: (1) “What part of liberation for women is not for you? Is it the freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man that you marry? The campaign for equal pay? Vogue by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that stuff just get on your nerves?” (2) “”Here,” Moran says, “is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants. a) Do you have a vagina? And b) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both questions, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”

    • Lisa W.

      Just listened to the Fresh Air interview with Caitlin Moran last night. Smart, funny, candid and refreshing— can’t wait to read the book! And yes, I’m a feminist and I like to play with clothes and makeup. There is no conflict there in my opinion. I believe women are as, if not more, capable than men and can wear lipstick at the same time if they want to. Keep up the good work, Sally!

      • Kylara7

        I listened to that this weekend and laughed out loud repeatedly…I definitely want to read her book now. I could listen to her talk all day 🙂

    • Miss Prickly

      Funny! This is a good time for us (all good feminists) to reassert ourselves.

    • Just wanted to note that men can be feminists too. A feminist is someone who believes in equal rights for both women and men.

  • D

    Sal, this is wonderful. My husband and I were discussing feminism the other day over dinner, and I quickly realized just how convoluted it can be. Boiling it down to “women deserve equal rights and opportunities to men” works really well in my mind. Bravo!

  • Courtney

    Honestly, I’m perplexed by this post. You’ve really had people tell you that you aren’t allowed to identify as a feminist? Non-delusional people who aren’t punking you? I’m trying to figure out how that would go down and I can’t really picture either the part where someone says in a coherent, reasonable way, “You can’t be feminist! You’re [insert quality here]” OR the part where someone (as you’ve said some of your friends have done) responds, “Oh, damn, you’re right. I will totally let your analysis of me determine my own self-definition” and slink away in despair.

    Although feminist theory is interesting, and intellectually compelling, I don’t think that feminism is “incredibly complicated”. It seems relatively simple to me: I support equal social and legal rights for women, and also for other socially/politically marginalized groups, many of whom are comprised in part by women.

    Perhaps we move in really different social circles, but if a woman wants to identify as feminist … she should do that. If not, and I know women who actively do not see themselves as feminist, fine. It’s not like anyone is in charge of giving women the feminist stamp of approval!

    • hahahaha!

    • mm i have had that experience, although i still identify as a feminist. i’ve always felt pretty fiercely about women’s rights and annoyed at the mess of sexism that still exists in the world, and was always very much at home with any group of feminists i met (both academic and informal). until i decided to be a stay at home mom. since then i’ve had my choices questioned, sometimes quite cynically and unkindly, by self-identified feminists and it’s hurt, a lot. i haven’t let it put me off as identifying as feminist, because i believe those women are wrong. but they don’t think so, and they think they speak with the authority of ‘the movement’.

      don’t get me wrong. i still have far more sympathies with that group than the ‘non-feminists’, and i brush it off and move on. but i do finally understand how my natural birthing, stay at home, breastfeeding mama friends can often feel alienated by the perception of feminism as a place for working, childless women only, a place that is undermined by stay-at-home motherhood and content heterosexual relationships (to be fair i see the historical problems with traditional gender roles, but that doesn’t give every feminist on the street the right to question how i run my life, and boot me out of the club, as it were). this perception is wrong when used by non-feminists to criticize the movement, and it’s just as wrong when used by feminists to define it. but it happens more often than it should, and from both sides.

    • pghbekka

      I sort of cosign this, though sadly, I know there ARE people who have rigidly defined ideas of what feminism is, and also sadly, people who believe that’s what feminists are.

    • Sam

      OR the part where someone (as you’ve said some of your friends have done) responds, “Oh, damn, you’re right. I will totally let your analysis of me determine my own self-definition” and slink away in despair.

      … I don’t think I know of anyone who has had that particular response. It’s more along the lines of, “You think I’m a traitor to my gender because I took my husband’s last name/think abortion is wrong/became a stay-at-home mom? Screw you! I don’t want to be associated with your stupid movement!”

      I’ve heard this all from female friends and relatives on the centre-to-right of the political spectrum. They are brilliant, independent women who generally have had fantastic careers and could take the world by storm.

      • Chelsea

        Here’s the rub with being anti-choice and identifying as feminist:

        Feminism is about choices, and one of those choices is reproductive choice. There’s nothing contradictory about being anti-abortion and being feminist per se. However, if a woman is actively working towards making abortion illegal, preventing others from acquiring birth control, etc., THAT becomes problematic because you are preventing other women from making choices they need to make. Keeping other women from having agency is an un-feminist move.

        • Sam

          No disagreeing with you on any particular point… I’m as pro-choice as they come.

          But there are a lot of women out there with staunch religious convictions — the majority of women in Catholic and Muslim countries, probably — out there who honestly do feel that abortion is murder. Nothing you can do to change their minds about that. So if “real” feminists decide that religious women can’t be feminist because of that one issue, we’re basically excluding most women from Latin America, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, Pakistan, etc.

          Not saying there’s an easy answer here.

    • pope suburban

      I’ve had people tell me I’m doing it wrong. I’ve had people tell me that I can’t possibly be a feminist because I don’t wear flannel (I do, though, in the winter) and I bake things. Because, you know, the secret ingredient that makes all cookies delicious is self-loathing and oppression? I stared at them so hard I think I might have singed a hole in them and it never came up again, but it happened. There’s this stupid cultural idea that you have to be a hulking, man-hating lesbian (As if there’s anything wrong with hulking, lesbians, or hulking lesbians; the whole hating-half-the world thing is unhealthy, though) or else you don’t count. This is what a lot of people think of, because it suits the people in charge of our bigger cultural narratives. If feminism is ridiculous and hateful, then surely no one wants it! Surely that can’t be for *you*, a person who loves her (or his, but for the purposes of this discussion I’m talking about women) family, occasionally dresses up for special events, and has never burned a single bit of underwear. Surely all the things they are complaining about are made up of hate and lies, because they’re bad people! This is why it’s actually pretty good to talk about this stuff, because it lets people know that they *do* count and that feminism is *not* some hateful, stubbly, dude-free monolith. Kate Beaton just made an incredible comic about this that has been doing the rounds, and it sheds some light on stuff like this as well as being wickedly funny: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=341

      • i love kate beaton so much

  • Becca

    Exactly.

    You will never measure up to EVERYONE. And there are plenty of people who like to remind you of that. So screw them and go on living a fabulous life 🙂

  • Mia

    I definitely admit that the intersectionality of feminist can be very intimidating to me. As someone who still has a lot of privilege (white, able-bodied, etc.), it can be disheartening to be told that certain spaces (for women of color, for people “queerer” than I am) aren’t for me, but I have to respect that and remember that most spaces DO let me enter without a second thought because of my privilege, so it is fair for a few doors to remain closed, and that I should try to make a difference in the many spaces where I am allowed, if not welcome. I will always be a feminist and it will always inform my actions and beliefs, and nobody who is a “better” feminist than me can take that away.

    The tumblr Is This Feminist? has been making me laugh a lot (although it’s sorely in need of an update), because it plays on the very idea of that competition and in-fighting in certain feminist circles: http://isthisfeminist.tumblr.com/

    • Sam

      OH. MY. GOD. I clicked the link and NOW I CANNOT STOP READING.

      I am at work, goldingit! This tumblr has sabotaged my ability to take apart the patriarchal hierarchy of the traditional work environment from the inside. PROBLEMATIC.

  • Elizabeth

    Props to you, Sally. That was wonderfully stated.

  • I have the far more frequent problem of running into women and men whose every action supports feminism, but say they are not feminists because they think it means you have to be XXXX. I usually clear up the confusion by asking: do you think women should be paid/promoted the same as men for the same work? do you believe people should have the same rights regardless of gender? Ok, that’s what feminism is. And everyone is on board with that. I really don’t like using words like “patriarchy” because that’s the sort of thing that turns people away. The language you use matters a lot in these types of conversations and saying “male-dominated” provokes a really different response from people than “patriarchy.” I’m a scientist and a big problem in the field is how to retain women in academia. The women I got PhDs with were beyond bright, very assertive and commanded respect for their work, but few of them would embrace the label of “feminist” because of all the negative connotations. I wonder if these people you mention in your post realize how much it hurts our collective cause by restricting who can or cannot be a feminist. In a way it doesn’t really matter though, because to have these strict definitions probably means you’re associating with a very isolated circle of people and not interacting too much with the real world.

  • Aziraphale

    Of course you’re a feminist! Anyone who says otherwise is being silly.

    I’m a feminist, and probably have been since before I understood the meaning of the word. If you believe in equal rights, opportunities and judgments for both women and men, then you’re a feminist, no?

    Frankly I think it would be easier to be a man (I’ve wished for it more than once) but since I’m not, I’m grateful to live in a part of the world where, on the surface at least, women have equal opportunities. We don’t really, but if we keep working on it, we’ll get there.

    For what it’s worth, I probably know as many male feminists as female ones.

  • For some reason, I am reminded of the Emma Goldman quote: “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.” If feminism hasn’t given us the right to self-identify as we see fit, then what has it given us? Of course there’s a range of belief systems, styles and behaviors along the feminist continuum. Why wouldn’t there be? The older I get, the less patient I become with those who demand that we follow particular rules, or toe certain ideological lines, before we can legitimately claim to “belong” in the club. I thought that’s what we were fighting in the first place!

  • Hi Sally,

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful and insightful post.
    I’m going to post this article on my blog tomorrow, but I want to share it with you today because of this post you’ve written. It’s about women and the Olympics, and it’s published in one of our national newspapers The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/columnists/these-olympics-are-a-giant-leap-for-women-everywhere/article4470444/?cmpid=rss1

    Hope you enjoy it.
    Natasha

    • Nice work, Natasha. The already grotty comments section speaks both to your effective writing and feminism’s relevance.

      • Sam

        The comments. Dear lord. Now I remember why I stay away from most message boards.

        (Natasha, that’s a really great article… well written, well reasoned.)

  • How can people “swear off” being feminists — especially female people? Basically, if you believe that women are equally valuable human beings and should be treated as such, you’re a feminist, because we have not reached that point even in our relatively enlightened society, not by a long shot.

    Disavowing feminism (either because it’s complicated, or because the crappy public discourse around it — i.e. Rush Limbaugh’s hairy feminazi schtick — makes you somehow feel like you should deny feminism in order to be socially acceptable) is not an option unless you LIKE getting paid 77% of what a man earns for the same job, having your personal medical choices controlled by others, etc. We can vote now, but on a lot of other issues it’s same old same old.

  • Elizabeth McAlister

    I’ve always maintained that the basic bare bones definition of feminism was wanting for our daughters (or all young women) the same treatment and opportunities we expect for our sons. The rest is just extras.

  • Rachel

    Being called out is not bad. I count on allies I trust to do that for me. That way, I can avoid complacency, and evolve, and be challenged, and THINK.

    • Sal

      Agreed. Especially when done tactfully. But a hostile environment of constant call-outs can eventually alienate potential supporters. It’s hard to feel passionately aligned with a group that makes you feel like you’re doing everything wrong all the time, and not even welcome at the table for discussion.

      I’ve been called out more times than I can count for more errors than I care to enumerate. I have learned a lot, and am constantly grateful for the constructive criticism. And, as I’ve said here, I am still a feminist. I think, though, that many of my friends who have pushed their former feminism aside did so in reaction to a culture of call-outs that leans more heavily on intolerance than tact.

      • Sam

        It’s hard to feel passionately aligned with a group that makes you feel like you’re doing everything wrong all the time, and not even welcome at the table for discussion.

        THIS. EXACTLY. You can pry my feminist card from my cold, dead hands, but boy oh boy…

  • Eleanorjane

    Christianity is very similar in the ‘you can’t be a Christian because you… or you believe…’. I think it’s human nature to try and police a group and try to enforce conformity. But screw them, I say! I’m a Christian, I’m a feminist and anyone who tries to tell me otherwise can go away (putting it politely!).

  • Bettie

    As a burlesque performer, I often wonder if I’m getting in the way of feminism or contributing to it, am I being responsible with the image of women, do I become a feminist again when I wash off the glitter and take off the pasties, etc. Thanks for opening the discussion and getting us to think.

  • JacquelineW

    I’m curious, if feminism is so broad and encompasses so many different perspectives and opinions, then how can a person identify as a feminist and thereby be identifying themselves with a particular movement? This is probably a dumb example, but I am going to use it right now because I can’t think of a better one: lots of people identify as vegetarians, but if you actually ask them what they eat, you’ll find some that eat fish (and no other meat) and see no contradiction between being a fish-eater and calling themselves “vegetarian,” and this can really tick off some other “real” vegetarians who eat no meat whatsoever because non-vegetarians will see people eating fish and calling themselves “vegetarian” and assume that fish must be OK for all who identify as “vegetarian” and try and serve fish to the non-fish eating vegetarians.

    I’m not sure if that made any sense. Anyways, you say that you are a feminist because you believe “women deserve equal rights and opportunities to men, and…will never stop doing everything [you] can to support and empower the women [you] meet.” I’m not saying you’re wrong: you definitely sound like a feminist to me. I’m just wondering how a movement that is so broad and covers so much can be concisely defined so that we know who is and isn’t a feminist. For example, would this (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_feminism) be considered real feminism? Because the same ideology also exists as something called complementarianism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complementarianism), believers in which sometimes characterize themselves as “anti-feminists,” since they oppose the idea that men and women ought to have identical roles is society (which they see feminism as promoting). Additionally, it seems apparent to me that some prominent “feminists” have crossed the line into female chauvinism and promote the idea that women are inherently superior to men. So does feminism, as such a broad movement, encompass female chauvinism as well? And who gets to decide?

    Sorry for the novel 😉 I don’t mean to be rude or accusatory, this is all just stuff I’ve been mulling over for a while. I don’t really identify as a feminist myself because I’m a pescetarian who doesn’t want to confuse the definition of vegetarianism (figuratively speaking).

    • these are good questions, and i don’t necessarily feel like i have all the answers. but i do think self-identification is important. even if they believe similar things (like your example of new feminist vs complementarianist), if one group identifies itself as feminist it’s going to communicate in certain feminist-friendly ways, while the other group probably will not. i think certain political goals also tie us together, like equal pay for equal work, equal career opportunities, healthcare, insurance, etc. although i could be wrong even on that. i guess the self-identification, though it may seem flimsy, is key because, to me, it is a signal. if a person identifies as a feminist (as i do), but disagrees with me on a feminist issue (say, porn, which has a pretty serious split within feminism), i feel like i can trust they agree with me on certain other things ie the historical oppression of women, the historic gains of feminism as general goods (i love to vote!), the continuing need for feminism in a society that is still sexist, etc. if a person does not identify as a feminist, but has sympathies with some feminist issues, well, i think that person is just in denial about what feminism is. in other words it’s something like a pie chart. if enough of their pie is blanked out in favor of feminism, even if a few slices aren’t (and even if those slices aren’t the same as mine), i count them. but then i am a big-tent thinker. i am less interested in dividing and defining groups, and more interested in uniting over common ground and getting work done, even if that approach is very broad and, occasionally, leaves a vegetarian tasting fish 🙂

      • Sam

        What anna said. Divisiveness over individual issues bothers me a lot.

        My current pet peeve: The accusation that modest dressing for religious reasons — e.g. hijabs, long skirts — is anti-feminist. To which I reply, $%*@# you! There are real #$* issues that women in uber-religious countries and commnities face, and you’re hating on them for what they’re #&^$ wearing???? *stabbity stabbity*

        Big tent is totally the way to go, IMHO.

  • Identifying as a feminist has always seemed so easy to me! Even google tells me feminism is defined as “The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Okay, sure, “women’s rights” is a loaded topic with many subtopics that can be debated, but the gist of it is the belief that women are equal to men. Done and done. I take it further myself and believe in equality between all people of all genders and orientations and races and ethnicities and abilities and cultures and religions and ages and music tastes. Proud femme-inist here.

    • Heidi L.

      Femme-inist,like that.

  • Sally, your feminism is an important one of the many reasons I read and love your blog. Thank you for this articulate post.

  • Yes. Yes you are.

  • Jenni

    incredibly affirming and thoughtful post, sally. and these comments are the best thing i’ve read all week. i self-identify as feminist, and it’s true, i shy away from “feminist groups” for all the reasons stated here.

    sometimes my own mother tells me i’m doing it wrong – and i get that. she is a “second-waver,” who raised three daughters and became a successful executive, and had to fight tooth and nail for every little bit of respect she’s gotten from her father/husbands/employers. and my sisters and i just haven’t had the same kinds of challenges. it bothers her that we aren’t as (i’ll use the word “angry” here, but that’s not quite right. passionate, engaged, fired up….) as she is and was. but to me, that is a function of the success of feminism. i have much more freedom than she ever did, because of the work her generation did. and i’m VERY grateful. but it’s true that i haven’t “picked up the torch” in ways to make sense to her. i think i express feminism – and model that for my stepdaughter – simply with my own agency, by determining my own path, which is different than mothers. my sisters have done the same. i like to see that as a generational victory – daughters being free to choose a different path from their mothers – but i do sometimes feel like i’m letting “the movement”, or just my mother, down by not being more of an agitator.

  • Jenny

    I love this post and the comments. The best thing about feminism is that it is both simple and complex. t is a broad series of ideologies basically focused on one central belief: that inequality in all forms is unjust.

  • I am a feminist. I have been a feminist since college, which was eye opening. I switched to Goddess worship from evangelical Christianity bc it was more female affirming. I changed my last name at 30 to one *I* chose bc I think women’s names are a marker of what man owns them (first Father is the head of the family, and then Husband is the head of the family – eff that), and no man owns ME.

    That said I was only able to give up shaving my legs for like one summer. Now I give it up in winter, but it’s bc I am lazy, not making a political statement. What can I say… I caved :-))) When my legs will be on display, I gotta shave. And bathing suit season – I gotta take it all off.

    So I am a bad feminist too. 🙂

  • Kylara7

    I like to joke that feminism is like Protestantism…there are 64,000 kinds. Therefore, following that vein, it’s more useful to ask someone what their beliefs and practices are rather than assuming. It’s quite a collection, for sure. I also wish there were less infighting and fewer No True Scotsman debates and more focus on getting together to tackle big problems.

  • In my circle of friends and family, “feminist” is still kind of a dirty word, so instead of not feeling like I’m doing a good job of being a feminist, I’m generally made to feel like I’m being too much of a feminist. That’s never stopped me, though 🙂

  • Marion

    I couldn’t agree more! When I was younger, I was proud to call myself a feminist, and I still do. But I’ve had the same experience as you Sally. Twenty years ago I went back to university to do my Master’s part-time, including a course taught by a sociologist and feminist. I was shocked to experience women feeling they had the right to evaluate or withhold from me the right to call myself a feminist. I don’t know when this happened in the movement but it is a tragic development. I found the discussion and treatment of women by other women utterly bewildering. But like you I won’t let any of the ‘isms or any form of feminist religion reduce or change seeing myself as a feminist. In my books, if you’re a woman, you already have a membership card, available for your use, any time.

  • Shaye

    I kind of feel that if someone tells you that you’re doing feminism wrong…maybe they should look in a mirror. 🙂

    I also find it hard to believe that people can get so caught up in whatever facet of feminism that they find distasteful that they can distance themselves from it. There are as many permutations as there are stars in the sky, but as you say, it all comes down to the idea that women deserve treatment equal to men. That is, sadly, so NOT a given that it still needs to be said, loudly and often. I wonder if some of the people who back away from the label do so because they have the privilege of experiencing mostly equal treatment in their own lives, so that they can be blinded, not just to the treatment that many women unlike themselves receive, but also to the many ways that even straight, white, able-bodied women in the Western world are still not equal.

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  • I have no problem telling people they’re “doing feminism wrong.” http://radfemway.blogspot.com/2012/11/doing-feminism-wrong.html