Thursday, June 4, 2009

To be or not to be a feminist...

It amazes me how willingly some people shirk the label "feminist." It's even more amazing the answers some people give for doing so. I have talked to people recently who clearly hold feminist ideas, yet they refuse the label and don't even recognize their own ideas as feminist in nature. Lindsay has covered a similar topic before.

One of the most striking patterns is that people feel that they can't be a feminist if they don't engage in some sort of activism. But what constitutes activism? Even if it's making choices to reject sexism in your own life, that's a form of activism in my book. But a lot of people I have spoken to seem to disagree.

What about you, readers? Have you ever had a similar experience, with someone who clearly holds feminist views rejecting the label for a reason you couldn't understand? What do you feel constitutes feminist activism?


Vetiver said...

The other day my father, who's for a long time been one of my feminist icons, referred to himself as an "almost feminist." This took me aback, because he and his partner have always and often spoken passionately about women's rights. It seems to me that too often there is the sense that you can only be a feminist if you are a female bodied person. My understanding of feminism is that feminism is passionate politics open and inclusive to all who work against sexism, racism, homophobia, fat phobia, ablism, etc. Feminism for me means that we fight so that all are treated with compassion. Feminist activism is a empathetic struggle for human rights. For me, it involves actively critiquing everything from problematic representations to problematic actions such as violence, harassment, and blatant restrictions to rights based on race, gender, sexuality. The project of feminism is hard to sum up easily, but I will say that for me it is about anger informed by compassion, anger that is not merely blind rage but which involves a knowledgeable and caring consciousness. Feminism for me means education, love, strength, fearlessness. I see the strengths of feminism in many people that I admire, even if they are sadly reluctant to use the term feminism. It is a beautiful passion.

K said...

Well, yes, but,

Sometimes, the history is not so proud. I still find Renee's thoughts striking because she points out that the history of feminism has not always been so kind to women of color. It's particularly striking since when I first read her blog it certainly looked like feminism to me... but she has clearly stated she doesn't want that identity. Why would you do that? Then I read it and... oh. I see...

This isn't always such an easy decision to come to.

And feminist activism can look totally different, depending on who is doing it. What a sex worker's feminism looks like, may be in direct conflict with what a not-sex worker's feminism looks like. You can get Pushed out. Have the identity that you wanted be taken away.

There's other areas & examples where there's conflict & even former feminists speaking about why they leave, but, alas, I must cop out now for I cannot think coherently when I am tired. You may be interested in some of the comments left here.

I mean I think I understand what you're talking about, when folks think feminism is one thing or another & don't like it because of how it is exaggerated in the media & stereotypes. Misconceptions & misperceptions.

But sometimes it's more complicated than that.

INTPanentheist said...

I actually used to feel that way, but it was more because, the way that I grew up, "feminist" was a dirty word, and then I promptly joined the Marines, where identifying one's self as a feminist automatically meant all kinds of horrible things (few of which should be perjorative in reality anyhow).

As for how to be a feminist, that depends on the person. I can't define what a feminist is, but I can certainly define what one isn't, if that makes sense.

Tasha said...

One of my close friends has male friends that make racist, sexist, antisemetic comments, that make me feel uncomfortable. Since I feel uncomfortable, I often refuse to be around these people, along with several other of my friends. My friend says she won't be a feminist, because feminists refuse to be around her friends who make offensive comments and thus aren't accepting. We've gotten in many arguments about this and I find it frustrating.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes when people say that they don't identify as feminists because they aren't "active", it sounds like they don't identify as feminists because they don't want to be labeled as activists. People identify with groups that they aren't "active" members of all the time (religious, political, social, etc.).

Anonymous said...

Considering the bad name most feminists give to the label, it's no surprise women don't want to have it applied to them.

Doctor Plog said...

What I find most frustrating is the rejection of feminism for fear of alienating men. Seriously? Any guy afraid of feminism is one so insecure in his own humanity (forget the bullshit "masculinity" category) that he DOESN'T DESERVE YOU!

The other is tougher: My cool, tough, independent friends who are feminists but don't label themselves as such because they believe in "equality" not "feminism". Semantics, maybe, but hard to overcome despite rational argument.

Some women are just scared to associate themselves with the hairy, unwashed, unfashionable, unfunny dykes.

How sad for them!

Adília said...

Society, dominated by males, does everything to present feminism as beeing the reverse of machism, so many woman are confused and afraid and they don't assume they are feminist. I recomend you the divulgation of the video from you tube: what a feminist looks like
It is very interesting.

Deanna said...

Former room mates who won't use "feminist" because to them it mean "feminazi". She's mostly feminist and mostly progressive with a few weird quirks.

When womanists and feminist WOC talk about white feminists not accepting or recognizing their needs/circumstances/etc - they are talking about people as misinformed as she.

For example, she is very much against affirmative action and will be the first to claim that she has never benefitted from it. And that when it is used, it puts in unqualified people. The example she always gives is when First Nations people were encouraged to become teachers and then given priority to return to their communities to teach. Sounds perfectly logical, yes? People with a grounding and understanding in the culture and the community going back to their communities and making them stronger and helping give everyone new opportunities (instead of being the marginal, neglected, and underserved communities that they often are). Not to her - she felt those teacher candidates were unqualified and inappropriate.

And yet, she is a wonderful advocate for people with disabilities.

I don't understand how some people's brains work. I just don't.

INTPanentheist said...

K, let me just say that I think it's an excellent point you're making about the difference between feminism and womanism and why some women will not own the term feminist - it's because they feel as though it's a movement that has disowned them. I would call myself a womanist, but, as a white woman, that isn't my term, so I own feminist and take it as a term meaning full human rights. I really appreciate Renee's blog; I've learned a great deal about the difference there, and I can definitely understand when that is the reason some women will not call themselves feminists.

Ellie said...

I think, like anything else, we only get one image of feminism in our culture and if people don't identify with that image, they don't identify with the label. Same goes for everything from lesbian to pro-choice to Christian.

I know a lot of women who'd probably fall under the definition of feminist, but are so afraid of the baggage that comes with the word, or put off by "militant feminists" that they don't identify that way.

To be fair, I think as feminists we could be better at acknowledging that feminism is a spectrum--we shouldn't judge people who aren't as passionate about it, or who do accept sexism in their lives when they shouldn't have to.

Kat said...

"Feminism is simply the belief that women are human beings with human rights. Human rights are not radical claims, but merely basic rights- the right to walk around in the world at will, to breathe the air and drink water and eat food sufficient to maintain life, to speak at will and control one's own body and its movements, including its sexuality."
Marilyn French, From Eve to Dawn, Volume 1: Origins

She said it way better than I could! To deny the relevance of feminism to all women is to deny the relevance of all basic human rights.

Anonymous said...

What I find most frustrating is the rejection of feminism for fear of alienating men. Seriously? Any guy afraid of feminism is one so insecure in his own humanity (forget the bullshit "masculinity" category) that he DOESN'T DESERVE YOU!

Maybe a lot of men don't want a relationship that's woman-centered. Why would one? I see plenty of feminist commentary saying that a romantic relationship should be woman-centered.

That'd be a problem.

The other is tougher: My cool, tough, independent friends who are feminists but don't label themselves as such because they believe in "equality" not "feminism". Semantics, maybe, but hard to overcome despite rational argument.

Not really semantics. When something is named "femin"-ism, you pretty much state your intentions up front. If I made a movement called "masculism", would you believe it was all about equality, or just about boosting up males?

Amelia said...

As I was moderating these comments, I noticed people discussing the distinction between feminism and womanism. I just wanted to clarify that I do believe very strongly in the validity of womanism as an alternative to feminism for women who feel that the feminist movement has and is not serving their needs. I have learned a lot from womanist bloggers (such as Renee) as some other commenters have mentioned.

I guess I also want to explain that the people who I have spoken to on this topic did not appear to know much about feminism in general, so the idea of the difference between feminism and womanism, I doubt would have crossed their mind, or been easily understood by them.