The F Word
I refer to the beginning of my sophomore year of high school as my “Great Awakening.” That is when I found Feminism. It changed my whole life.
I don’t remember much about Pre-Feminist Taylor but I know she was not constantly thinking of the way women are being oppressed, as I do now. She laughed at sandwich-making girls in the kitchen jokes, which gets an eyeroll from me now. She didn’t realize the way things were set up for women and girls to lose, and how the society she lived in wasn’t a big fan of her womanhood. You might be thinking that this awakening doesn’t sound so great considering how a myriad of injustices is the thing I woke up to, but I am so grateful for it.
Once I realized I was a feminist, everyone else realized it too. I got a t-shirt that said “This is what a feminist looks like,” which I wore with pride. And my mom bought me a necklace of the feminist symbol, which I never took off. In my mind, everyone had to know I was a feminist. But now, in my third year of college, it’s a label I almost never use for myself. What changed?
The label “feminist” has a long, sordid history.
Since the feminist movement in America first began, there has been a negative stigma attached to the word. People thought feminists were crazy, man-hating, witches. They claimed they were only feminists because they “couldn’t get a man.” They said they were ugly, they were violent, they were homicidal, they were bitter, and just about everything else you can imagine. Almost any insult you can conceive has been thrown against feminists since the Suffrage Movement, as insults are always thrown against people fighting for change. And that is not merely just a fact of the past. In truth, more recently feminism has become a little more mainstream.
Stars such as Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, Beyoncé, and more have all proclaimed themselves feminists, which helps take the stigma away and encourages young girls to do the same. However, even now, the negative stigma surrounding the word makes many women afraid to claim it. I do not blame young women who don’t proclaim themselves feminists for fear of stigma. No one wants to be insulted. In fact, I know many women have shied away from even exploring what feminism is because of the negative stereotypes they’ve heard.
The fear of the word is very valid.
However, that was never my issue. I felt, and I still feel, that I knew what feminism was: Feminism doesn’t mean I hate men. Feminism doesn’t make me ugly. (I mean, clearly. Scroll back up if you don’t believe me.) I was never drawn to feminism because I was bitter. I knew that feminism was a means for women’s liberation, and a means for all people to be equal. That was something I could support. However, the mainstream feminist movement has not always had all women’s liberation in mind. Feminism is supposed to be a movement to ensure the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. It should be fighting against sexism. However, as we all know, sexism is not the only problem that plagues the world today. There is racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. The various ways people with marginalized identities are discriminated against is endless. Women all over the world are impacted by endless combinations of these.
Therefore, any truly effective feminism cannot be one-size-fits-all. It has to address the various ways different women are oppressed. It must be intersectional. Unfortunately, this has not been the role of mainstream feminism since its inception. At its best, the widespread feminist movement has ignored the way oppressed identities intersect, and under the guise of fighting for all women’s liberation, only really fought for straight, able-bodied, cisgender, white women’s liberation. At its worst, these women fought for women’s liberation by actively contributing to the prejudice people of these other identities face.
A great example of the prejudice perpetuated by feminism would be the suffrage movement. The way revisionist history likes to talk about the suffrage movement is that women fought to be granted suffrage and then received that right. This brief telling actually erases an ugly truth. After black men were granted suffrage, many white “feminists” were angry that these men got the right before white women did. They used this as an angle in their fight for suffrage, and in fact tried to convince their fellow white men to give it to them as it would “Keep the vote white.” This is of course a gross example of racism and pitting white womanhood against black manhood, which then poses the question: where do black women fall?
There are many other instances like this in which feminists have only had the interests of white women in mind, and left women of color to be forgotten and alone in their fight for justice. And they did fight for justice on their own. Alice Walker coined womanism, which was meant to be for black women and other women of color. And black feminists went out and fought to end racial oppression and sexist oppression at the same time, knowing they didn’t need white women to do it. I have seen now, a lot of black women and other women of color say they are not feminists, and white women attack them for that. However their reason for not wanting to identify with that word is valid. It is no one else’s business to get angry at. The racist history of the feminist movement is reason enough to abandon the word.
However, I personally believe that women who call themselves feminists but are racist, transphobic, ableist, etc… are not actually feminists. How could they be if they’re not fighting for the liberation of all women? I think feminists should be reclaiming the word, and fighting to take it back from those who were never real feminists in the first place. I admire any woman who identifies as a womanist, but “black feminist” was enough for me. However now, I’m label-less.
Feminist scholar bell hooks has encouraged saying you “advocate feminism” rather than labeling yourself a feminist. This is an idea I’ve started to adopt. My new philosophy for myself is that a feminist is not something that you are, but feminism is something that you do. When adopting a label, women feel pressured to say everything they are doing is a “feminist action.” So dating their boyfriend is “feminist” and shaving their legs is “feminist” and wearing makeup is “feminist.” That’s not true. And that’s okay! There’s no need to quantify your every action like that.
On the other hand, as people have done their part to destigmatize the feminist label, more girls have been calling themselves feminists but not actually advocating for it. I’ve seen girls use that label then turn around and shame other women for being sexual, criticize women for not adhering to gender roles, imply that there’s something wrong with men being emotional, and more things that are antithetical to feminism. “Actions speak louder than words” is a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Using the label is meaningless if you’re not advocating for women’s equality in your everyday life. Call me a feminist and I won’t argue with you. But the t-shirt is at the bottom of a drawer, and the necklace is broken somewhere (Sorry mom!) I might not talk the talk in the way I used to, but I walk the walk. I advocate feminism by speaking up & speaking out, getting involved in women’s empowerment programs, interning at the Women’s Center, and writing articles like these, among other things. If you’re feeling shackled by the label, don’t be. Rather than asking yourself “Am I a feminist?”, ask yourself “Do I believe in women’s liberation?” If the answer is yes (which it had better be) then ask yourself “Now what am I doing to make that happen?”