‘But of course you’re a feminist! You believe in gender equality!’

Many people are surprised to learn that I’m not a feminist, despite the fact that this information is readily available and it’s a topic I actually discuss rather a lot; I can’t identify with a group that is represented primarily by people who behave in oppressive ways, and has shown no sign of interest in reforming its behaviours. That doesn’t mean every single feminist is a horrible, evil, no-good, terrible, bad person, but it does mean that the movement as a whole is one I don’t want to be associated with, and by separating myself from it, I can focus on working on issues that matter to me. And, yes, working in solidarity with feminists whom I love and respect.

One of my many problems with feminism is the insistence on policing the label; many self-identified feminists seem to believe they get to decide who is feminist and who is not. They want to take the label away from some, and force it on others. I’m routinely called a feminist, usually by accident because people don’t always know better, but not always. And some people insist on forcibly labeling me as one even after encountering discussions in which I explain why I’m not a feminist.

‘Well, obviously you’re a feminist,’ they say. ‘You believe in feminist values.’

No. I don’t. I believe in gender equality. I believe in liberation for all. I believe that there are huge social and structural inequalities in this country, and the world, which must be addressed through concrete action. I believe that I as an individual can do something about some of this inequality, especially if I work in solidarity with others on specific projects where we have identified targets and goals and work to achieve them. I believe in lending a helping hand, not slapping people down. I believe in making room on the soapbox when I hear someone trying to speak.

These are not ‘feminist’ values. They are values, and many people who are feminist also believe in them, but they are not the exclusive property of feminism. I was discussing this issue with Marianne Kirby a few months ago, and we both noted that many people who insist on forcibly labeling given people and activities as ‘feminist’ seem very hung up on the idea that values like these, like gender equality, belong to feminism, and that no other social justice movement holds that. That it would be impossible for anyone to hold those values and not be a feminist.

Womanism is perhaps the most direct and obvious example of a social justice movement that shares many ‘feminist’ values but isn’t feminist. It’s not the only movement, though. And there are people out there, like me, who don’t identify with specific movements; we don’t label our work and we resist labeling because there’s a conscious and important reason that we’re choosing not to label. Claiming that a pretty fundamental ethical belief like gender equality is the property of a specific social justice movement is not only inaccurate, it’s actively offensive, and it’s counterproductive.

In the labeling wars over who gets called what and who ‘gets’ to identify with various social justice movements, many people are eager to override the actual lived experiences of the people they’re debating about. In discussions about why some people turn away from feminism, our voices are silenced, or we’re dismissed as upholding stereotypes. I was a feminist. I engaged with the heart of the movement. And I didn’t like what I saw, so I chose to leave, after carefully considering my options and meeting a wide range of feminists, including people with values precisely aligned with my own, people who share my concerns about feminism, people who like to engage in conversations about the internal problems within the movement.

Even with their support, it wasn’t a movement I felt comfortable in. And it’s a movement a lot of people don’t feel comfortable in. People saying that ‘mainstream feminism isn’t feminism’ and their movement shouldn’t be judged by a handful of leaders should ask themselves why those leaders have risen to power, because outsiders have an understanding of why that happened, and we understand why we are not comfortable in feminism. If the leaders of feminism ‘don’t represent the movement,’ then why are they representing it? Why hasn’t feminism found new leaders that reflect its alleged values?

And why is there such a ferocious insistence on forcibly labeling people as ‘feminist’ when it suits feminists? I’m ‘feminist’ when I’m writing about gender and sexuality, and then I’m not when I’m criticising feminism and discussing problems with intersectionality in social justice movements. I’m on scores of lists compiled by well-meaning people trying to develop lists of diverse voices in feminism, and they seem genuinely surprised when I gently point out that I don’t belong on those lists, but that they’re more than welcome to include my name on a broader list of members of social justice movements. Meanwhile, other people struggle to categorise me and end up giving up entirely and just not including me on organised lists at all.

Feminism doesn’t get to claim broad social values as its own, and it doesn’t get to attempt to force people to belong to it when those people have expressed a firm desire not to be in the movement. If feminists don’t understand why people with ‘feminist values’ don’t want to belong to their movement, they should look not at us, but into the mirror, and into the core of their own movement.