The fact that I’m not a feminist is a matter of public record and I’m certainly not shy about it, but people often seem surprised by it, so I thought that perhaps it was time for a refresher course. This is not by way of trying to guilt you for not having read every single thing I’ve written ever, but more by way of a refresher course — yup, still not a feminist, yup, still working with feminists and feminist publications, nope, yelling at me isn’t going to change that.
In the last year or so in particular, I have encountered many variations on the belief that someone who cares about social justice issues is automatically feminist, and that if you think that people should be decent human beings, you’re obviously a feminist. A lot of that comes with shaming witty comments about how it’s so weird that anyone on earth who is not a garbage person wouldn’t be feminist. Some of it comes with snide remarks about people who smugly proclaim that they aren’t feminist while taking advantage of social developments won by feminists. This kind of thing, and the constant recirculation of snappy remarks about feminism by celebrities, doesn’t actually make me more inclined to change my stance. If anything, it makes me less so, because it speaks to the attitudes that drove me to leave feminism.
Here’s the thing: Feminism does not have a monopoly on social justice. ‘Women’s rights’ does not automatically equal ‘feminist.’ It is possible to not be a feminist without being anti-feminist, and to not be a feminist while still caring rather a lot about social justice. (I would point you, for example, in the direction of womanism.)
Here’s another thing: Feminism could better be termed ‘feminisms.’ I know this. You do not need to tell me this. There are lots of different ways to define and do feminism, and people explore their relationship to the movement in tons of different ways. There are, for example, trans-exclusionary radical feminists — but I don’t assume all feminists hate trans women. There are badass punk feminists I love working with — but I don’t assume all feminists are incendiarily amazing man-hating anti-capitalist girl gangs who are handy with power tools and like monster trucks. So when I talk about not identifying as feminist in a broad sense, if you take a closer look you will see that I work in solidarity with a ton of feminists and speak very highly of their work.
But feminism has an ugly side, and a dark history – again, as a broad movement, not in every single iteration. The mainstream face of feminism in the US has historically been and remains heavily white, nondisabled, straight, and cis, and it is dominated by a specific set of issues relevant to a particular set of women. I care about these issues, because I care about equality, but my concerns for my fellow humans run much deeper than that.
So, okay, feminism doesn’t have to be all things to all people. I…don’t really agree with that, because activism should be intersectional — and in the words of Flavia Dzodan, if your feminism isn’t intersectional, it is bullshit. If you care about ‘women’s rights’ in the broad abstract, you should care about all women. And, yes, you should care about toxic masculinity and men, actually. And you should care about people outside the binary and agender people, and not with weird transphobic attempts at ‘inclusion’ like saying that ‘women and nonbinary people are welcome to attend.’ (Psst: It’s okay to say ‘no boys allowed’ if that is what you mean, stop lumping us in with women, thanks.)
But also? Even if you personally don’t want to dedicate that energy to your activism, you could at least not actively ignore, sometimes trample, and definitely harm people who don’t fit into the mainstream feminist vision. Yeah, I’m looking at you. I’m looking at racism in feminist spaces and how people of colour are told to wait their turn. I’m looking at disablism, and how a lot of ‘feminist victories’ have been won on the backs of disabled people. I’m looking at transphobia. Islamophobia. Queer and homophobia. Classism. The systematic erasure of facts and people that don’t suit your narrative. There are a lot of problems bound up in the feminist movement and the movement as a whole has not addressed them — has in fact penalised those who have tried to do so, even as corners of the movement have been working to resist these problems.
Last year, I interviewed Patty Berne for Bitch Magazine, and she made a comment that stuck with me — as a woman of colour, she says, she differentiates between the white-dominated disability rights movement, and the disability justice movement. One is more holistic and explicitly intersectional, rooted in liberation and pride and power. The other…is not. I’ve heard similar distinctions between reproductive rights and reproductive justice movements. And she spoke to a lot of my problems with feminism — that a movement can contain great people working on great things but still not be a movement I want to be a part of because of its larger framework.
This was really brought home with the organising for the women’s march in January, which systematically excluded disabled women. Organisers across the country couldn’t be arsed to put disability in their platform, let alone make the march accessible for disabled participants. When challenged, the response was a collective shrug.
Last year, Andi Zeisler came out with We Were Feminists Once, a searing exploration and indictment of what she calls marketplace feminism, looking at how the movement has been commodified, repackaged, and sold. We saw the same thing with fat liberation, which has been watered down to ‘body positivity.’ We see how the work of aggressive, defiant radicals has been sliced and diced for easy public consumption. I don’t want to belong to a movement that commodifies and markets and constantly compromises itself — that’s not who I am, and it doesn’t align with my values. That makes me unpopular. I’m not in it to be popular. I most definitely benefit from things feminist activists did and are doing, just as I benefit from the work of the disability rights activists they kicked out of their meetings, the people of colour they ignored, the Muslims they patronised, the sex workers they trashed, the trans women they shouted off the stage. I was able to register to vote because of disability rights activists — not feminists.
Identity is important to me. Not being forcibly labeled is also important to me. I experience an intense pressure in the current political climate to identify as feminist, and it’s not who I am. All the shaming and pressure in the world aren’t going to change that. The movement needs to change itself for me to change my position — and don’t tell me to join the movement and make it change, because I did, and I tried, and years later I am still dealing with the mental health legacies of that horrific, trying time in my life.
The movement and its ardent proponents need to accept that they do not have a monopoly on trying to make the world a better place, and that some people have deeply rooted, complex, very valid reasons for declining to identify themselves as feminists. Lots of us are also super interested in working with feminists — I don’t hate feminists, or think that feminism is a garbage movement filled with horrible people, it’s just not a movement where I feel included. Those who are deeply invested in trying to force me to be a feminist should maybe start by reforming the movement to make it a place I want to be — as, for example, Bitch Magazine has done with commitments to transcribing and captioning content, supporting up-and-coming writers with fellowships, and explicitly soliciting diverse contributors, all of which makes them one of my favourite places to work with.
I am too old and too tired to beg for scraps from the table when I have more important things to be doing.
Image: Nosotras parimos, nosotras decidimos, gaelx, Flickr