On Feminism, and How to Make It Better

Apropos of my discussion of patriotism recently, I wanted to expand on some ideas I’ve had about feminism, of late. Feminism, as a  movement, is extremely problematic, and one of the things which critics are often told is that they shouldn’t criticize feminism, but should just go along with what’s happening because eventually their criticisms will be addressed organically as the movement evolves.

Does this sound familiar? It’s the same logic used to shut down people making political speech.

And it’s not productive, or appropriate. Feminism is a huge movement, but it’s not inclusive, and as a result, many people do not want to identify themselves with it because they are excluded by feminism, and they see no need to be a part of a movement which clearly does not want them. Women of colour, trans women, lower class women, disabled women, they are all theoretically candidates for membership in the feminist movement, but they find the movement so inaccessible that they don’t identify with it.

Because, really, why identify with a movement which is actively harming you?

The voices of mainstream feminism are primarily white, middle class, able, heterosexual, and cis gendered. For the most part, they always have been. And, you know, those women certainly do face issues which definitely do need to be addressed, but they are not the same issues faced by, say, a disabled Black woman, or a bisexual trans woman. The issues faced by women, all women, should be a part of feminism, but they aren’t.

Mainstream feminism tends to take a more individualist approach, with a focus on what will improve things for the individual feminist. The flaw with this approach is that while it may benefit the individual, it does not benefit women as a whole, and in fact can hurt other women. Which, in the end, hurts the individual, in my opinion, because we all benefit when things are better for everyone.

This is, in some senses, an outgrowth of cultural values, especially in the United States, which center the needs of the individual over the needs of society, and which privilege some individuals over others. We are taught that it is appropriate and necessary to center ourselves to accomplish things, even if this means doing direct harm to others. To see these values carried over into social justice movements is not surprising, but still tragic.

In the past, I’ve directed energies at trying to fix feminism. At trying to make mainstream feminism more inclusive, for example, at trying to promote dialogue. At trying to get folks to look beyond the individual and into the needs of women as a whole.

But I think I’m turning away from that, because I realize that I am dedicating my energies to the wrong things. I’m focusing on trying to educate and fix from within the movement, but I think I need to redirect. I need to focus on taking the aspects of feminism I do identify with, and building those aspects up.

If mainstream feminism doesn’t want to make room for us, than we intersectional feminists (or whatever you want to call yourself) need to create our own space. We need to dedicate time not to calling out mainstream feminism, but to building up spaces which center the voices of  marginalized people. Yes, deconstructing mainstream feminism is important, but it’s taking up too much energy.

We don’t need mainstream feminism.

We don’t.

It’s not helping us, and we’re letting it eat up huge amounts of our time. What we need is our own feminism. If mainstream feminism later decides that it would like to come around and join the party, that’s terrific, and I’ll be there with open arms when it does. But, for the time being, I think that I would prefer to focus on building up. On accentuating the positive. On making things.

When we started FWD in October, we thought it was going to be a fairly small niche site. We thought it would circulate in a small way, and might build up over time.

FWD is now pretty big. I don’t really want to say how big, because I don’t like bleating about stats and followers and etc etc. But let’s just say that it is way bigger than we ever thought it would be, and it happened extremely fast. Which has been incredibly stressful for all of us. But it has also been very eye-opening and awesome.

Because several of us realized that all of us had been focusing on deconstructing feminism on our own websites, on trying to make mainstream feminism better and more inclusive, and we had dedicated thousands of hours to this. To trying to educate. To trying to climb tremendous barriers placed in front of us by other “feminists” who were stepping on our backs to get their needs met while ignoring the very pressing and entirely separate concerns we faced.

And FWD/Forward isn’t about improving mainstream feminism, for me. It’s about creating a space to center intersectional voices. We built something amazing, and it is showing me that building up is hard, but much more pleasurable and ultimately more beneficial than confining myself to trying to point out problems and telling people how to fix them. Mainstream feminism told us “you don’t belong” so we said, ok, we’re going to go make a space where we do belong.

An inclusionary space. A space, in fact, in which a lot of mainstream feminist attitudes are not welcome.

As my fellow contributor abby jean says, “ORGANIZE!” Rather than concentrating on fixing something which is inherently broken, we need to focus on building something which is better. “If you build it, they will come,” the saying goes, so I’m going to be working, from now on, on building a better intersectional feminist movement. On showing people that the focus of intersectional feminism is not, in fact, complaining about the problems with mainstream feminism all the time, but actually doing something to improve the lives of all women.

It is good to criticize. Criticizing is still, well, critical. In part, I criticize now through my actions, which demonstrate that it is possible to create a version of feminism which does not exclude women. And I am probably going to continue critiquing mainstream feminism directly, illustrating the areas in which it falls short and providing suggestions for how it can improve. But this is no longer about fixing; it’s about rebuilding, and saying that anyone who’d like to visit my house is welcome here. And anyone who notices a problem with my house is welcome to bring it up, because I still fall into the trap of centering the individual and I need to be wary of that.

In the end, people are going to come around when they realize that our feminism is better serving all women.

5 Replies to “On Feminism, and How to Make It Better”

  1. This is MY feminism.

    They don’t own feminism. It does not have their names written on it in Sharpie ink.

    I get to define feminism. My feminism. They don’t get to tell me I’m not welcome, because feminism is not theirs to kick me out of.

    So I’m going to stay over here in my space and build up a feminism that does what it’s damn well supposed to do. They say it’s too hard. I say, there have been millions of people demonstrating otherwise for generations.

    You go enjoy your little clique fighting for the rights of the people special enough to be a part of it. I’m going to be over here with the people who specifically seek out the most beat-upon and estranged in our communities and stand (sit, lie) next to them, building something amazing together for the sake of all.

  2. I’m getting over a cold and not feeling terribly eloquent, I wanted to say thank you for this post. It very much parallels my feelings about mainstream feminism. Thank you for this post.

    I’m excited for the relationships I’m seeing develop between women who are not being served by feminism as it currently exists, and for developing a movement which aims to make the lives of all women better.

  3. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. This sums up my current feelings about mainstream feminism while providing useful means to refocus my activism.

    I feel most included in the company of intersectional feminists, particularly actively encouraged to unpack privilege in order to build strong coalitions in a space where insectionality is the basis of framing our work as feminists.

    If mainstream feminism doesn’t want to make room for us, than we intersectional feminists (or whatever you want to call yourself) need to create our own space. We need to dedicate time not to calling out mainstream feminism, but to building up spaces which center the voices of marginalized people. Yes, deconstructing mainstream feminism is important, but it’s taking up too much energy.

    And totally word up to THIS!

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