In the years since I consciously chose to walk away from feminism, I’ve struggled in my relationship to the movement. The hold of mainstream feminism has become much stronger, especially in a cultural era when people are more open to the idea that perhaps social inequality is something that should be addressed, and mainstream feminism provides a soft, accessible, acceptable, friendly, non-challenging lens on a number of issues. Intersectional feminism and feminisms rooted in other aspects of social and cultural theory tend to be suppressed, those voices having to fight harder to be heard.
My decision to refuse to identify as feminist has remained staunch, though, because it continues to be a movement where I don’t feel safe, welcome, comfortable. It’s not a place where I feel I belong. People lecturing me and talking down to me about how of course I must be a feminist because I believe in gender equality, or how they’re going to forcibly label me as one because of my work, or how only ‘stupid’ people aren’t feminist, are a big part of the reason why. Browbeating people is not really the most effective way to get them to join your movement, as a general rule, although this seems to have gone over the heads of some people.
Here’s the thing, feminists: I love lots of you. I work in solidarity with you on a range of projects. I don’t dislike ‘feminism’ as some broad, vague entity. The movement is incredibly diverse and there are lots of feminisms I find very interesting and wish were more prominently represented. However, that doesn’t make me a feminist, and it doesn’t draw me to return to the movement, because collectively, yes, feminism still needs to clean house, and while some people like to work from the inside, I tried that, and found it to be a very unpleasant, demoralising, and painful experience — one that’s left me experiencing panic attacks and other mental health legacies to this day.
Here’s another thing, feminists: I get that a lot of people say a lot of really terrible things about you. Conservatives can be really sexist and misogynistic and it gets really exhausting to be constantly deluged in hateful comments designed to make you feel like garbage. I totally sympathise with that — and not just because some of you pointedly use much of the same language to refer to people like me. When you feel like you’re constantly under assault, it’s easy to start striking out at anyone who comes at you, because that’s what you’re conditioned to do.
Here’s another thing, though, feminists: You’ve got some problems you need to deal with. And there are people out there who are critiquing your movement through a social justice lens, explicitly with the goal of examining the role of feminism in society even if they themselves are not feminist. Many of whom share common goals like wanting to eradicate social inequality, wanting to make the world safer for members of marginalised classes, wanting to address systemic structural problems that give some people privileges over others and create space for that privilege to be abused.
These people are not your enemies. In strict point of fact, they are your friends. Sometimes your friends serve up hard truths, and it’s difficult to sit there and take it, but you’re going to come out of the whole thing a stronger, better person. Your very willingness to sit down and deal with that criticism is a show of good faith and respect that will make your friends stay your friends even if sometimes they want to scream and tear their hair out, and your responsiveness to that criticism will build a better, more inclusive, more welcoming movement. A movement that, perhaps, your friends might be interested in joining someday.
There’s a tendency, when people critique feminism, for some feminists to violently lash out, attempting to silence or devalue critics. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t comment on feminism because I’m not a feminist, and only people on the inside are allowed to shape the movement — despite the fact that the movement segregates itself and pushes people out, and those people are perhaps best suited to comment on the structural problems inside. I’ve been told that I’m a feminist even though I have repeatedly and clearly said that I am not, and articulated why, and my critiques of the movement are brushed off. I’ve been told that people who self identify as feminists but behave conservatively aren’t ‘real’ feminists, as though this is some kind of evidence that the movement polices itself and excludes views that are ‘antithetical to feminist values.’
Feminists, when someone takes time and energy to articulate concerns about your movement, sit down and listen up. Pay attention. When that person is finished, reflect back what they’re saying and ask questions. Do some research. Find out how you can do better. Consult people, compensating them for their expertise, about how you can address the issues raised by critics. Decide whether you want your movement to be inclusive, a home for actual conversation and social change, or exclusive, a place where those who toe the line are welcome, but those who disagree with the behaviour of some of your representatives are outsiders to be banned, feared, and hated, accused of undermining your movement and making it harder to get work done.
When people develop thoughtful critiques, it’s usually because they care about something enough to want to effect change. Don’t shit on that.
Image: Who needs feminism?, Laura Forest, Flickr