If I had a dollar for every time I heard a woman say to me — in a hushed tone, often looking around warily to see who might be listening — that she’s “not a feminist, but” and then go on to explain that she doesn’t approve of a particular flavor of misogyny, or that she thinks maybe women deserve to be paid equally, or not harassed at work, or perhaps, treated like actual human beings with thoughts and feelings that might not revolve around living up to a patriarchal ideal at all times.
My response is usually to smile patiently and ask her what she thinks it means to be a feminist, but I already know the answer. To identify oneself as a feminist is to admit to being the exact opposite of what society wants from women. A feminist is, by definition, a woman who thinks and has her own opinions — opinions that go against the status quo and more importantly, opinions that contradict the idea that our culture should be male-dominated. Patriarchy doesn’t want women who think; it wants women who comply.
Admitting to being a feminist is an acknowledgement that the world as we know it is often an unsafe place for women. It’s admitting that there’s no level of beauty, youth, chastity or compliance, maternity or submission that we can achieve that will truly protect us. Instead, our only hope of safety depends on the whims of the patriarchy — if we can please all of the men, all of the time, maybe we can be safe.
Our culture paints a picture of most, but not all, feminists as loud, angry, strident and unreasonable. Feminists who adhere to conventional beauty standards, especially if they enjoy some form of celebrity in their careers, are indulged by the public. They get a bit of media attention, that adds depth to their existing fame, but it’s often akin to a pat on a child’s head: “Isn’t it cute that she has opinions?”
Other feminists are treated differently. If they happen to be older, or women of color, or not “pretty”, or they don’t wear makeup, or — God forbid — they’re fat, they are already testing the patience of our culture with their nonconformity. If they don’t apologize for their thoughts, their opinions, and — let’s face it — their existence, then they’re signaling their noncompliance. Anything that comes out of their mouths is likely viewed as subversive and a threat to society.
Back to my conversation above, the answer to the question of what being a feminist means to many women: it means being a target. It means leaving the illusion of safety and comfort behind. That’s why it feels easier to avoid the issue; to speak in whispers and try not to think too hard about it.
The thing is, I’m guessing that not thinking about it has gotten more and more challenging over the past couple of years. In an era where protecting women’s safety is even less of a priority than usual, where reproductive rights are being rapidly stripped away and where we’ve openly allowed sexual predators to infiltrate the government at every level, it must be getting harder to avoid the truth. At least I’m hoping it is.
The fact is, if you believe that women and girls are equal in their humanity, and therefore deserve the same rights, freedoms, privileges and responsibilities as boys and men, then you’re a feminist. Whether you admit it or not.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t women who disagree with specific feminists or aspects of the feminist movement. Feminism as a movement has not been without its share of problems, chief among them: a reticence to embrace women of color and the unique challenges they face, along with the rigidity in the way some feminists continue to define who the movement should include. But being a feminist doesn’t mean aligning yourself with everything that’s ever been said or done in the name of feminism.
I had a great conversation with a fellow coach a couple of weeks ago where she referred to women who don’t identify as feminists (despite professing feminist beliefs) as unsuspecting feminists. I found this term incredibly apt. Patriarchal culture still controls the vast majority of media and communication outlets, not to mention government and educational institutions. This existing power structure has done a tremendous job of making feminists into the other.
We’ve been branded by those who define us as outliers; subversive malcontents who seek to undermine the peace and prosperity of our society. The party line hasn’t changed in centuries: a threat to those at the top is a threat to everyone. Acceptance of this is based on compliance from those in the middle — white women, I’m talking about you here. As long as the majority of those in the middle remain convinced that they are protected and have access to the top, the structure remains unthreatened. An enormous part of our culture (and economy) revolves around convincing white women that as long as they keep trying to live up to that feminine ideal that they will be safe because men will value them (thus giving them access to protection and power).
And that’s the problem with feminists. The reason that so many of the most oppressive forms of patriarchy seek to limit the education of women (and this happens as often in evangelical Christian households in America as it does under regimes like the Taliban) is that teaching women to think for themselves is like lighting the fuse to a bomb. It’s only a matter of time before they start questioning the fact that those at the top don’t necessarily deserve to be there. And the idea that we’re protected and have access to power is an illusion.
For those of us who were educated in mainstream culture, we’ve most likely been exposed to the idea of gender oppression somewhere along the line. How was it most often presented in educational contexts other than women’s studies courses? In my education at fairly liberal public schools and universities, feminism was mainly presented as a quaint revolution of a bygone era — hearty thanks to Susan B. Anthony and Mrs. Pankhurst: we’ve got equality now! For some of us, maybe that perception rankled a bit, but we were so busy trying to excel, to achieve, to keep up with the expectations of modern womanhood, we didn’t have time to dig too deeply.
It’s amazing what a little (or a lot) of internalized misogyny can do. I’ve had conversations with women who’ve been fired, harassed and passed over for promotions because of their gender who would shudder to describe themselves as feminists. I’ve talked to women who’ve been groped and raped, beaten or emotionally abused by their male partner for years who will hold forth for days on why it was actually their fault and not even partially a product of a toxic culture. I’ve had some of those same women watch the same things happen to their daughters and still not waver from the patriarchal mindset. I’ve been absolutely stunned at the intellectual and emotional gymnastics that are often involved for women to be able to reject feminism but I also understand how terrifying it can be to let go of that illusion of safety.
In the end, sometimes we can awaken a reluctant or unsuspecting feminist and sometimes we can’t. The important thing is for us to keep having the conversations and have them from a place of compassion, not frustration (I know, easier said than done). Maybe if we keep asking questions, they’ll get uncomfortable enough to question too. Here’s hoping.