I discovered that I was a feminist on 4th June 2007.
I can pinpoint it with that much accuracy due to my old LiveJournal. After a particularly bad week of being shouted at in the street or propositioned by strangers I’d made three ranty posts about street harassment in the space of 4 days. In third post, after linking to a no-longer-there site (which later became the Everyday Sexism project) I wrote:
I’ve never been very interested in feminism before, or campaigning for anything really. I’ve got on with what I believe in in my own way[…] Little drops in the ocean. But this has really got me wound up, and the more I dig, the more wound up I get. I can’t tackle this one in a little private way, I’ll probably end either in a ditch having been attacked by a bloke I’ve retaliated to, or in jail, having been arrested for thumping a bloke I’ve retaliated to. […] If I start wearing dungarees, stop washing, and start singing protest songs in parks, someone please kill me. Especially if I start talking about burning my bra.
A number of my friends gently took me to task in the comments:
Trust me dungarees, smelliness and bra burning are not a prerequisite to feminism. Feminism is about realising women are treated differently and less well than men and wanting to do something about it.
One linked me to the Fawcett Society’s “this is what a feminist looks like” campaign .
I’ve always thought of you a feminist, even if you’ve never really been interested in it. Your world view seems sufficiently well aligned to mine that I think you have feminist sympathies.
From that point forward I started to think of myself as a feminist. I didn’t take any courses, or start reading any particular writers, but I started paying more attention to what was around me, what I experienced and started challenging my own perceptions of sex, gender and gender identity. I continued to make ranty posts on my LiveJournal – but as time went on started to find the comments I was getting difficult to deal with. I found it hard to argue back when people disagreed with me. Specifically, when I discussed a feminist issue and men would reply with variations on a theme:
but not all men are like that
but men have problems too
but women are their own worse enemies/women do this too
Eventually I began to shrink from posting anything overtly feminist, or about harassment, patriarchy or objectification simply because I didn’t want to deal with a shitstorm of arguments every time I had an opinion. I didn’t have the language or the skills to argue the points that kept coming up over and over again. Other friends did, and largely did an excellent job of making the arguments for me, and I continued to learn from, and marvel at, the cleverness of my internet friends. It did put me off though, and ultimately I stopped posting anything controversial at all.
In the last few years there have been a number of things that have roused my feminist ire – only now the social media tool of choice is Facebook, not Live Journal. I’ve debated sexism in sport, the questionable feminism of Joss Whedon, gendered insults and swear words (try not using any for a week, it’s HARD.) and most recently That Snickers Advert.
Facebook doesn’t lend itself to debate in quite the same way as LiveJournal. You can support what someone is saying by just a ‘like’. You don’t have to even construct a coherent sentence to agree. The comments fields encourage shorter responses. TL;DR now extends to a comment longer than about an inch. I also am less afraid of just unfriending someone if they really fuck me off. Perhaps that isn’t the most sensible way to encourage open discourse, but it’s my Facebook and I get to chose who has access to my life. But that has the result that I am discussing with a limited pool of people who already agree with me, and not with anyone able to challenge me when they take issue with me.
I am not coming up with my own ideas or theories – I am finding what other people have said and agreeing with them. I am posting other people’s content; finding validation in my half-formed thoughts in articles written by ‘proper’ writers and going ‘THIS’ and posting a link.
Outside of Facebook, it’s a different story. When I first started this blog I had wondered if I would go back to posting some of my glorious feminist rants of the livejournal days. It felt like exposure. Write *MY* words about feminism? I can’t. It terrifies me. I don’t understand the language of feminism. I don’t understand the theories. I read an article in the Guardian about ‘fourth wave feminism and realised I didn’t even know what waves one to three were (I do now. I googled.) I googled ‘intersectionality’ and still didn’t understand it. Sometimes I read articles about Feminism and feel really stupid.
I have had a number of discussions lately with female friends who have said they wanted to share things on Facebook, but felt that they couldn’t, because they didn’t want to have a big argument with people telling them why they are wrong and making them upset – the exact same fears that stopped me posting my thoughts on my LiveJournal. The most eye opening was a discussion with a friend who is a well established blogger who I very much admire. She said that she shied away from discussing feminism because she feels like it’s a subject where she can’t write with any authority – she feels she has things to say but that her views will be rejected by feminist writers. This rang very close to home for me.
Mr RDP is a feminist. It’s one of the many attractive things about him. He’s also an Academic feminist. He wrote his dissertation on Riot Grrl and Third Wave Feminism. He understands the terms and the language of Feminism. He’s read bell hooks and probably knows why you spell her name with small letters. He knows how to debate, and how to form and dissect arguments. As an academic, he carefully constructs an argument before discussing it, testing the hypothesis by debate.
I am an non-academic feminist. My degree was in performance art. I didn’t even have to do dissertation – I created an limited audience participatory site specific piece (I built a maze and had monsters running around in it). Sometimes I make sweeping half humorous statements like “I blame the Spice Girls.” I am not prepared when people actually de-construct my argument – it confuses me because I didn’t really have an argument to begin with. With my arts background I start with a small feeling or statement and develop that into an argument through discussion, building a hypothesis by debate.
When I get involved in a discussion about Feminism my whole point of view, and perception, and all my arguments come from my position of being a woman, living in this world, and the experiences I have of it. I can’t argue from a theoretic point of view or say “well, bell hooks said…”because I haven’t read her. It makes me shy away from having discussions about feminism with Mr RDP because I end up feeling like my opinion doesn’t count because I’m an ill-read woman, and then he feels like I’m calling him an oppressive symbol of patriarchy and we both shout and I cry.
To hear my friend, an excellent writer and someone who has so much to say, voice that she feels shut out of feminist discussion because she doesn’t have the right background made me feel sad. I might have struggled to understand the word ‘intersectionality’ but I understood enough about the concept to see that alienating women from having a voice because they haven’t got an academic background is not exactly in the spirit of third (or fourth?) wave feminism. I can see how it must be frustrating for those who have studied and read feminist writers to have ‘uninformed’ female voices sharing ideas or feelings that have already been covered by writers beforehand; but to say “well, if you’d read X then you’d see that this has already been discussed” is a classic shut-down.
Since my revelation of 4th June 2007 I am a little older, arguably a little wiser, and a fair bit more Teflon of skin. I’m less afraid of a heated discussion, more confident in my feminism and happier to get stuck in to disagreements. I still consider myself relatively new to feminism. I’m still learning. When you are learning you make mistakes and you learn by them. Perhaps this blog post is a mistake I will learn from, but perhaps it will help me lose my fear of writing my own words about feminism in public.
We’re in an era where young people, male and female (and in between – but the gender binary is a whole other blog post…) are getting interested in and fired up by Feminism in an increasingly sexualised and gender divided youth culture (gendered Lego? REALLY?). Feminism is no longer in danger of being seen as the discourse of protest song singing bra burning hippies. If anything, it’s in danger of going too much the other way and becoming acedemicised to the point of excluding those who come to feminism by another less formal route.
In order to continue to encourage people to declare themselves a feminist, we need to make sure all voices are able to be heard, and not frighten away or silence those who really feel they have something to say.