We used to be able to at least assume that, largely, we knew what feminism was. Whether she liked it or not, when Katherine Fenton (of equal pay Presidential debate question fame) told Salon in an interview two months ago that she was “absolutely not” a feminist — that being a young woman in the United States who believes she should have equal treatment to everyone else makes her not a feminist but “a normal human being,” she made a statement about feminism. What is it we think feminism is today that makes us so afraid to associate ourselves with its cause while outspokenly supporting its principles?
We used to know what feminism aimed for and what its goals were, and we either stood with them or stood firmly against them. Retrospectively, we distinguish waves of feminism like the first wave of the late 19th and early 20th century that emerged out of a particular socialist politic and was categorized by the creation of opportunities for women, mainly suffrage. There was the second wave that spanned four decades starting in the 1960s and formed a radical voice for anti-war change and civil rights progress. What do we have now? Some nondescript third wave, which could be categorized by some generated freedom to define one’s own priorities as a feminist, which automatically excludes anyone who doesn’t already identify themselves as a feminist, leaving alienated those who care about the elevation of women but are afraid of lesbians, bra-burning, man-hating, etc.
When Lady Gaga told a Norwegian reporter: “I’m not a feminist, I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American culture and beer and bars and muscle cars,” she was saying something about the state of feminism. Speculation as to whether or not these resistant individuals would have, might have, once upon a time been a part of what was ever called feminism is irrelevant. People do not want to associate with what they believe is feminism, now, and the stereotype they are avoiding is unclear, even to them, even while they say that it’s the bra-burning, man-hating lesbian that they resist. My respect for bra-burning man-hating lesbians aside, they are not the problem.
I certainly don’t want to say that it is right or effective for feminists who consider themselves less “radical” to shun them as a detriment to our collective public image, like a public relations ploy. Even dismissing other waves of feminists is problematic, because “waves” doesn’t make sense anymore. There is not some great ocean that is feminist thought, encompassing all feminists — self-identified and not — that is aimed toward some smooth, safe, sandy shore of equality and justice. It doesn’t work that way.
My version of that ubiquitous chorus of “I’m not a feminist, but,” has become “I am a feminist, but,” and it is not “but I’m not a bra-burning, man-hating lesbian,” because I couldn’t care less if you are or you are not, because it doesn’t tell me anything about your character or your morals or ideas. Perhaps my version is “I am a feminist, but you don’t know what feminism is,” because how could we possibly? How can we even begin to define feminism, some monolithic movement of individuals of all kinds standing in support of women’s rights and equality?
“You don’t know what feminism is” offends people, and it offends us because we think there is one feminism. I tell people I am a feminist regularly — sometimes when they ask and sometimes when they don’t — but in my mind I am referring to my feminism, what I call feminism, and by that I do not mean that “my” feminism is exclusive. I can’t take it home at night and cuddle with it. What I mean is that what I call feminism could be very different from Conservative Sally Sue’s feminism and is probably different from the feminism claimed by a woman I will never meet in Malaysia, for example.
I know that some would say that dividing ourselves by separate definitions, “feminisms” as a plural statement, weakens our cause. But there it is, “our cause,” as if we all want the same thing and want it in the same way. We are weakened, we are divided, not by acknowledging difference but by failing to acknowledge the disparity caused by the fractionalization of our beliefs and approaches to what we identify as feminism. But then the problem is not the fragmentation of feminism, with so many aiming for so much, but rather that we still talk about some singular feminism as if there is an end-of-story sort of finality we are working toward, and we will all do it together, and it will be organized and neat and there will be leaders and guidance, and then we’ll all go out for coffee.
We, and by “we,” I mean the self-identified feminist community (and proponents of “I’m not, but,”) do not have a dream monochrome enough to be able to rally behind one leading principle, let alone one leading individual. We must breathe into our own plans space for the activism of others who may focus elsewise but are still partners in some way, in caring about women somehow. We need to allow for specificity, and for conflict. Why do we all have to get along? Why do we all have to agree? We need to tolerate internal conflict within our broad and indefinite community, knowing that none of us exist in a vacuum and neither do our goals and beliefs.
What we can do is implement “feminisms,” plural, because we are not each the same feminist, the same woman, or the same human. We implement “feminisms” because although we stand together on the shoulders of giant generations of feminists who worked through what we call waves, thanks to their great successes, our own “wave” is diverse. Who knows, maybe “I’m not a feminist, but” will disappear. Maybe some small lexical movement of plurality will be the catalyst for a global conversation about what matters to people instead of the stereotypes of the “militant drive and the sort of chip on the shoulder” that pioneers like CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer are avoiding. Maybe this is the future of what we have been calling feminism, maybe it is just an open invitation to all the feminists-in-denial to find the fold. I don’t want to hear that you’re not a feminist, “but.” I would rather not hear that you’re not a feminist at all, but let’s start with baby steps.