“Don’t be afraid to call yourself a feminist,” we say, “It’s not a dirty word.”
Like little Johnny Feminismseeds, we are supposed to be frolicking through life, liberally sprinkling our fellow women with the Good Word about how feminism is not what we were taught it was. It wasn’t scary, it didn’t mean you have to hate men, and it wasn’t something to be embarrassed of. Every time we reblog or share a post praising a celebrity who identifies as feminist and says decidedly pro-women things, or bash a woman in the public eye who rejects the term for whatever reason, we are confirming it. The idea is to proudly self-identify as something that we believe all people should be — to take the word and make it into something that it would be embarrassing not to be.
We even praise women whose feminism is so far to the forefront that it manages to cover up the myriad problematic things they do and say. We love our proud feminist Tina Fey, even though she’s only too happy to viciously rip into Paris Hilton about her looks and call her a “tranny,” or make no bones about her deep disdain for sex workers.
Too often, I have gotten into arguments with my female friends (both online and off) about the misuse of the label “feminist.” I rarely call myself that directly, and it’s not because I am “afraid” of doing so. I am simply aware of how loaded — both historically and presently — that term has been for many people. From Susan B Anthony proudly proclaiming that she would cut off her right arm before letting blacks have the vote before white women, to radical feminists veiling their hatred for trans women with an interest in protecting us from male bodies, there are many women throughout history who have used the title in distinctly damaging ways. There are also women like Fey, whose feminism comes with so many asterisks as to render it meaningless for a huge amount of modern women. And whether it is a woman of color preferring the term womanism because she feels it more aptly addresses her needs where feminism leaves her out of the conversation, or an older woman whose experience with the second wave left her disillusioned about how many people the term could exclude, it is not my job or anyone else’s to shame someone into taking the label.
When I think of feminism — of a woman whose strength and support of other women is something to constantly look to for inspiration — I think of my grandmother. Having to unexpectedly raise six children alone in a judgmental Catholic community in the 60s and 70s, working two jobs and raising herself up from nothing to build something for her family, hers was a kind of hard work and belief in herself that often goes untold in the more academic circles of social progress. She didn’t have a degree in gender studies, she didn’t attend rallies, she didn’t think of her life of particularly political, but she always made me believe that I could do anything as a woman if I wanted to. I could make mistakes and get up from them, I could find love again later in life, I could support other people and be strong where they couldn’t. She has never called herself a feminist, but that doesn’t detract from her being the kind of human who makes the world a better place for women.
I cringe at the thought of approaching her today, with my poignant articles about feminist theory and intricate labels of personal beliefs, telling her “Don’t be afraid to call yourself a feminist. It’s not a dirty word.” I could not imagine anything more presumptuous, more condescending, more inappropriate given how much she has done in comparison to me. What could I possibly have to tell her, what rhetoric could I use, that would in any way improve or deepen the hard work she has put in throughout her life?
The women who inspire me, and who are helping other women likely without even realizing it, have often never called themselves by anything other than their name. They are simply thoughtful, compassionate, hard-working humans who believe in justice and equality and making the world a more fair place to live for everyone. They treat others with respect, and don’t judge the decisions of their fellow woman, and show everyone they meet that they are competent and worthy. And to be frank, they don’t even have to be women.
I would consider my father a feminist, without hesitation. He’s never been interested in the label, but the degree to which he shows respect and autonomy and humanity to all women is something I strive to imitate. He would never, as some self-identified male feminists do, engage in social media pissing contests to prove how good he is as an ally. His openness of spirit and effort to correct those around him whose views of womanhood are woefully outdated, those are things that need no name. They are actions which actively work to make my life better and more full of opportunity. He would never, like some of our most beloved public feminists, degrade a sex worker or a woman he perceives as too stupid to be worthy of respect and humanity. His respect is intrinsic, and has no strings attached.
There is nothing wrong with identifying however you like. If you feel that calling yourself a feminist is important and helps you better focus on your goals and ideologies, more power to you. But let’s not allow ourselves to believe that a title is the litmus test of an active system of beliefs and actions. Because, as history has clearly demonstrated, living a life that is distinctly and universally pro-woman is not always tied to the person who is using the label the loudest. And it is essential that we judge women, as we would anyone, like individual humans who are not burdened with the weight of carrying a name they might feel doesn’t fit them for whatever reason. It is our job to be compassionate and respectful and fair human beings, not to be flag-bearers of the cause.
“Don’t be afraid to call yourself a feminist,” we should say, “But don’t feel that you have to, either. Because unlike the rest of the world, we are not going to expect you to fulfill a role that you are not comfortable with. We are here to judge you on your actions, because that’s what we all deserve.”