Why Feminism Has A Very Long Way To Go

Flickr /David Goehring
Flickr /David Goehring

“Feminism” these days can seem like a meaningless concept. If you ask me if I’m a feminist, I still cringe. And yes there are people out there who will say, “Do you believe in gender equality? Then you are feminist.” Sorry but that is an unrealistic, oversimplification of a very big concept. If you consider the mere rhetorical implications that are embedded in identifying as a feminist, and the possibilities of how that word is read depending on the audience at hand, you will understand why not everyone is so willing to name themself a “feminist,” and call it a day.

In the first place, let’s be real about what feminism was (and still is, to some extent) – the communicative and performed resistance to the male patriarchy from a White, Western, upper- and middle-class women’s perspective of the world. And that would prove to not be good enough as a standard for women who do not check all those boxes in their identities. Now while I am not blind to the media representations (that are often incorrect and harmful) which depict feminists as “crazy” or “extreme,” feminism is still not good enough as it stands. There is a grave lack of understanding in the importance of race, class, sexuality, and other intersectionalities of identity, which all play a role in the construction and perception of one’s gender identity to begin with.

This past quarter, I had my students read Audre Lorde’s, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House” – which was essentially a Black feminist critique of the often White, middle- and upper-class dominated feminist movement. And during our class discussion, I asked my students if they identified as feminists and what they thought of feminism. Now these are students of diverse backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 21, some of them older. But the overwhelming response was an underwhelming “no.” And a lot of it was because they, “couldn’t see themselves in modern feminism,” or “they don’t relate to it.”

Now holding for their age and experience, and certainly understanding even I, myself, was uncertain of this thing called “feminism” as a college student, I still found their responses very interesting. They were critical because they just couldn’t apply it to their lives as they saw and understood it. This is one example but feminism is seemingly not doing its job. I too, am often critical of the feminist movement for it’s failures to be inclusive – for women of color, for non-Western women, for poor women, for religious women, etc. It is almost as if one has to be a liberal, non-religious, White, female in the middle or upper-class economic bracket to really abide by modern feminist standards.

Would a modern feminist be okay with me being pro-life because I cannot but assert that life begins at conception as a matter of reasoning and deduction of natural ethics? Would they be okay with me not believing that “sex work” is something that should be promoted as a “choice” of occupation for women? (Which by the way it still isn’t a “choice” for a great majority of women in those situations.) Or would they be okay with me asserting that their construction of womanhood does not apply to me as a Black, African woman? And that my own construction is worthy of as much dignity, without being seen as “part of the problem” or “brainwashed” or “backwards”? Because in my experience, hardly.

So needless to say I dissent from the word quite a bit because my beliefs and assertions and identities in the world do not appear to conform to the feminist movement in this new age or any. This feminist movement, which faces and sometimes ignores the same old institutional problems of race and class that have plagued it for a long time. (“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House”) This movement, that berates the belief systems that it opines as inconsistent with some of the ideals that modern feminists insist cannot be part of the ideology.

Moreover, while “Internet feminism” has certainly brought a great deal of conversation and discussion about womanhood and the inequalities women face, there is also a great deal of humility and education that should still be seen as important to the movement. It does not necessitate formal education because even as Lorde wrote in her article, “Survival is not an academic skill” as it pertains to women in this world. But it does not help the cause if there is misinformation and a misunderstanding characterized by so many opinions and not particularly well-argued ones at that; and even less facts, that dominate the movement.

My teaching mentor this year said, “Feminism fails because it has no revolutionaries.” And to some extent, I agree. But I also think that many people have not done “the heavy lifting” of reading on feminism, speaking with what could be feminists from all walks of life, and doing their due diligence of the moral and ethical positions they want to take or not take with regard to how they view women and women’s choices. I know that feminism has done some amazing things but I always want to remind people, especially when I read something about just “women” or “girls” on the Internet and often have to keep myself from logging in and typing, “DO YOU MEAN WHITE, LIBERAL, MIDDLE-CLASS, WOMEN BECAUSE THIS IS WHAT THIS SOUNDS LIKE?” Because to be a woman in the world is always attached to, and formed by, as well as forms, one’s other identities.

The histories of women differ, their present differs, their social and economic situations, politics, religion, morals, and ethics, all differ. So I would hope then that feminism becomes a movement that recognizes these differences rather than hopes to argue that women should shed aspects of their identity in order to “fit in” with it. I can almost assure that it will die many deaths before that ever happens.

Yes, feminism has a very long way to go. And I do hope as I’ve once written before, that it can become more of an individual claim in which we say what types of feminists we are, rather than pretending that we are all the same. We aren’t. Women are different because people are different. Why shouldn’t feminism reflect this? And until we recognize that, I have a nagging thought that we won’t get to where we want to go in this movement. Especially for women like me who are still uncertain as to what feminism should mean in our lives. TC mark

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