About a month ago, an NPR headline caught my eye. “Not a feminist? Caitlin Moran Asks, Why Not?” I mean… I’m a hardcore womanist-feminist and I lie at the intersection of a lot of oppressions. People have long lamented that feminists haven’t been able to make a very big dent into the mainstream media and popular culture. So this could be good. This could be real good.
There are a lot of things about your interview that I love. I was really surprised by how much our experiences with puberty and dealing with normative pop culture overlap, even though we have radically different upbringings. It was shocking, seeing how the kyriarchy can work in the same way though we’re countries and cultures separated.
But to be honest, that’s not what this letter is about. I want to have a talk, with your consent, from feminist to feminist. I want to talk about some parts of your interview that made me cringe, and that made me feel excluded from your conversation.
I should make this part clear: all of the comments I’m about to make are based on this one NPR interview. I was just able to borrow “How to be a Woman” from a friend. I’m trying to read and understand it as fast as I can, but this letter will still mostly focus on the convo with Terry Gross. I’m banking on the assumption that the interview was a fair representative view of your views.
You’re right; more people should be feminists. But one of your premises, I think — that all or nearly all women (or others who have benefitted from feminism) are feminists is wrong. It reminds me of an ideological position that bell hooks herself tore down. You can’t be a feminist if you in one way or another hurt other marginalized groups.
Feminism is a conscious lifestyle choice, one that has to be re-examined constantly. It’s not the default state for (nearly) all women in society. This statement of yours, which seems to be such a huge part of your thesis, just doesn’t seem to ring true:
So here is the quick way of working out if you are a feminist: A: Do you have a vagina? And B: do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, then congratulations, you’re a feminist.
My first problem with the assertion is that, well… I’m a woman and a feminist. I also lack a vagina. You seem to be using “has a vagina” as shorthand for “woman” and that strikes me as horribly cissexist. It was alienating to hear that sentiment from a “feminist consciousness-raising session,” and it made me feel as if I’m not welcome in the conversation, as if my input isn’t welcome in the struggle to maintain and expand reproductive rights.
My second and biggest problem, though, is this: a racist woman is not a feminist; she doesn’t care about helping women, just the women who look like her and can buy the same things she can. A transphobic woman is not a feminist; she is overly concerned with policing the bodies and expressions of others. A woman against reproductive rights — to use bell hook’s own example, and an issue close to your heart — is not a feminist; she prioritizes her dogma or her disgust over the bodies of others. An ableist woman is not a feminist; she holds some Platonic ideal of what a physically or mentally “whole” person should be and tries to force the world to fit inside it.
These women can vote, teach, command, program, draw, read to their hearts’s content, because of advances made by feminisms. That can’t be denied if you’re being at all intellectually honest. Feminisms have helped them a lot in their life and they would not be where they are without the work of many activists before them. But they themselves are not feminists. Feminisms are not compatible with every single ideology out there.
Supporting feminism has to mean supporting all women out there and being a true ally in their fights to end their marginalization, but so few people understand the huge variety of women out there. There are women of color, lesbians, trans* women, poor women, fat women, disabled women, neuroatypical women, asexual women, genderqueer women, genderfluid women…
And I’m not sure that your words always seemed to embrace that variety. During the first part of the interview, when you described what feminism means to you, you seemed to be coming from a financially secure, white, straight, cis standpoint and it was really disconcerting. In promoting your feminism, you white-washed the horrible, sordid history of feminist movements.
That attitude is really dangerous. It leads to toxic, bigoted comments such as these. And yeah, they’re real quotes. A woman of color posted a submission on a wonderful anti-racist site about how mainstream “feminism” seems to be dominated by white, cis, privileged women… and then a bunch of irate (white) women tried to shout her down, proving her right:
Yeah you should probably shut the fuck up about putting down feminism as a white privilege. Black oppression through slavery in the West is a ~500 year old phenomenon. The oppression of women, EVERYWHERE, is a several thousand year old phenomenon. Just saying. (source)
Black oppression is as old as the compass, female oppression is as old as fire. Comparatively, you’re a young whippersnapper telling a hardworking old person to move for YOUR seat on a bus. Wise the fuck up to a line you shouldn’t cross. (source)
We need to encourage the spread of feminism, but we can’t really forget about its past. We need to reclaim the word feminism, but a great deal of that work has to be directed at reclaiming that word from ourselves and from our pasts.
[B]ecause ‘feminism’ is a dirty word and a dirty concept — not because we should be ashamed to be trying to make the world better but because we fuck that ideal up every day in feminism’s name. Our ideology’s only as good as what we do with it, after all; we can claim to be intersectional and inclusive until our faces turn purple, but that won’t change the fact without constant reassessment of our priorities, ‘feminism’ tends towards racism, xenophobia, classism, cissexism, transphobia, and more. (source)
Some early suffragettes used racism in their rhetoric to justify their gaining the right to vote. They said that the whole of the white race should be given suffrage before black men — good job throwing Black women under the bus, girls.
The second wave of the feminist movement was similar, as it focused mostly on the straight, middle-class, cis, white experience.
Thus Womanism split off from the mainstream feminism movement. It became a movement centered on the experiences of Black women and other women of Color.
Janice Raymond published the toxic as fuck book, The Transsexual Empire, thus alienating trans* people — mostly those on the trans-feminine spectrum — from radical feminism. Her strain of bigotry lives on in the hate cult known as trans-exclusionary radical so-called-feminist movement.)
There was a lot of infighting between straight and lesbian feminists. Some claimed that fulfilling relationships could only occur in woman-woman relationships. Many straight victims of sexual abuse attempted this because of their scars from their abuses, and the idea had mixed results at best.
There were also many straight women still under the spell of homophobic religious dogma who claimed that men-woman relationships were the only valid ones. Because of the overall societal power imbalance between straight and queer people, they had more clout to enforce this for a while.
- Many feminists in trying to reduce the stigma around sex contributed to an atmosphere of sexual compulsion. Things like the statement, “sex is good and everyone should have it” alienates people on the asexual spectrum. Dan Savage, for example, has not only internalized this idea but also extended it, making it a point to say that the responsibility of a partner is to try out any sex act as long as it is “safe and sane.” (yay ableism)
And so I have to wonder what you meant when you said,
You know, unless you’ve actually gone and handed in your vote to parliament or, you know, to the White House, you are a feminist, and you live in a feminist world. The first world is feminist.
If we’re trying to recruit into the feminist movements, then we should at least be honest about what that means, for everyone involved. In a world where the access of poor people to gain access to reproductive services, where trans* people have had to be sterlized in order to gain treatment, where ridiculous “men’s rights movements” and “white pride groups” exist, where John Mooney and others were able to campaign for so long in favor of genital surgeries for intersex children, where we spend more money on warfare than on education, we do not live in a feminist world. We live in a world that’s more feminist than it was a few decades ago, but we do not live in a feminist world.
It’s our job to change that.