Unpacking Feminism’s Backpack

As a note, I will be using “we” in this essay. It’s difficult because “we” is not easily defined and I am not an authority. “We” will always be more complex than words can cover. “We” always lacks in various representation and “we” does not always cover “we.” I will use it in reference to mainstream feminism, “we” as those who align ourselves with that cause. ‘Cause “we” needs some work.

[W] e’re not really equal when we’re STILL supposed to uncritically and obediently cheer when white women are praised for winning “women’s rights,” and to painfully forget the Indigenous women and women of colour who were hurt in that same process. We are not equal when in the name of “feminism” so-called “women’s only” spaces are created and get to police and regulate who is and isn’t a woman based on their interpretation of your body parts and gender presentation, and not your own. We are not equal when initiatives to support gender equality have reverted yet again to “saving” people and making decisions for them, rather than supporting their right to self-determination, whether it’s engaging in sex work or wearing a niqab. So when feminism itself has become it’s own form of oppression, what do we have to say about it?

Jessica Yee – Feminism For Real: Deconstructing The Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism.

Why aren’t we trying harder? Trying better? The words kept echoing through my head as I sat in the audience at a feminist conference last weekend. The panels, which ranged from buying power as a form of activism to 100% real stamps put on advertisements left me questioning certain validities and ideas of the feminist movement. Though every issue was in itself validated as something that needed to be changed, needed to be talked about, I couldn’t help but think “¦ but these problems? These just scratch at the surface. What about everything else we aren’t talking about?

What does feminism mean? Feminism as blogging, feminism as T-shirts, as academia and theory.  As articles that talk about the clothes feminists wear, as defined as a “white woman’s movement.” Even words like “intersectionality” present problems when we look through one frame of reference or are at least used to particular views. When we prop our book sales up with stamps of approval like “The New Face of Feminism,” or argue fiercely about women vs. womyn, we continue to further marginalize people who aren’t considered and who might not identify with this language, these conversations. These arguments seem to be endless circles – stuck – isolated within themselves. And anytime a voice comes along that presents a narrative which isn’t the most common, isn’t the one that might be defined as the “face of feminism,” it is shoved aside.

And that’s what’s disappointing ““ the lack of space for anything outside the status quo is so present, how privileged feminists like myself seemed uninterested in clearing the way for other conversations. Images of white advertisement bodies kept flashing on the screen at that conference, further cementing the message of “This is the battle” and I couldn’t help but feel foolish. Yes, I am mad as anyone who has ever flipped through a magazine and looked at a chopped-up, made-up model, someone whose body is supposedly the norm and being used to make a profit for vodka, tires, clothes, the upkeep of the overall Aryan aesthetic of the fashion industry. But what if your body isn’t even there? What about the issues we continue to talk around, to dance around and eventually dance upon the feet of. It doesn’t matter what our intent was or how good it was, we are still stepping on people’s feet. It hurts.

This week, a blogger I follow was talking of how she didn’t feel safe on certain feminist websites or within certain feminist spaces because of their Western-centric rhetoric, the often marginalization that goes on and the tokenism that she, a woman of color, felt in relation to this type of feminism. Not only was this woman attacked for her position, but explained that she was, whether she liked it or not,  “ridiculous,”  “angry,”  “offensive,” “racist,” and was eventually threatened with rape. It was an effective way of making someone invisible, someone who said, “Yes, I do have a problem with this, I see holes in this, and this is what I need.” And how did we respond? By saying, “No, you are the problem. You do not fit into this scope, therefore you are invisible.”

It was also an example of a pick-and-choose type of “feminism”: a woman who had spoken about her experience was relegated to being “wrong.” When she was threatened with rape, blind eyes were turned, blind “feminist” eyes.  We.  We weren’t all there and maybe “we” didn’t know this even happened. But “we,” we who use this term feminism, have to be aware that this identity can fall guilty to forms of privilege, racism, classicism, ableism, and oppression. We, in participating with this term, this ideology, this movement, must be responsible for it.

Simultaneously during this week, I picked up Girldrive – an account of Emma Bee Bernstein and Nona Aronowitz driving cross-country, interviewing women on their relationship to feminism. The two authors, fresh out of college, often come to moments of confusion or frustration when speaking with women– queer women, immigrants, women of color, even what is described as “seems like feminists” – who say feminism does not represent them. They feel represented by race, by class, by being a woman, being queer, but not by feminism. How could they feel that way, the girls wonder over and over.

When someone says they feel like they have no place in feminism, it seems to be an affront to that those who carry that identity. But how could you not? Why? Really? That assumption and judgment has privilege, imperialism and colonialism ““ why don’t you think like me? And that’s the problem. Privilege does exactly what it was intended to ““ it makes it difficult to imagine how it is hard to feel isolated when you are included. Yet disabled women, queer women, indigenous women, women of color, immigrant women, transwomen, transmen, sex workers,  can all feel isolated and rejected from feminism  because of the appropriation of their issues or the invisibility of them. How can something represent you when you are not part of the dialogue, or if you are, you are considered, as Latoya Peterson brilliantly wrote in her piece “On Being Feminism’s Ms. Nigga“, the token factor.  There has to be an understanding of how one could distrust something that idealizes supporting “us” as defined by “me.”

If we constantly feel the need to defend feminism in this manner, to explain someone’s else’s experience into, “Why yes, they are a part of this,” to force a movement onto someone who doesn’t feel like it best represents them, what are we doing? What power did feminism bestow on us to decide who other people are? Why can we not be willing to be aware of situational translation of different needs? To assume that feminism in itself is somehow safe from the same entrapments of privilege and oppression? To counter concerns, to de-rail with similar arguments that began the inklings of feminism ““ No, that’s not how it is, no your experience is wrong. But really, how can we be better at shutting up and letting people have their own spaces? We need to broaden the scope. Maybe we need to redefine what it means to distance ourselves from what we have been accustomed to and to understand better what happens when we are critiqued, when we are disagreed with.

Feminism opened up a world to me – it was a multi-sectional movement based off of so many things  – it was fighting isms as a whole ““ isms not as one struggle, but many. These things were present, they were interlinked and they existed, therefore worthy of fighting. As I have grown older, this world has narrowed down into something different, something I am not always sure I recognize. When there are stories of transwomen being told to leave feminist organizations or women of color being used as diversity props, I began to be cautious about the language I define myself with, wary of the privilege I already carry around so blatantly. I cannot understand that sort of marginalization, nor will I ever presume to have experienced anything like it. The scope of feminism has to widen, to really understand better. If we preach intersectionaility, we have to know what that means ““ trying to understand someone’s experience and supporting them. Not relating it with ours. Not saving them. Not shaming them. Not converting them.

We can be proud of the things we believe in; there is no denying that. At the end of the day, feminism is still an integral part of my own identity and means many things. But feminism has to be accountable to itself, as do those who claim this term. Feminism has privilege, gendered speech, ableism, and racism. Feminism, like Yee says, can be a form of oppression. It’s up to those who use this term in their personal ideology, who practice this movement and live by its values to be aware, to question, to listen and above all, to make space.

Because what does it do to have a bumper sticker that says to the world, look at this club, isn’t it cool?  You’re not invited.


4 replies on “Unpacking Feminism’s Backpack”

This is soo timely for me!I go to a woman’s college in the northeast, and we’ve had some pretty racist stuff happen here. You have no idea how often most people just don’t understand how feminism, racism, and homophobia oftentimes intersect for a lot of people. It’s like they have a blind spot or something. Or like they think they’re problems are the only ones that REALLY matter, and everyone else is just a whiny baby.
Tim Wise has a really good article on the weird tensions between feminism and racism. White women have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action, and are yet one of its biggest opponents because they believe in the racists ideas about affirmative action. (Tim Wise “Is Sisterhood Conditional?)

Good piece. Thank you for writing it. It’s important to discuss these things.

I don’t really understand what you mean about intersectionalism, but I’d really like to. Certainly I’ll look around for resources on my own, but if you happen to have any links you recommend, I’d love to see them.

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