Leaving My Feminist Ivory Tower

It’s official, I’ve left my ivory tower of feminism. In a way, I’ve been on my way out for years, volunteering at rape crisis centers and women’s clinics and lobbying at the Capital. Those were all situations I could walk away from, places I could go home from at the end of a shift and never deal with again. But now I can’t just compartmentalize this applied feminism, put it on a shelf and deal with it when I want to, because I’ve made it my job.

In the interest of confidentiality, I will not go into the details of the situation that has brought this on. I will simply say that I am working in a professional capacity dealing with adolescents, and that recently something very, very awful has occurred that has made it necessary to raise awareness about sexual violence as well as privacy issues. Now, this is my area. This is what I write about, what I do research on, this is the thing that fills me with the most passion. I’ve always wanted to do two things with sexual violence prevention: actually get out the word to young people and wax philosophic about it in the university classroom. Now that I have the chance to do the former, I’m terrified.

The university classroom doesn’t scare me because I’ve always felt at home there. That’s never been an issue. Giving presentations to kids, on the other hand, is terrifying. Suddenly I’ve been faced with some very real, very serious issues. I write about them, yes, but I am removed from them. These news stories and articles and political issues are all about real people, but they are real people I don’t know. At the rape crisis centers, I knew that as a first responder only that I wouldn’t see the survivors again. These experiences were upsetting then, and are upsetting to think about, but I can choose when to think about them. I can choose which articles to write or read.

Practice is so different. I’ve been applying feminist principles to my life since I was a child, and I’ve been an activist for years. I’m used to working with people who share my values and dreams for the future. But in my professional situation, not everything is in my hands. I can start a campaign for awareness and prevention and I can give lectures and talks and do activities and art and all that, but at the end of the day I don’t just get to go home and move on and pretend like everything I said and did fixed the problem and made everything better. I have to go back into to this environment constantly, I have to confront the problems and deals with the issues, and I have to realize that in spite of all my efforts, things might not change.

I’m scared of leaving my ivory tower, scared of stepping out of my world of theory and papers and debates and selective activism. In academia, you can argue and research until you “win,” but you can’t do that in real-world application. It’s that pesky human component.  Yet it is so, so necessary, because none of this theory or research means anything if it isn’t implemented. That’s why I write about this stuff, because I want it to be implemented and I want change to come and I want to see better things for our youth. I guess I’ve just realized that talking and doing are two different things when you don’t get that choice of selective activism.

As terrified as I am of screwing up or kids hating me or getting in trouble for stepping outside of my state’s absurdly narrow guidelines for health education, I am more terrified of what will happen if nobody does anything. I won’t let this fear drive me back up to my tower because those kids need to hear that sexual violence is never okay. They need to know what it is, what isn’t consent and what is consent, how to ask questions, how to break the silence. They need to know how to respect people privacy and call out misogyny. As difficult as this will be and as much opposition as I know I will face, I’m committed to applying this feminism. Whether I can walk away from it at the end of the day or not, it needs to be done. We often tell ourselves that somebody else will do it, that some other person or organization will take care of it, and that is (to me) one of the biggest failures of the movement. We can’t rely on others to fight our battles.  And so here I go, out into the open, bright-eyed but cynical. I’m off to practice what I preach.


By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

6 replies on “Leaving My Feminist Ivory Tower”

I can relate to your struggle. I may not have the same educational background as you, but I can relate to how daunting it can be to actually apply your knowledge to real life situations and to work with people. You’re right about the human factor–it makes things messy–but it also makes the end result that much more rewarding. You have the chance to make a real change in someone’s life. I’m sure you’re going to do well!

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