Tuesday, April 04, 2006

You Know I'm a Feminist, Right?

This post has been rattling around in my head for a while, and I suppose now is as good a time as any to put it out there. I write this in response to a lot of posts in a variety of locations where people seem to be debating different versions of feminism, trying on different feminist identities, and hashing out their own relationships to feminism. Heck, even I've posted about feminism recently, which isn't something that I tend to do. What's going on here? Why this sudden flurry of discourse - some of it angry, some of it thoughtful, some of it both - about the F-word?

So, before I get to that question, though, I'm going to tell a little story.

Once upon a time, it was the early-to-mid-90s in the Midwest, and it was then, dear readers, that Dr. Crazy became a feminist. She became a feminist in the traditional way that many white, smart girls become feminists: she was introduced to feminism in college, by white, smart professors with whom she identified. She learned for the first time that she was supposed to be angry at something called patriarchy (perhaps one reason that she hadn't realized this sooner was because every woman in her life from grandmothers on down had always worked and didn't shy away from standing up for themselves and didn't seem "oppressed" in the least), and she for the first time heard about "women's liberation" in terms that weren't derogatory (because even though the women in her life didn't seem to need liberating from this Big Bad Wolf Patriarchy, there was still this sense that those bra-burning, man-hating "women's libbers" were bad news). All of this was very exciting for Dr. Crazy, the first person in her immediate family to attend college and in the first generation of her extended family to attend college. It was something that distinguished Dr. Crazy from her working-class roots: she was in college, she was "enlightened" enough to realize that she was oppressed. Once she had this grand epiphany, she came out as a feminist: to her boyfriend, to her friends, to her father (and boy, was that a doozy of a conversation).

What's interesting, though, is that in 1996, Dr. Crazy moved away to the big city to get her MA, and then she moved away to another big city in 1997 to get her PhD. All of a sudden, to be a feminist was the norm, and not the exception, and it no longer was necessary to shout her oppression from the rooftops. She was exposed to theoretical perspectives that weren't necessarily compatible with the kind of feminism in which she was schooled as an undergraduate, and she realized that perhaps only studying women writers might be a ridiculous thing to do. She began to feel limited by the way that she had previously defined feminism, but she never questioned that she was, in fact, a feminist. Every single woman that she knew at this time was a feminist. It was the norm. Need I add that at this time Dr. Crazy socialized with white women with advanced degrees and who would be placed as middle-class or above? At any rate, though, this was Dr. Crazy's first experience with fitting in as a feminist, and it was a positive one.

So. Flash forward to the present day. I've noticed recently that I've started coming out as a feminist again. Ever since I moved back to the midwest, in fact, I find myself standing up and confessing that I am a feminist. I have felt like I had to do this with friends from my hometown. I have done this in the classroom. Most recently, it seems to be something that I've got to reveal early in online dating interactions.

But these true confessions of my feminism don't feel quite so exciting as my first confessions, 10-15 years ago, did. I don't feel like I'm speaking my truth as a woman, necessarily, or like I am somehow liberated by claiming my feminism. More than anything, I feel kind of confined by the name: I feel like when I name myself a feminist that this produces a bunch of associations in the minds of my audience that have little to do with me-as-feminist.

A. I do not hate men.
B. I do not actually believe in the "liberation" of women (or of men, or anybody, really), as it seems to me that "liberation" is too simple a solution to a really complicated problem with how people relate to each other in this world and there seems to be little agreement on what specific things would bring "liberation" and on who decides what liberation is and who decides who gets to be liberated and who doesn't.
C. I don't give a shit about whether a little girl plays with barbies (a), whether teen girls consume media images that might influence them negatively (b), etc. Ultimately, we've got much bigger problems than "images of women" influencing mindless female people, right?
D. The fact that I am a feminist doesn't mean that I am against pornography, babies, wearing pretty clothes, etc.

I'm not saying that the above list is what it is to be a feminist, but it is what the people around me think a feminist is. When I was 10-15 years younger, I had a lot less ambivalence about being saddled with these definitions. Now? Well, I think that it's bullshit that because I claim my feminism that I'm defined in this way. And yet, I refuse to be one of the "I'm not a feminist, but..." people, so is the new model, "I am a feminist, but..."? And is that really an improvement?

And so now it's time for another confession: I don't tend to read the big feminist blogs - or even the littler ones - because I generally don't think that they speak for me. And another confession: I don't have any interest in being known as a feminist blogger myself or in being a feminist activist. To me, feminism, like fascism, begins at home, or at the very least should. And so yes, I think it's important that I model feminism for my students or that I introduce them to feminist ideas, but I don't think that I necessarily serve much of a purpose by becoming a figurehead for feminism in a broader context, and I don't necessarily think that marching around with a sign is going to effect any broader changes in women's everyday lives. Perhaps I am too cynical for certain brands of feminism.

But does this make me not a feminist? A bad feminist? I would argue that one of the problems with feminism that is defined narrowly through liberal political action (i.e., fighting for abortion rights, fair treatment in the workplace, etc.) is that it fails to address the deep and abiding gender norms that define women's and men's lives in our culture. Yes, perhaps some of the changes spear-headed by the feminist movement have been able to influence women's day-to-day lives from the top down, but they do not represent some sort of ultimate solution. Women today are not "liberated." Yes, little girls can play in co-ed soccer leagues, and yes, I can work in a profession that I love (although in my field, a feminized field, I do not make as much money as I would in, say, a field that was traditionally male.... so does the fact that I earn the same wage as my male colleague in my department signal equality or does the fact that everybody in my field earns crap compared to people in more male-dominated fields mean that there is no equality?), and yes, there have been many improvements in women's lives in the past 100 years. I'm not saying there haven't. But we're not free of gender. If we were, there wouldn't be the necessity for me to "come out" as a feminist once a week and then to have to explain what I mean by that.

It's exhausting. And at the end of the day, the most influential feminists that I've known in my life have not been those who proclaim their feminism or who write from a position of privilege about feminism (as I am doing right now).

The most influential feminists in my life have been my grandmothers - working class women who worked, not because they "wanted" to or because it was "fulfilling" but because they needed money. They needed money because they were the mothers of 7 and 10 children respectively. Or my step-grandmother, who immigrated to the United States, alone, taught herself English, got herself citizenship, and managed to get her six children and their spouses and children to this country. Or my mother, who made sure that I got a good education but who let me play with whatever toys I wanted - including baby dolls and barbies. Even my father, who encouraged me to play sports and to excel in anything that I tried to do, whether it was a "girl" thing or not. None of these people would call themselves feminists, with the possible exception of my late grandmother on my mother's side (who was in the Women's Army Corps in WWII, incidentally, so clearly she had a more pronounced feminist streak than most women of her generation). The thing about all of these people in my life is that they had really hard lives. Infinitely harder lives than I will ever have. But they didn't run around bemoaning how oppressed they are or were. They just got on with the business of living, making do and working the systems that we might say oppressed them in order to do the best that they could and to get as close as they could to the lives that they wanted. There was no utopia of liberation at the end of the rainbow. There was just getting by. And yet, that seems like a more "liberating" approach to me than a lot of other approaches. (Perhaps this is why Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life spoke so deeply to me in graduate school.)

Ok, this post has devolved into rambling. But so what about the F-word and why is everybody so fussed to discuss it and to articulate it at this particular moment? Who knows. I will say this, though: I'm not sure that any of this discussion makes one bit of difference, even as I participate in it.


Anonymous said...

i liked this very much. for a long time I wouldn't call myself a feminist because I oppose abortion. recently, I've begun to think more about my own identity as a feminist because I am but not in a cardboard cut out kind of way.

good post.

La Lecturess said...

Great post. I had a somewhat different route to feminism--honestly, I was still surprised in grad school when a friend of mine said, casually, "well, as a feminist..." and I thought, "Who says that? No one I know says things like that. But--why DON'T they?"

I don't think I had a negative image of feminism; I just didn't have an image of it, or any real sense that gender mattered--even as I felt very much caught inside a number of expectations that I hated. I never wrote on the "analyze the role of women in X work" paper topic when I was an undergrad; I wasn't interested in women writers as women writers--and hell, I don't work on women writers now, or anything remotely having to do with gender roles.

But at some point in my mid-20s I think I woke up and looked around and really realized the unique pressures placed on women in this profession and in society more generally, and when I finally got THAT--when I saw that some of the problems I thought were personal were actually systemic--I started calling myself a feminist.

This is why, although it makes me want to beat my head against a wall, I can't REALLY fault my students for claiming that gender doesn't matter in one breath, and writing papers that show them wrestling with sexism in the next. I understand that disconnect, even as I hope I help a few of them to overcome it.

SUZANNE said...

I stopped identifying myself as a feminist precisely because of feminists. I figure: if they don't want me on their team, why should I identify with. The shoe didn't fit, so I stopped calling myself a feminist.

Now I am definitively not a feminist in any sense of the word :D

D.B. said...

V. interesting post, Dr C. I too wish people would be more cautious in the way they use the word 'oppressed.' I feel like that one word is responsible for 50% of accusations that feminists are like nuts or whatever. I'm invested in feminism to the extent that it gets my students thinking about gender roles as fictions. My (midwestern) students typically identify very, very deeply with prescribed gender roles and I feel like the most liberating thing feminism does is to assert the constructedness of gender, opening the possibility for alternatives.

Dr. Crazy said...

"I stopped identifying myself as feminist precisely because of feminists."

See, but that's not what I'm saying at all. Ultimately, I think that feminism is necessary, I don't think that we're beyond it, and I think any stance in which women are battling other women is probably going to be bad for - you guessed it - women. I AM a feminist and I will continue to identify as a feminist. I'm just questioning (from within) how that term is shaped.

Also, I feel like I should mention because of the fetus-tag-picture-comment that I'm totally pro-choice. I don't say that to be derogatory to the commenter, but I felt like I should make my position on that clear, should anybody happen along the blog and mistake my position for something else.

GradeEaze Guru said...

I find your story engaging. My story of being a feminist is much different in that as a male I can only, it seems, come at the movement askant. In fact, when I proposed my dissertation thesis to my advisor, I was immediately dismissed as contributing to the patriarchy...she didn't hear anything past the first sentence.

In fact, I was going to employ feminist readings on my seemingly "male" topic as I explored gender roles...

I have yet to advance on that front.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fetus tag picture kind of person. just want that to be clear.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, I know that Anastasia :) No worries!

Michelle said...

Nothing wrong with being a feminist. Everyone should be a feminist. If you're not a feminist, you're a misanthrope.