The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by three life long friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret and Jillian. This week we’re each responding to the following quote by Meghan Trainor:
“I’d been told: ‘Don’t say you’re something if you don’t know what it is.’ So I was like: ‘Well, I’m not a feminist,’ because I didn’t really understand it and then I was like ‘Oh, sh*t.’ Obviously, I am a feminist.”
It’s not a deep quote obviously, but it’s a fun springboard into the general topic of the feminist label, how much we identify with it, how/when we came to understand feminism.
I will be the first to admit I had a very uncomplicated understanding of the F-word, growing up. Feminism. I mean, feminism. That F-word. But the possible confusion may not be so far from the mark, because when I was younger, I definitely thought it was sort of a bad word. I had extremely vague, un-nuanced ideas about the definition, so it was not a mantle I was eager to take up. My sketchy impression of feminism was bathed in a lava lamp glow of the 1970s—women with hairy armpits burning bras, yelling rudely at men, insisting their equality vocally and belligerently. Like I said, uncomplicated.
I had to grow up a bit, take a couple of college courses in sociology, psychology, classic literature, essay writing, art history, and grapple with what the word meant before I was proudly and confidently able to assign the word to myself. I identify precisely with Trainor in that I needed to understand the label before I adopted it, only then realizing that it encompassed aspects already embedded within me. A cliché beyond clichés perhaps, but I needed a little western liberal arts education to expand my definition.
Some of my kneejerk rejection of the feminist label was resistance to accepting that I was treated as unequal as a female, and what’s more, I had a misunderstanding that being feminist was about aspiring to what men had and what men were. I liked being a girl. I still do. I didn’t want to be a man—not in body, temperament, instinct, or sensibility. What I didn’t understand until I left the bubble of my childhood environment (a wonderful bubble, but still a bubble) was that viewing feminism as women aspiring towards things traditionally described as masculine is misguided. Calling myself a feminist was more accurately about establishing the fundamental worth and value of the feminine itself—and by that I mean whatever women choose to be and do. For example, raising children is neither lesser nor greater than having a career. The female body is neither weaker nor stronger than the male body. There are differences, but placing a value system on these differences is the fallacy. Although simplistic, embracing feminism as a label is little more than my embrace of my fundamental belief in the worth of each human soul.
Taking up the label of feminism was also about recognizing that it wasn’t about me. Some criticism after the Woman’s March in January came from other women asserting that they personally felt no reason to march, because they didn’t feel undervalued or in society. And my response to that is: well, bully for you. I also grew up not feeling like being female was a curse—something that made me a second class citizen, disadvantaged from the get-go by my two X-chromosomes. That is a privilege, and there are women throughout the world who’ve never shared that experience. Deciding to proudly call myself a feminist was about wanting other women to share this; actually about wanting ALL people to experience a sense that how they were born does not make them one atom less of a valuable human person than any other person born into the world.
I’m actually not sure how useful labels like feminist are, though, and how they serve the growth of empathy. But that’s a whole other blog topic.
“In the past people thought that men were more important than women, and that they were smarter. So girls didn’t get to go to school, and women didn’t get to vote or have jobs. Now we know that isn’t true, but women still have to face challenges that men don’t have to face. A lot of women still experience prejudice at work, and even in the medical field women’s bodies and health issues are less researched and less understood than men’s. People that recognize these problems and want to fix them are called ‘feminists,’ and that’s why I’m a feminist.”
That’s basically how my mother taught me about feminism when I was young, and that’s basically all I needed to hear. Life filled in the rest.
In school I noticed that when I was assigned a group project with boys, they all expected me to make the drawings and posters. It never mattered how many times I told them that I couldn’t draw and my penmanship was barely legible. They told me over and over that I MUST be good at it because I was a girl, until I caved and did it (and they got the hideous-looking poster they deserved). And that’s how I learned about gender roles.
In high school there was a boy who sat behind me in class who flicked the back of my hair with his fingers every day. Every day I told him to please stop. He’d say sorry, wait for me to turn around and start flicking my hair again. I told him over and over and over. Finally I spun around and said, “GET YOUR GRIMY HANDS OUT OF MY HAIR!”
He looked at me like a dog that had been kicked – he was shocked and devastated.
I thought, “Did I do something wrong? How could I have done something wrong?”
Similar scenarios played out throughout high school and college, and that’s how I learned about the lack of women’s agency.
I’ve had multiple doctors throw their hands up at me over issues (like migraines) that are common among women. I’ve watched selfish, lazy but charismatic men rise to the top while the women who work three times as hard get passed over or forced out. I’ve been scolded at work by a male board member for preferring a professional handshake to a hug. I could go on forever with the sexism I’ve experienced or witnessed happening to other women. Don’t even get me started on sexual assault and domestic violence.
Growing up I felt I could not choose to be a feminist any more than I could choose to be a woman. I am alive and awake in the world, I see what happens, and that’s why I’m a feminist.
Still, as much as life taught me about feminism, education helped tremendously. And once you start reading about feminism, you find there’s more and more to learn.
In fact, reading about feminism online in my early twenties led me to feel some discomfort with the label for the first time in my life. I learned that when we talk about feminism – the feminism I have felt and embraced since childhood – we’re really talking about white feminism.
I’ve read and identified with feminists who reject being called beautiful and refuse to call other women and girls beautiful because we have so much more important things to be. But I never considered the women of color who from girlhood never felt beautiful or even felt permitted to be beautiful. I have, along with the hoards of other white feminists, been instinctually inclined to side with white women over black men (see Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West, 2009-present). And, like any good feminist, I can tell you that the gender pay gap is 77 cents on the dollar. Except that’s a racist lie – and I had to do a Google search to tell you that for Black women the gap is 64 cents and for Latinas 54 cents on the dollar.
Women of color have been funneled to the very back of the feminist movement (literally) since its inception. Many of them have felt compelled to distance themselves from feminism altogether, and it’s no wonder why.
So what should I do with the feminist label? To say, “I’m not a feminist because the movement is largely inaccessible to women of color and other minorities, and I think a new label representing intersectional feminism for non-white and white women, should one arise, might open more gateways to marginalized peoples, so long as it didn’t get co-opted by the same white feminists who’ve excluded women of color from the start” simply won’t do.
I’m a white feminist, there’s no way around it. I think the thing to do is acknowledge that that leaves me with a tremendous responsibility. I have to be part of the reason why “feminism” stops meaning “white feminism” and starts meaning “intersectional feminism.” So I’m going to keep wearing that feminist label, I’m going to keep reading to keep learning the ways feminism might fail people, and I’m going to do my best with the little part I play in transforming it into a label that everyone who believes in equality can wear proudly.
I think I’ve always been a feminist. But like Meghan Trainor, I didn’t always know what a feminist was.
I don’t think that my parents raised me to be a feminist on purpose. I have three sisters, so there were no boys in our house to divide chores by gender roles. My dad made our meals just as often (probably more) than my mother. We all cleaned. We all played sports. We all did yard work. My mom always made sure to tell me I was beautiful whether I wore make up or not. My parents made sure that I knew I was appreciated for my actions and behavior, not by looking good or “playing nice.” My barbies and legos played together, and I was never made to wear the color pink.
But because I was so sheltered from gender bias and stereotypes in my home, and because I basically felt like I had an equal opportunity to do things I wanted to – I had Title IX to make sure I had equal opportunities to play sports in high school, my parents were both able to work outside the home, I had the right to vote, and, thanks to need based financial aid, I was able to take advantage of education opportunities my parents couldn’t afford.
I had benefited so much from the feminist movement that I didn’t appreciate my need for feminism.
Nevertheless, I have a lot of people to thank for making me a better feminist:
- Madeline Llengel for writing books with interesting females characters for kids to read.
- My high school chemistry teacher for helping me appreciate that I was good at science.
- Sarah Palin for helping me appreciate that just because you were a woman in politics didn’t make you feminist.
- Bell Hooks for teaching me that feminism needed to include all women.
- The TA who graded my papers my sophomore year of college and wrote notes on my paper that kindly explained to me what white privilege was and challenged my assumptions about race and gender.
- Lucille Clifton for her incredible use of poetry to right about gender, faith and race.
- The director of the Women’s Center who cast me in The Vagina Monologues (a play I auditioned for before I realized that it was an activist thing…I just thought it was a low commitment way to pursue my acting hobby) and explained to me that rape culture and violence against women was a thing. That’s when I learned just how cushy my existence as a white middle class woman in the suburbs was compared to girls who experience genital mutilation, honor killings, gender selection and other costs of being female worldwide.
- My campus minister and the divinity school interns who worked with our eclectic ecumenical ministry and made space for my questions about faith and doubt
- The ministry of Thistle Farms which worked to help women escape drug use, prostitution and sex trafficking and showed me how my faith could be an instrument to fight injustice in the world.
- J.K. Rowling for everything about Harry Potter.
- Sheryl Sandberg for writing about women in the workplace and how women could empower other women, and why it was important for women to be ambitious in their careers.
- And so many other women and men in my life…I can’t count them all
Nevertheless, some days, I feel like the built in racism, colonialism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, segregation, patriarchy and general awfulness in the World is so formidable that I want to go back to the privileged shelter of my childhood – back when I thought it was an act of resistance to play kickball with the boys during recess instead of sitting on the monkey bars and talking. But I think the radical hope of feminism is that if enough of us keep tilting at the windmills of oppression, that one day they’ll change.
So, I try to practice feminism every day.
I buy my daughters “boy” and “girl” toys. I try to make sure that their dolls have brown skin, black skin, yellow skin and white skin – and that they know that they’re all beautiful. I try to read stories with girls and boys as heroes – and I make an effort to be sure that they’re not all white. When we read fairy tales, I annoy them by pointing out how silly it is that so many princesses need princes to kiss them — like that’s going to solve their problems. I want them to have friends from a variety of backgrounds, and I want them to know that they have an unfair advantage in our society.
Maybe I’m just giving them a complex. I know I have one – Am I doing feminism the right way? Am I inclusive enough? Am I constantly insulting people of color? Is there any way that I can pay back the debt that I owe to the indigenous people of America (and the world)? Is our society worth fixing? And I don’t even know if trying to raise my daughters to be feminists on purpose will work or help. I hope so.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and I feel that if he can believe that, so can I. And so, I am a feminist in progress.