She sat on my bed, looking through course papers I’d received at my own university including the United Nations Constitution, because I am a nerd and had shown her. Excitedly. Naturally we began to discuss issues, and somehow I casually mentioned that I’m a feminist.
“You’re a feminist?” she asked.
I looked at her funny. “Isn’t everyone?”
For the next few minutes as we spoke her mind was clearly somewhere else. And then she announced suddenly, “Everyone is a feminist! I just realized!”
I wouldn’t change my response since then, because in the context of speaking to my cousin, it was one that worked–and I knew it would be. “You’re a feminist too” was pushy and a little shallow, and she’s a thoughtful and sensitive person. “Isn’t everyone?” had forced her to think of the definition on her own. I could have settled for a simple “Yes” but the results that I knew were ultimate would have been slower.
A lot of people don’t identify with feminism simply because they don’t know what it is or don’t realize what it is, I agree. But recently there was a discussion somewhere, hosted by a feminist who is convinced that anyone who doesn’t identify as a feminist either (1) doesn’t know what it means or (2) is a sexist.
And while there’s overwhelming reason to believe this, that’s unfair. There are also quite a few who do know and still don’t identify, and the reason isn’t because they’re sexist but rather because the feminist movement has been very abrasive toward them: feminism is STILL full of racism (that’s why we needed womanism, after all) ableism, and transphobia, and other forms of discrimination. Just as we should avoid accusing people who identify themselves as feminists of not being feminists, we should also avoid concluding that just because someone doesn’t identify as a feminist means they don’t know what it is, or that they’re against equality. I identify as a feminist because I see it as a mutable movement that can be reclaimed by women of color–and by religious women from religious men–and reshaped. (Also, I am not giving up a movement that got me the right to vote among other things. I’d feel that I was being disrespectful, and throwing a lot away.) But some underprivileged people have been really hurt by how often feminists disregard them. It’s best not to decide for people what they are or aren’t. It can even be douchey to assume that they don’t know what they’re talking about or haven’t struggled with their identity. Only the individual can make that decision.
I know too much about being told what I am to do it to others.
At the same time, I’d probably sent her off with the impression that everyone–as in literally everyone is a feminist. But she’s not the type to push things, so I’m certain we’ll be fine.
It’s important for me to point out aspects that are feminist (and I will be especially aggressive about this with Islam, because I’m going against the grain of privilege here) but not expect people to take up the term. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to identify as a feminist to be Muslim, but the religion is intrinsically feminist. And while it irritates me to no end when people talk about feminism and humanitarianism as though they’re mutually exclusive and finitely defined–or when they make up terms like equalist as if feminism doesn’t cover it–most times I try to contain myself, unless I truly believe that they really just don’t know. Because not everyone is looking to reclaim the movement, and many associate it with bitter feelings for good reason. While feminism might not be nearly as -ist as the world “out there” and actively participates in the practice of checking privilege, given the nature and purpose of the movement it is not acceptable when it even comes close to being -ist.
And there’s something disturbing about asking women to fit into feminism rather than changing and reclaiming feminism to fit women. If a woman has a complaint about feminists (“I feel like they’d judge me if I became a mother.”) FIX THE MOVEMENT–not her. Don’t invalidate her feelings with something like, “That’s because you don’t know what feminism is.” Because there is probably a very real reason she feels this way. And it’s the movement’s problem–not hers.