More Than Just Semantics

I’m the president of my college campus’ feminist organization. I work at the social justice center on campus. I’m a Woman and Gender Studies minor. I write a feminist blog. Just a few months ago I brought a hot pink “this is what a feminist looks like” tee shirt. I make it a point to vocally challenge language and beliefs that are sexist, homophobic, racist, ablest, or just hateful in my daily life because I want the people around me to see me as a resource. Basically, in case you missed it: I work very hard to embody the values I learned from feminism in everything I do.

And yet, I don’t know if I can call myself a feminist.

About two months ago Rennee of Womanist Musings was heavily criticized in the comments of her post an article that she wrote for the Guardian which was copied into ONTD Feminism without permission, and a post about it on Jezebel; all because she wrote about how she didn’t identify as a feminist. In her article Renee said:

“I’m not a feminist (and there is no but), because my life experiences lead me to believe that feminism was not created for women like me. The name of the first feminist hero mentioned by my professor in my first women’s study lecture was Simone de Beauvoir, and the trend of focusing on white women would continue throughout my education. Inclusivity to the women’s studies department that I was a part of meant using the work of bell hooks occasionally. However, she quickly became an additive, thrown in to give the appearance of intersectionality. I would have to scour the library and online journals to learn names like Patricia-Hill Collins, Audre Lorde and the woman who would become my inspiration, Alice Walker. And so I followed indexes and bibliographies, desperate to read journeys that mirrored my own.

I sat in seminars where I became the “token black woman” when they deemed it necessary to actually consider something outside of the white woman as monolithic representative. Despite feminism supposedly being a movement to end women’s oppression, women’s studies seminars and lectures are where I learned to recite “Ain’t I a Woman” out loud to protest the assumptions about my race and my culture. It is where I learned that the sisterhood and camaraderie lasts only as long as you don’t insist on interrogating oppression from multiple sites.”

Reading this post and the related comments brought a longstanding uneasiness to the forefront of my mind, and inspired nearly eight week’s worth of  daily reflection that has finally culminated in this post. I am a cisgender white woman and, although I identify as queer, I am dating a cisgender male so unless I explicitly tell people I am queer, they assume I’m straight. I have a ton of privilege both in the world as a whole, and within the feminist movement. Over the course of it’s history feminism has been most often represented by and associated with people who look like me and have had life experiences similar to my own.  I felt comfortable in this movement, initially, because I identified so fiercely with the women who wrote the feminist literature that I was introduced to (like Jessica Valenti, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and so on) as well as the feminist women in my own life who helped me to feel comfortable calling myself one of them.

These same factors that brought me to feminism are now making me question my decision to identify as a feminist. Can I claim the title of feminist without being complicit in the marginalization of women of color, queer people, disabled people, and other groups throughout history? I’m don’t think I can.  My feminism focuses on equality for all people, and fair representation and understanding for everyone’s’ voice, and everyone’s experiences… that’s not everyone’s feminism though, and unless I spell this out every time I tell someone I am a feminist they won’t know that there are parts of this movement that I do not claim. Every time I tell someone I am a feminist, I am implying that I support the shape of the modern feminist movement as well as feminism history – there’s no way around that.

Yet, I need something, some way to identify myself so I can find a movement to support. Womanism isn’t for me: to call myself a Womanist would do a disservice to the women who created this movement in order to showcase the voices of people feminism marginalized. Queer feminist is a start, but doesn’t begin to cover what I need it to; plus, as a woman who has only recently come to terms with her sexuality, I’m not sure I have quite earned the right to claim that community just yet. Humanist doesn’t work, because that word doesn’t really mean what most people who call themselves humanists think it means. Equalism isn’t a real movement, nor does the word hold the same weight as feminism.

Intersectional feminist is the best label I have managed to come up with for myself. I think the preface manages to convey  the focus that I have on including people regardless of their identities.  Intersectionality at its best acknowledges and celebrates differences, making this the perfect modifier to convey the idea that I don’t agree with feminism’s past transgressions, and I want to work to make the movement better and more inclusive however I can. It’s a solution I’m comfortable with… for now, but I’d  still like to hear some other perspectives so I can think about this more.

If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d like to know how do you identify – and why?

One thought on “More Than Just Semantics

  1. I appreciate you sharing your process in this. I also was first brought to feminism by the same upper-class whitebread feminists, and in learning more have come to identify myself as an intersectional feminist. Recognizing the way that lots (arguably, most of) the marginalized groups that helped kick-start a large-scale feminist movement were then left behind or disinvited, or were simply never included, makes me feel a little disillusioned by the whole thing. I really like the idea of “feminisms” which mean that rather than one big movement, there are lots of movements that have something in common – it makes me think how identities are all unique, but still valid.

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