Before I explain why I’m taking a break from the feminist label, let me clarify one important thing: there is a difference between the fundamental belief of feminism and the feminist movement. No matter what label I may subscribe to, I will always believe that everyone on this planet should have equal access to resources, regardless of gender identity. That is not up for debate in this post; instead, what I find myself questioning on a daily basis, is the politics and representation of the feminist movement.
The feminist movement, and all of its waves, has historically focused on exclusively gender specific political issues. Now, some readers may think Well, duh. Feminism is all about gender. But life and womanhood is not that simple. Not all women have to deal solely with sexism. Many women in our world also face racism, ableism, classism, faith-based discrimination, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia; some women live through all of these oppressions on a daily basis. This is the problem with looking at the world, politics, and pop culture through only a gendered lens. Throughout history, feminism has indicated that they have to ignore issues of race or queerness or disability for the time being, and that they’ll get to those other issues eventually. Guess what? The feminist movement has been alive and kicking for over 100 years, and women of color are still excluded, marginalized, and/or tokenized in the mainstream movement.
Don’t believe me? Just in the past few weeks, women of color bloggers have been calling out feminist publishers, magazines, and groups for the exclusion of women of color. When I read these entries, I felt heartbroken and betrayed, not by the writers, but by feminism. This belief, identity, and lifestyle that I had subscribed to for years was hurting women through erasure and neglect just because they don’t look like me. I had convinced myself that the criticism crafted by Audre Lorde and bell hooks in the 1970’s and 80’s were a thing of the past, but actually, women of color are still marginalized in a movement that is supposedly also about them.
This is where privilege rears its ugly head; what I had just recently learned about the ugliness of feminism, women of color, disabled women, queer, women, transgendered women, migrant women, and poor women have known for decades. I was blissfully ignorant to my privilege; I never had to confront the exclusions of feminism because I, as a white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied, educated woman, had never been excluded. Years ago I had read Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, and it had a profound effect on me. For the first time, I was forced to acknowledge how I benefited from my whiteness, even as a woman. But here’s the deal about privilege; I forget those lessons often because society doesn’t serve blunt reminders about the realities of racism to my doorstep everyday; after all, I am white.
When I first recognized the shortcomings of the feminist movement, I thought to myself I will work hard to reform it from the inside! I figured that if I worked hard to bring racial, disability, sexuality and class issues to the forefront of the community, feminism could evolve to be a diverse, equitable community. But now I see the error in that thinking. Instead of trying to persuade women to join MY movement, which has historically put MY issues at the center, I should be asking how can I help advocate for YOUR issues? Rather than trying to recruit “outsiders” to the feminist movement, I want to support the movements for justice that are already formed and thriving in communities of color and disability circles. (Note: I want to support, not co-opt or take over. This is a crucial distinction.) Maybe, just maybe, feminism isn’t the one answer to all forms of oppression in today’s society.
Instead of focusing on being a feminist, my new goal is to be an ally. The truth of the matter is this: as a white, cisgendered, straight, educated, able-bodied woman, I am incredibly privileged in today’s society. From birth, I was encouraged to follow my dreams, and even though I didn’t grow up in wealth and my family had its struggles, I always had access to the resources to fulfill my goals. Sure, as a woman, I am scared to walk alone at night, but the dangers of violence increase tenfold for transgendered women. Yes, I earn only 77 cents to the dollar a man makes, but Native American women make 52 cents to that same dollar. My reproductive rights are threatened by conservative lawmakers on a daily basis, but I have never been fearful of forced sterilization when I enter a doctor’s office because I am able-bodied. If I continue to look at social justice only through a gendered lens, I will miss the intersectional oppressions other women face everyday, and that hurts women all around.
This post isn’t directed at any feminist blog or organization, nor is it intended to criticize anyone who identifies as a feminist. I believe in the core values of feminism and gender equality, but it’s no longer my main focus. The truth is that every week, I see women of color, transgendered women, and disabled women write eloquent and fierce critiques of feminism, but I rarely see white, cisgendered, and able-bodied women launch the same criticism. My silence continues the erasure of women with diverse identities, and my silence condones my privilege. I know I will fuck up in this proposed transformation; I know I will have days when I display unintentional ignorance that hurts others. But I am going to step forward as an advocate for justice with the awareness and knowledge it isn’t all about me and that only I am responsible for educating myself about the oppressions and discriminations that hurt women, men, and everyone else who doesn’t fit neatly into those categories. I’m not necessarily turning my back on feminism; I’m turning towards an personal philosophy of inclusion, advocacy, and alliance.