Is feminism the only banner under which people can fight patriarchy, or better yet, kyriarchy?*
Is any act performed with the goal of ending gender oppression automatically feminist? Even if the people doing it don’t identify with feminism? Even if feminism has consistently slapped them in the face?
I’ve been asked to explain why I don’t identify as feminist and I think I need to start with trying to answer those questions. Because it seems to me that many feminists think that feminism is the only path to confronting oppression. That belief (I would say arrogance) is one of the primary reasons that I do not identify as feminist.
If feminism is the only path to confronting oppression, then what about Womanism? Are we to erase the experiences of black women who have very consciously chosen not to identify with feminism? What about other marginalized people who have, after much consideration, chosen not to use the feminist label?
Read Women and Social Movements in Latin America and you will find a very ambivalent relationship between women’s movements and feminism. Sometimes women don’t call themselves feminists because they see it as a movement of privileged white women. Sometimes, like in the case of the Bentia Galeana Women’s Council in Mexico, they don’t adopt the term because they cant come to any consensus about what feminism means.
Who can blame them for not being able to figure out what it means? Some people say feminism is just about equality between the sexes. Others say that it is about crushing patriarchy. Still others say that it is about confronting all forms of oppression. There is liberal feminism, eco-feminism, radical feminism, anarcha-feminism, black feminism, Marxist feminism, sex positive feminism, and even conservative feminism (a la Ms. Palin). And the fights between the different feminists – who all have ideas about what is essential to feminism – are as bad as the fights between Anarchists and Marxists. Or Anarcho-capitalists and Anarcho-communists. Or… You get the picture.
Now if you believe, as I do, that there are ways to fight oppression outside of the feminist label then the question becomes, does that label provide any added value? Is it meaningful to me? When I asked that question, the answer I came up with was no. On the contrary. I think that when you adopt a label or belief system, you have to be willing to own up to all the things done in the name of that label. And I am not prepared to accept the baggage of feminism. I’ve got my hands full with anarchism. Thank you very much.
If you want to read about the baggage of feminism, there are plenty of people who have written about it. Read Jessica Valenti on gender essentialism. Read Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler on feminists who ignored Hilary Clinton’s politics and supported her simply because she didn’t have a penis. Read Monica Roberts on the long history of feminist transphobia. Read about the battles between feminists and womanists. Read about the experiences of sex workers:
we’re having to deal with the tremendous harms and human rights violations that have been done in the name of “feminism,” perpetrated against us to prove some theoretical point. When I started to work on the street in Montreal in 2001, for example, a number of feminist groups decided that they were going to go on the anti-prostitution rampage, and allied with right-wing people and religious groups to do so, which is not a strange combination. We have seen it in the United States when the powerful alliance between right-wing Christian groups, religious fundamentalists, and a number of mainstream feminist groups [cooperated] to pass aid restrictions to limit HIV funding to sex workers groups, at a tremendous cost to sex workers lives all over the world.
Now I know that some of you are thinking – Sure feminism has problems, but you should get in there and help fix it.
Why should I?
Some time back, one of the people I follow on twitter made the following comment, “Answering a situation of male exclusivity with female exclusivity is almost like celebrating your marginalization instead of fighting it.” I suspect that it may have been in response to my talking about a conference for anti-authoritarian women. (The conference was inspired by the sausage fest of an event that Libertopia was clearly going to be).
I never actually responded, but if I had I would have said the same basic thing I say to people who think I should help fix feminism. I would rather build something that reflects my values. I don’t have any desire or obligation to spend my precious time fixing your shit. I have other shit I’d rather be fixing. What’s more, are we really going to ask the most marginalized people to go in and fix feminism? Are you going to tell a trans woman, who is in the line of fire every time she steps out of her house, to get closer to the shooter? Who the hell are any of us to ask that?
While we are on the subject of responses to my non-feminism, let me tackle a few more things that will inevitably come up.
No. I have not been brainwashed by the anti-feminist culture. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I have been surrounded my whole life by feminists. I once worked for the former president of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women. I would get waaaaay less shit if I would just cave and call myself a feminist. My opinions on feminism do not come from listening to its detractors, they come from witnessing the actions of its proponents.
Which brings me to a more valid criticism, that I am judging feminism by liberal feminists. Well, yes. I am. Most of the feminists I have known in my life are liberal feminists who do not question the power structure, but merely want more women at the top of it. It is true that anarcha-feminists do not fall into the same traps as liberals, but most feminists are not anarchists. The idea that I should judge feminism by the margins is absurd. Usually, we talk about how movements shouldn’t be judged by the extremes, but with feminists I’m supposed to turn that on its head and not judge the movement by the mushy center?
Truth be told, I thought about identifying as anarcha-feminist for half a second. But it just didn’t make any sense. If feminism is defined as being against all forms of oppression, then adding feminist to anarchist just seems redundant. If it is about being against patriarchy and gender oppression, then it would seem to preference one type of oppression over another. Cindy Milstein, at a recent event in Baltimore, described it in less negative terms. She said that the anarcho-adjectives symbolized not preference, but passion. That’s fine. If you are extra passionate about injustice related to gender oppression, more power to you. But I am not. I may identify more when I hear about the injustices and abuses faced by women, but I am not more passionate about doing something about those injustices than I am about injustices due to race or class or disability or anything else.
None of this means that I am anti-feminist. I can appreciate the accomplishments of feminists without being a feminist. Just like I can appreciate the accomplishments of the Southern Christian Leadership Council without being a Christian. I can appreciate feminist writings, philosophy and discourse without being a feminist. Just like I can appreciate the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh or John Paul Sartre without being a Buddhist or an existentialist.
I get that identifying as feminist is meaningful to many people. And if you want to inundate me with suggested reading that you think will change my mind about the whole thing, knock yourself out. I keep an open mind. Just don’t be so arrogant as to think that, because it holds such meaning for you, the rest of us have to agree or we are BAD. Don’t forget that the movement you are so attached to has shit on a lot of people along the way. And don’t continue that tradition by disrespecting all the amazing women out there who are confronting oppression without the feminist label.
* Since I posted this I have been enlightened on some of the more troubling aspects of the term kyriarchy. You can read a very good post about it here (HT @QueerCoup). I’m usually more careful with my language. Had I done more 101, I might not have used the term.
That said, I don’t think it effects the crux of my arguments and I still stand by all the rest of it.