Thursday, July 1, 2010

What is a Feminist?: A Discourse on Dissent

Although I did not plan for this topic to be my first blog post here, I've realized that perhaps it would be the best and most important thing to start with. I know I personally have struggled a lot with the word: "feminist," and I know that there are also a lot of misconceptions about it. It's a fickle word in the sense that feminism is a scary concept in a patriarchal society for most, and thus, it will be greeted with hostility and its meaning will be warped by political forces. Words are almost always morphed when politics changed, and history has shown that many female-positive words (such as "cunt") warped into female-negative words (such as modern day "cunt" to most women) the moment patriarchy started grinding its wheels and setting itself into action. So now, for the most part, people confuse "feminism" with "man-hating"... when really these concepts are two completely different things. To give my argument good footing, let's go to for a basic definition of feminism and feminists:

fem·i·nist (fěm'ə-nĭst)
n. A person whose beliefs and behavior are based on feminism.
adj. Relating to feminism.

fem·i·nism   [fem-uh-niz-uhm]
the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.
(sometimes initial capital letter) an organized movement for the attainment of such rights for women.
feminine character.

While the third prong of the definition of "feminism" disturbs me a little (as I know many feminists who are not "feminine" and would not like being identified as such), I would like to highlight the first and second prongs of the definition of feminism. Feminism means advocating for women's rights, being a feminist means you essentially want women to have the same rights as men. Simple enough, and yet...

BAM. So many branches of feminism I don't even want to count.

I come to this argument with the identification of being a "white middle class feminist," which is to say I'm not sure if I would still be considered middle class or not. Regardless, it's to let you all be aware of my background and how I'm going to be constructing this argument. While I've never taken a Gender/Women's Studies course and have done a lot of the reading and engaged in the various discussions on my own spare time, I've been made aware that being a white middle class heterosexual woman somehow inherently makes it difficult for me to be a respected feminist. I'd like to point out, before I go any further, that it's very hard to hear (and very frequently heard) about how I'm an "oppressor" or "evil" (or whatever the case may be), simply because of a sexual orientation, a skin color, and an economic class I was born into, an identification I had just as little choice in picking as much as any type of minority would. And yet, it is because of these attributes I have that I am suddenly extradited from the argument - I am not worth listening to.

Emily Hartsfield, daughter to one of my favorite professors at Fort Lewis College and local professor of Pueblo Community College (if I remember correctly), studied trauma in literature for her MA and agreed that this type of attitude put women like us in a tough situation, "I read all this third-world feminist literature, and it's hard, because they're all like You're evil."

I joked at her that I wish there was such a categorical viewpoint as "Trauma Feminist," because I tend to look at Feminism as the same way I view trauma (specifically domestic violence and sexual assault, although many experiences can cause trauma, obviously). What I mean by this is that trauma can occur within any class, skin color, or sexuality. And, more importantly, if you're studying these types of trauma, you know that sexual assault and domestic violence are quite bluntly, tools of oppression. With trauma, the worst possible thing you can do is doubt the victim and invalidate her experiences (using this pronoun for argument's sake - men definitely can and do go through these types of trauma). To pretend one type of skin color or class or sexuality preference isn't at the risk of being traumatized or cannot be traumatized because of these attributes is dangerous: it stereotypes, it creates doubt surrounding the victim's trauma and possibly invalidates her, and it allows society to replicate this attitude.

Another important thing to know about trauma is that what may be traumatic to one individual may not to another - we are born with different sensitivity levels and will be affected by different things, and thus, we will also heal at our own rates in our own methods.

Now how does this all apply to my argument about feminism? A little while ago I wrote a very heated, angry, spur of the moment rant on tumblr about the hatred towards white middle-class feminists, reminding people that I've been through a handful of sexual assault scenarios (including one that endured for years) as well as domestic violence situations. I even threw out there that daughters of high-powered fathers are the ones who seem to be most susceptible to mental illness and neurosis through eating disorders, etc. That, while yes women of color and women who don't have a straightfoward sexuality are going to feel lambasted and pressured by the media, it doesn't mean women who fit more into society's wanted mold feel any less pressure. This is something Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls attests to (a book I would highly recommend and will review soon). One of the troubles of being a middle-class white woman, I've reminded, is society's pressure upon them and class pressure upon them to seem Perfect, a word that has caused me many nights of unrest and has created behaviors in me that are discussed in this book - overachieving, image issues, and so forth. This is to say: while we may not all be oppressed the same way at the same level, we all endure the oppression.

I want to further clarify: this is not putting down other classes and women of color and different sexualities - this is me saying, everyone struggles. every woman struggles. no one is immune to pain. having a certain skin color or sexuality does not make you exempt from all forms of oppression. no one class, gender, sexuality, or skin color gets to own the rights to pain and grievance. Whenever I rant about this topic to my friends, I get flustered, and will frequently say, "Come on, we're all women fighting for women's rights, can't we all just get along? As if the patriarchy doesn't tear us apart enough, we seek to tear each other apart?

And we do. I've had this trouble with professors who chide me for not looking into class and race as I'm just nailing down the basics, with acquaintances who will erase me from their life as I remind them of the above things. I've talked with my mom as she's confronted by a black woman, who calls herself a "womanist" because "feminism is a white woman's movement." I've seen links to Audre Lorde tearing apart white women, heard of bell hooks having issues with trans people (apparently). When I post links or discuss the neuroscience of the female brain or evolutionary psychology or even get into the biology things, I catch myself holding my breath, waiting for a backlash of feminists to tell me that science is gender-biased, mutable, and not worth considering. While I recognize that, I have my own biases, and have always been the type of person that goes "Oh yeah? I want proof to back up that statement. Give the science. The studies. Real life situations." Again, my own background and biases. And I can recognize that everyone has different points of view, and I definitely believe smashing the patriarchy is not something that cannot be done in one straight-forward way (as we are all different women with different interests and biases and who am I to tell you what empowers you and what doesn't). The problem is, there's no respect for that amongst a lot of feminists - it gets turned to black and white, right and wrong.

I've frequently had confrontations with the "More Oppressed Than Thou" Feminist who tells me I have no right to complain because I'm a white middle class feminist, and what do I know about oppression? In situations like this I can practically feel the hostility chucking itself at me in waves. Next, there is the "More Educated Than Thou" Feminist who is likely or has likely academically studied Gender and Women's Studies issues, been instructed on what feminism truly is, and when I voice my opinions, I can hear the "tsk" in the gutter of her throat, and surely enough, with their implication that I am ill-informed, this type of feminist will then proceed to recommend books to me so that I may become enlightened on their point of view and join their cult of prepackaged instructed feminist views.

I tend to run into problems with Educated Feminists especially when it comes to issues of being porn (pro-porn here or perhaps ambivalent-porn). I can understand the oppression inherent in porn, but then again, I've also read Jenna Jamison's memoir, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale, - and I'm not going to walk up to a woman and tell her she's delusion about what empowers her, because she's likely not - she's just not fitting into your preconceived views. To rope it back into my diatribe about trauma, these whole last two paragraphs and the attitudes I've discussed in them are a big red flag of invalidation.

In my little lens of being a self-proclaimed Trauma Feminist, I've spent my whole life struggling with invalidation - particularly through the patriarchy who doesn't want to honestly and respectfully deal with sexual assault or domestic violence survivors, through the perpetrators who did convince me and will convince victims it is their fault, through bad relationships where I'd begin to second guess everything good that happen - due to a lot of truth bending and invalidation, I've become the type of person who does not trust easily and will expect physical proof to back your words. So, when I approach feminism, I don't want to be invalidated - I am fighting for my own rights as a woman, as I naturally have a right to do being a woman. Feminism shouldn't be a oppression-competition and it shouldn't be an elitist educational exclusionist act - it should be a vehicle for kindness towards other women. And I really hope people begin to remember that.


  1. Looking forward to following your new blog! I hope it's a space to help you find your voice & the validation you seek, while sorting out all the issues you are passionate about.

    With love, and as another white middle class feminist, I do want to say something about my understandings of women of color's frustrations with feminism, particularly within the sexual assault and domestic violence movements.

    Let's look at your statement above: "Come on, we're all women fighting for women's rights, can't we all just get along? As if the patriarchy doesn't tear us apart enough, we seek to tear each other apart?"

    The problem for women of color is that they are hearing the exact same thing from the men in their lives: "Come on, we're all people of color fighting for our rights, can't we all just get along? As if racism doesn't tear us apart enough, we seek to tear each other apart?" Women of color get pushed to "choose" between allying with other women or allying with other people of color.

    It's an impossible choice. One of the things that I've learned from women of color is that this impossible choice is *traumatic*. When I start to see the multiple oppressions faced by people as trauma, and their reactions to these oppressions as trauma reactions - it makes more sense. I know about anger, and that when I finally find the words to express my rage it comes out like a volcano. I know how healing it is to have someone validate my rage as real. On the flip side, I know how pissed I get when a man says, "You should tone down your rage" or "I've been hurt too, why do you have to make it a man/woman thing?"

    In my experience, it's *especially* as a trauma feminist that we have to listen carefully to the infinite kinds of traumas experienced by people. When I do that, I find some of my fiercest allies among women of color who just want to be validated. Just like you and me.

  2. Okay, take two. Here's to hoping blogspot doesn't eat this comment as well.

    My problem with these types of situations is when it creates a hostile environment behind a movement, that like all of these types of movements, is meant to unify a minority group of people to empowerment. It makes me feel uncomfortable, in the sense that it perpetuates confusion on feminism and it excludes and demonizes other women that are just trying to not be invalidated. I suppose that's what I'm trying to get at - I don't want feminism, and don't believe feminism should be, an invalidating movement on any part. And when I read these texts, talk with people, or just run across an article that attacks me as an "oppressor" or "evil," I feel invalidated and become defensive - I'm not a racist person, I'm not out to put down any other woman or group of women, and I feel, as I said, completely tossed out of the argument due to my skin color and economic class (factors I was born into). I'm the blunt of hostility. My problem is when feminism is gets factioned into some groups who then perpetuate reverse discrimination (a term I thought I made up until I read a Time article about this lately), grouping me into a stereotype and downsizing me to "those white people." A movement that is meant to unify and empower shouldn't be working to disempower and dissolve. It's one thing to have a woman of color to come up to me civilly and go "Listen, I don't think you understand - I struggle in a different way and this is why," as opposed to, "I'M A WOMANIST. Feminism is a white woman's movement. You wouldn't understand," and end it at that. The latter is hostile, invalidating, and exclusionary.

    If I don't understand, explain to me and help me understand, rather than just shutting me out or blaming me.

    It almost strikes me like the woman who will generalize sexual assault and domestic violence as a men versus women problem - not recognizing that men go through both of these as well. Man-hating isn't going to get us anywhere. Because of all this confusion around feminism and the misconceptions around it, I had to explain to a group of guys that they too could be feminists and participate in Take Back the Night and related events.

    I was talking about this with Andrea (Rossi) as well, how difficult it was - because if you want to have a movement succeed, you have to receive help from all classes, skin color, genders, etc. - and ostracizing one of these groups that may want to help just because they don't understand you seems foolhardy.

    Does this make more sense?

  3. My sense is that it's *nice* when we can behave civilly, but the reality is that oppression is fucking painful and people lash out in anger. Like in work with rape survivors, I've learned that when someone lashes out in anger at me, it's usually a huge sign that they *trust* me. For the first time in who knows how long, they trust someone enough to let out some of this anger that's been boiling inside. When I don't run away or get angry back at them, they are relieved and our connection strengthens.

    I also see this with women of color writing about racism within the women's movement. If they thought white women didn't care, they wouldn't have bothered writing anything. To me, it's a huge sign of trust and hope that they believe things could actually change.

    There's a thread here for me as well about the suppression of anger among women. I think if we're to get anywhere as a movement, we need to be inclusive of anger as as hugely productive force. For instance, in response to "I'M A WOMANIST. Feminism is a white woman's movement. You wouldn't understand" - I might say, "It sounds like you've been really burned in the past by feminism" ... and I'd bet I would get a story. And I'd hear that this person wasn't angry at me Dawn (or you Victoria), but a particular person or set of people who really did something shitty, something worthy of anger. I might end up feeling, "Well, if that's feminism, I'm definitely out of the movement because that's terrible." I'm rambling a bit, but I'm wanting to honor that anger has a place, and when it's met with kindness rather than resistance, it usually melts a bit. It's a great tool whether you are dealing with someone's anger around race or sexual trauma.

    I'm also curious for you to point to a particular text in which you/white women/middle class women are called out as "oppressor" or "evil"? I'm pretty well read in the feminist studies literature and particularly writings by women of color. Nothing is coming to mind that irks me in the way you are describing, so it might be helpful to get more specific.

  4. I'm not quite sure where to begin in this response comment - it might be a bit scatter brained. A lot of why I struggle with this anger from other feminists towards other types of feminists is due to the reason I started getting into feminism to begin with - for a type of safety, for healing, and partially, yes, from my own outrage. It was refreshing to learn the virgin-vamp dichotomy, read books that gave small hints to who I was, and overall be placed into a theoretical framework that made sense to me and helped analyze and reshape my reality. If you hadn't noticed, a lot of the feminist texts I read have to do with language, the virgin/vamp dichotomy, psychology, and sexual assault/sexuality. The reason I've strayed away from reading whole books (rather than just online opinions) from colored women thus far is because I don't want to end up going "Well, if that's feminism, I'm definitely out of the movement because that's terrible." It becomes stressful to walk into feminism as a way to cope with your trauma and use it as a tool of self-healing to only read an argument that provides you with the guilt you've already had through being a victim/survivor, only this time it's in a different way. This occurs when I read things like how I'm an "oppressor," (see Wikipedia's entry on Audre Lorde's theories for one direct example) which I can easily interchange in my mind with the word "perpetrator." And that's when things get scary for me. I'm all for getting angry when it's deserved - especially considering when I'm angry is ironically when I'm most confident... I just get kinda wary when the main standpoint behind the theory is one that's angry and threatens to ostracize an audience that could really use the acceptance and theoretical viewpoint in feminism as well.

    And on a side note, the few things I've read of Audre Lorde's, I've really loved - so when I saw that whole section on how white women were equivalent to slave masters, I was not only shocked - but a bit dismayed. Maybe Wikipedia is wrong - you would know better than I would, but I have a feeling it isn't considering I found the link through another feminist I know.

    As for the "evil" comment - I can't say specifically, that was more of Emily's impression, and I think it was more of an impression than a direct word, used more to summarize the feeling of it. Quotes are quoting her. But it's definitely a feeling that's been apparent to me - and a few of my friends I've discussed this with. And I'm kinda wondering if that attitude is flaring out more in my generation or is just more apparent due to the availability of the internet, considering most of the hateful articles I mention would be a tumblr entry with an initial link and then reblogged with increasing amounts of added on commentary on why someone couldn't qualify as a "feminist," or essentially wasn't feminist enough. I would go back and look through them but they were posted over a month ago, so that would take me awhile (although I'd do it if you really wanted to see).

  5. If you want measured, thoughtful commentary from women of color, you'd do better to stop reading blog posts & comments and start reading anthologies. You can still get bite-sized pieces but miss people spouting off out of anger &/or ignorance. Colonize This: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism might be good (I haven't actually read it), and Making Face, Making Soul is a classic that has many good pieces.

    These are also newer pieces than some of Audre Lorde's work. I always read her with the understanding that she was one of the first women of color to try to describe the terrible tension she felt as a woman of color in the feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s. Betty Friedan's feminism was *the* classic exposition of women's lives - except it really only reflected the lives of suburban housewives. I'd have been pretty frustrated with that version of feminism as well. As you've noticed, most of her stuff is great, and like most good writing, some of it is extremely provocative. Do I want to be like a slave-owner? Absolutely not. So how do I learn about the workings of racism in today's world to ensure that I don't unknowingly participate in it?

    I read folks who have stepped back to think about it, who experience racism from a side that I don't really know about. The internet is a free-for-all, and while there you are going to run into a lot of people who are angry, frustrated, and probably going to push the buttons of your trauma. You may decide (like me!) to avoid reading most of the online feminist sites because it's half trolls trying to stir up trouble, and half angry/ignorant folks. You might also decide that feminism isn't for you right now, because you are only in a space to deal with your brand of trauma, and not in a space to deal with the millions of different kinds of traumas that impact women. It's a big movement to include 50% of the world's population, and we're not all going to have the same experiences of oppression, and we're not going to agree on everything. The options aren't good/bad, right/wrong - we all have to do what we need to do. It is owning what's right for you right now, and not expecting other women of a movement for 3 billion people to bend to fit your needs.

    Thanks again for the dialogue ... perhaps if we want to continue, it makes more sense offline?

  6. Damn, I just lost a comment. I'm not impressed with blogspot. The short version:

    If you want measured, thoughtful commentary by women of color on racism, you should stop reading blogs and comments and starting reading anthologies. Online, it's too easy for people to post out of anger and ignorance. Colonize This & Making Face, Making Soul might be good places to start where you can still get bite-sized pieces but with less anger and more thoughtfulness.

    I always read Audre Lorde as being one of the first women of color to describe the terrible tension she felt in the feminist movement of the 1970s and 80s. As you've noticed, most of her writing is fantastic, and as with most good writers, some of it is very provocative. For me, if the racism within the women's movement then was painful enough that she felt the slave-owner analogy was appropriate - then I damn well better understand how racism operates today so I don't ever stand the chance of being accused of that level of oppression.

    I really want a movement that stands for all 3 billion of the world's women, which means I'm constantly seeking to understand the experiences of women who are vastly different from me because their version of trauma & oppression is often quite different than mine. Part of me hears that since you are still in a pretty tender place in your own healing, that it's overwhelming to open yourself up to all this other trauma experienced by women. Especially when the trauma is something that you might be complicit in because of the accident of your birth in the US as a white person. It's okay to be in a tender place where you can't open up yet to all these other layers of trauma. It's perhaps not the time to be engaging in the broad movement in feminism (at least not on the free-for-all internet!). I guess I'm just encouraging you to be cautious while in this tender time, and not to silence others because their trauma is too much for you right now. I hope this is all heard with the care intended behind it.