I Am Many Things — An Essay (Or, a Stream of Consciousness)
A recent encounter has led me to think back to my first direct contact with feminism, how it helped me better understand myself, and what it all still means to me today. I’ve decided to write through my thoughts here because, while the person with whom I had the encounter may never understand them, they’re important to me, and I wanted to share them.
Over a decade ago, I sat in my very first Women’s and Gender Studies course. The professor kicked off the class with a straightforward question: “Who here identifies as a feminist?” She asked those of us who did to stand up. I stood, but to my amazement, only a handful of students in the amphitheatre (mostly young women) did so with me. I was confused. To me, it was simple. If you weren’t a feminist, you wouldn’t be sitting in that class, or any class for that matter. To me, the mere act of a woman enrolling in a university, was as good as saying she agreed with the concept of gender equality, and wanted to participate in it. Feminism.
Of course, feminism is not that simple, as I soon learned. The professor went on to ask some of the students who had remained seated to tell her why they hadn’t stood. As I listened to their answers I realized that people were reluctant to use the word feminist because they had very specific definitions of the word, and those definitions were often… unflattering. That day, I heard everything from “feminists don’t shave” to “feminists are angry” to “feminists are white.”
While I had not previously considered any of these things, they all struck me as wrong. I shaved. I wasn’t particularly angry (okay, I was, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with my gender). And I wasn’t white (well, I am part white, but I’m not passing by any stretch of the imagination; and in fact, neither was the professor).
I thought, “what the hell is going on?” and “am I wrong to identify as a feminist?”
The answer, of course, is no. But, it became clear to me that I was missing the concepts, the history and the language to truly understand what feminism means to me.
That year, we studied feminism within the framework of intersectionality, which is the idea that our experience as women is simultaneously defined by our experience with race, class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, religion, politics and anything else that informs our worldview. I learned that being a woman (or identifying outside the status quo in any way) in a patriarchal society had specific challenges that we would all face, but that our experiences of those challenges would all be different. Layered. Nuanced. Some of us would even face things that others wouldn’t.
(Historically, this has definitely been true, and it certainly hasn’t been a Utopia. Some of our most notable historical feminists have been racists, eugenicists, homophobic, ableists, or just plain thoughtless).
As with any movement, different groups of women within women’s rights activism have had to fight different fights. But, sharing those differences, hearing and being heard — that can unite us. Make us stronger. Make us better. I truly believe this.
Being a feminist doesn’t take away from any part of my identity — my race (black and white), my class (grew up poor, moved up in my adult life), my gender/sexuality (cis/straight) that I live with a disorder and a disability (anxiety, arthritis) — none of this takes away from my feminism, it adds to it. Each is just another notch in my intersectionality belt, and I’m proud of that. Because, the truth is, I could make a long list of personal attributes, and not a single one would tell you who I am, because who I am exists in that intersectional space where they all meet, and is informed by every experience and interaction I have ever had. Oh, and genetics.
The point I want to make is that I’m not just one thing. I am many. That’s what feminism taught me. So, for me, being a feminist means this: I value equality, diversity and empathy. I believe in love, and acceptance, and respect. I see how problematic the world is, but I also see the good. I route for it. I do my best to contribute positively to it, because I want the world to be a better place, and I believe it can be. I recognize my privilege, as well as my disadvantages. I can appreciate history, even the dark bits — because without it, for better or worse, I wouldn’t be here, typing on my laptop, at a kitchen table, in a house I own.
Being a feminist has made me confident in who I am and what I value. It’s made me think more critically about the world, and about myself. I am many things, and I’m proud to say that a feminist is one of them.