People with Good Intentions

(I apologize for not updating in forever. I’ve been very busy with school, and my documentary. I hope to be better next quarter.)

Some students on my campus started a “Journal of Relevant Culture, Politics and the Arts” called The Kosmopolitan which they release bi-weekly. This is all well and good. I’ve been asked to contribute some of my own work, and this week I’m the artist of the week with my Fat Documentary. It’s a neat mix of stuff, and I enjoy going to read it.

This week, they introduced a new columnist, Nora, who posted an article called “Feminists Wear Skirts.” So of course, I immediately pounced.

The essay overall is a beautiful post about this woman’s journey, learning about a family history of domestic violence, and finding her own voice as a feminist, and her own reason to fight for women’s rights. It’s raw, and brave, and Nora really puts herself out there. I’m hesitant to respond to it. I don’t want to appear to be criticizing anyone’s experience, and the post itself was certainly a good intentioned, and well written post. But my problem is with how she frames the whole issue. And I feel like it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

Nora begins by discussing the first time she walked into her Women’s  Studies class, and  how she doesn’t fit in, and feels uncomfortable in the class. She walks in and immediately feels the stares of her classmates.

Apparently dating a football player and wearing a short jean skirt to show off my new French pedicure were the two worst possible decisions I could have made.

The class begins by going around the room and talking about times they’d been treated differently because of their gender. Nora listens as her classmates discuss their own experiences with rape, sexual assault, harassment, etc. And she begins to feel uncomfortable.

Then, it was my turn. My classmates looked at me expecting a gut-wrenching story of how my father would beat me if I ever talked back, or how my volleyball coach promised me playing time if I promised him the same. Come on, you’ve got to have something. I opened my mouth to speak but only let out a shortness of breath. I had nothing. I sat there with my empty palms upturned and limp on the desk. This secret world of hate and brutality jumped out from behind my sugar-coated bubble and scared me to death. My fear transformed into tears that spilled onto my lap leaving small, dark dots on my jean skirt. I felt a warm hand rub my back as the professor excused my turn. Somewhere to my left I heard someone whisper, “That football player boyfriend of hers must beat her.”

Here it is. The crux of my problem. Nora believes, from the beginning, that in order to fit in, in order to be a feminist, she must have experienced some sort of deep hurt, something truly terrible, within the realm of gender violence. To Nora, in order to fit in, she must have experienced something worse than the day-to-day oppression most women feel. And this is the same feeling she gets from her classmates.

This makes me angry. It feeds all the stereotypes of feminism. And I don’t think that’s Nora’s intention. In fact, it’s the opposite of her intention. But in the way she frames her argument, it just feels…wrong to me. I’ve considered that maybe that was the point; to show how naive Nora felt at the beginning, and how she changed. But at the same time, careful readers might not get that point.

In the end, Nora learns that her Grandmother’s husband was abusive, and she brings this story to the class, feeling like she finally has a story to make her fit in. She concludes:

The next day in class I shared our story, this piece I could finally contribute to the puzzle. I walked into the room with the same French pedicure beneath the same jean skirt and told them the story that made me belong. I left class that day with my head still ducked into my chest.

This last sentence makes me sure that Nora isn’t as naive as she was in the beginning of the class. This last sentence makes me sure that Nora is now a self-identified feminist. But I still take issue with so much of the rest of the framing of the article. I actually missed that last sentence the first time I read it. I felt really uncomfortable when I finished it the first time. I felt upset, and angry, and I couldn’t really pinpoint why I felt that way. It took me a lot of thought to figure out  why.

In many ways, I can relate to Nora. I identified with feminism for a long time before I think I actually became a feminist. I would go to Take Back the Night, and listen to women let their stories out, and I would sit there feeling almost guilty that I hadn’t had that sort of experience. There definitely is a feeling of outsiderness when you’re sitting in that circle, surrounded by women who have been raped, or beaten, or experienced something that you’ve never even come close to.

But after time, and after learning a lot about myself, I could see that I was surrounded by a constant influx of oppression. People were telling me how to look, eat, dress, how to have sex, who to have sex with, how I should act  in my own home, and I just got sick of it. Sick of the universal, all around, women-are-second-class, feeling. There was no big moment. No one beat me, raped me, gave me less than I deserved because I’m a woman. There was no defining moment that made me become a feminist. But I’m a feminist.

And that, I think, is how it should be. You don’t become a feminist because you’ve been raped. You don’t become a feminist because of anything in particular. You become one because you feel that every human being deserves to be treated with respect, and has basic human rights.

I think Nora got there just like I did. But this was underrepresented in her essay. And that’s my problem. It comes across as stereotypical. And we feminists, not that stereotypical at all. We encompass everyone.

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6 thoughts on “People with Good Intentions

  1. Granted, I’ve only just read the parts of the essay you’ve excerpted, but I’m not convinced that the writer learned much about feminism–or rather, for some strange reason, what she learned would probably horrify her teacher.

    You mentioned understanding Nora’s feeling of being “surrounded by women” who’ve “experienced something that you’ve never even come close to.”

    And the thing is, I call shenanigans on that. The incredible number of women who’ve been harassed, assaulted, raped, and the like means that *all* women have been close to violence against women, even if they somehow managed to (so far) miss experiencing it first hand.

    And all women have been close to the less obvious (yet still deeply problematic) aspects of gender oppression within a patriarchal culture (things like being underpaid; being told that, to be in politics, it’s best to not have children; having femininity defined by motherhood even as mothers are given very little support; being defined by our bodies and held against an impossible, photomanipulated ideal female body; etc.)

    What troubles me about her essay is the sense that it speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism in which Nora sees it as some kind of social club–like a sorority–in which it’s important to wear the right clothes and say the secret phrase and then you get membership.

    That’s an incredibly shallow way of thinking about a social movement that earned women the right to vote, made it possible for a woman to run for President, and helps women respond to both the deep, obvious hurts inflicted upon women as well as the ordinary, everyday indignities that come from being outside of male privilege.

    And that’s what I’d say to her, if I could, and maybe to you as well, since you said you were searching for a way into explaining what she missed.

  2. BUT at the same time, while it isn’t as prevalent as it once was, there is still that air of “How can you be a feminist, you slave to the patriarchy?” if you wear skirts and make-up.

    Third wave feminists have dispelled a lot of that, but I slide in right between the definition of second and third wave and, like I said, it isn’t as prevalent as it once was, but it still exists. And while I despise and rail against the stereotype myself, there is a grain of truth at the center of it.

    I’ve been a Feminist my entire life, and I cannot foresee a time when I am not, at least while there is breath in my body, but blinding yourself to the faults of your movement doesn’t do anyone any good.

  3. What Miriam Heddy said.

    I haven’t been raped.

    I haven’t been beaten by a lover.

    I haven’t been refused a job because I’m a woman.

    I haven’t been sexually intimidated by a boss or co-worker.

    None of that makes me any less of a feminist, any more than my fondness for making lace or wearing nail polish or passion for cooking does.

    I’m a feminist because every woman is still in danger of rape, beatings, unemployment, sexual harrassment, and intimidation purely by virtue of being a woman. Just because I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the women who hasn’t suffered doesn’t make me a traitor to my sex or somehow ‘unworthy’ to be part of the ‘club.’ It just means I’ve been damn lucky.

    I’m a feminist because I want all women to be safe without having to be lucky. I want us all to be able to do what we like without having to apologize or explain to anyone why we should be allowed to do as we please.

    I don’t need to have experienced the worst of oppression to know it’s wrong and needs to change.

    Skirt or pants, manicure or no, shaved or not, male or female…all you need in order to be a feminist is to know that how women are treated in this culture is wrong.

    Until the author of that essay understands that simple fact, she will never understand feminism, no matter how many wrongs she unearths in her past.

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