“I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist.” – Roxane Gay
This note to you is inspired by (Queen) Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist,” an essay and subsequent NYT-Bestseller wherein the author “explores being a feminist while loving things that could seem at odds with feminist ideology.”
“When I was younger, mostly in my teens and twenties, I had strange ideas about feminists as hairy, angry, man-hating, sex-hating women…”
I want to tell a story I had long wished I could delete from my own archive…until I realized its importance to my becoming the woman I am growing up to be.
Like you, I have my own relationship with feminism – how one approaches issues of equality based on gender, gender identity, gender expression, sex and sexuality.
In my 20s I remember one of my tack-sharp, strongly opinionated, well-read and well-studied NYC roommates whom I met as a fellow strategist at an advertising agency, hot in living-room-couch conversation with me about how frustrated she would get when people would say they are coming at their logic from a “humanist” perspective.
I didn’t get why. Humanism – the philosophy of building a more humane, fair, compassionate society predicated on our living life from a place of ethical responsibility to the greater good – seems like the ultimate philosophy to try on for size, no? Align your personal interests with the interests of the whole, and do right by each other? Love it!
At the time, while I felt grateful for what I had and for the opportunities that came to me (and I really did feel and exercise my gratitude frequently), while I contributed to society through philanthropy – with my time, money and talents…and and and…I had not begun to check my privilege, really. To understand that the privileges I enjoyed, the opportunities I received as a reward for my hard work, were not the same as those of my Black peers, my Brown peers, my trans peers, my peers who did not go to private high school with a college counselor or summer camp to tap into a network that would serve me forever, etc etc etc. The further I drill down, the more obnoxious the list starts to sound, and yet, my experiences are my own, and I need feel no guilt for them, but, to be who I want to be, to stand for the ideals I set out to stand for, to be the neighbor, citizen, human I aspire to be remembered as, I do need to understand that these are NOT the experiences most people get to live.
So, I now see that humanism as a philosophy is beautiful, but as an identity marker without a commitment to level the historical and intersectional playing field: it’s somewhat naive and oversimplified.
That roommate, fired up, asked me years ago in that couch chat, “What would you do if you were being interviewed and someone asked if you were a feminist?”
I distinctly remember wanting to answer adversely, or beat around the bush. She knew that, which is why she asked.
She barked with something like, “You run a women’s empowerment business!! Are you serious??”
I answered something like, “I obviously believe women should have every opportunity, but I feel like people are so angry right now, and I would never want anyone to think I thought women were better than men, that I was a man-hater, or that we were coming for their opportunities. There are enough opportunities for everyone, and I want everyone to be held equally.”
Admittedly, writing this today makes me cringe. I’ve thought back about it, and having lost touch with this roommate, I’ve hoped that she would not share her recount of this conversation with (literally) anyone else, though I know, given the sobering context the last half-decade has provided us and all the conversations we as a people, and I as a person, have had since then, she probably has.
Here’s what I’ve garnered since then – and Lauren (roommate): this one’s for you:
I am an intersectional feminist, very proudly, and probably more: very humbly, in that I don’t want to take the mic about how to bring parity to all women. I want to pass the mic and listen up, to the women* who have been disproportionately underrepresented in our approach to “equity,” of all kinds, as it relates to their womanhood.
What is intersectionality?**
“Intersectionality is the acknowledgement that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression and we must consider everything and anything that can marginalise people – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc”
From the same site I pulled the above definition and chart, I want to share with you my point, through their more-refined lens:
Feminist writer Zoe Samudzi reminds us that “intersectionality is such a vital framework for understanding systems of power, because ‘woman’ is not a catchall category that alone defines all our relationships to power”. A black woman may experience misogyny and racism, but she will experience misogyny differently from a white woman and racism differently from a black man. The work towards women’s rights must be intersectional – any feminism that purely represents the experiences of white, middle class, able-bodied, heterosexual etc. women will fail to achieve equality for all.
But as a cis female who is white and born into a family of means in a community where it was safe to be me, I have to acknowledge that feminism stands for me more than it does my cis black counterpart, and for her more than her trans counterpart (of any race).
And that’s just the 101. Or maybe even the summer reading that comes before it, but I share this with you today, a little concerned and vain about what you may make it mean about me in 2013/14 when it happened, because I want you to know that today is the perfect day to begin to explore your feminist ideals, and look around for perspective…not at your sister’s experience, but at the experience of a woman who lives in your neighborhood but walks through her day in a different skin than your own, at the experience of a woman on the bus passing by your car, at the experience of a woman who tidies your office space.
Relieve yourself of the pressure to be the perfect feminist. Almost no one (myself included) has a history of impeccable allyship and action and protest and quotable advocate conversations. Instead, balance that with the permission to learn and grow in how you stand for other women. See where it leads. Celebrate International Women’s Day not only by celebrating the triumphs of our gender’s past, but the hurdles we’re up against and the responsibility we can take with the power we have to not only raise the ceiling for all of us, but level the ground floor for the women who aren’t standing in the privilege that we each are.
And lastly, I ask for your grace AND your opinion, as this is an imperfect post that I wrote 3x over the last week, and am challenging myself to put out into the world messy and as-is because perfectionism is a product of oppression, too, and women fall victim to it way too much. It’s not perfect, but it’s enough to start a conversation in this place that I’m standing now, at the center of a community of women who are for each other *and* committed to making the world inside themselves and all around a better place to grow.
*As always with Campowerment, by “women,” I..and we…mean all who identify with the feminine experience