I’ve been thinking about feminism a lot lately. I mean, who hasn’t? Time Magazine nominated the term itself as a word that should be abolished from the English language. Then, when that nomination was retracted, media blamed pushy feminists. Who is a feminist? What is a feminist? What does the term even mean?
I went to college in the 1990s. Those were heady days of second-to-third wave feminism. Women dominated the airways – we listened to Alanis and Jewel and Lisa Loeb. Time Magazine declared 1992 The Year of the Woman (and in 2014 declare feminism an annoying term). I went to college with the expectation that I would marry and I would have a career. No one I knew, and I was raised in a conservative Baptist area of the South, had a problem with birth control. Sex before marriage was frowned upon, but birth control within marriage generally got a thumbs up. In class, I read texts by men and women, and had meaningful discussions about the societal forces that contributed to Sylvia Plath’s suicide. I dived into the wreck and emerged sadder but wiser.
I attended grad school for my MA in 1998 and for my PhD in 2000. One of my concentrations for PhD was in feminist theory. My incredible professor, Penny Ingram, introduced us to the female phallus, cyborgs, and the most monstrous thought of all, the mother. She guided us through Irigaray and Spivak and Lacan and Foucault. In class we often debated about theory and praxis. We’d discuss Irigaray’s challenge of patriarchal structure then want to storm the doors and start a revolution. We’d read the theory then someone would always ask, “How does this work in praxis?” (Because we were in grad school, no one could say “in practice” or “in real life.”) And I or someone would say, “But it can’t, not until the whole system is destroyed. It can’t under current conditions.”
And so my 90s ideals of Lillith Faire and having it all clashed with my millennial ideas of theory and praxis, of systemic patriarchal structures and the inability to shatter that structure. These ideas still clash for me. And now, when saying you are a feminist is likely to attract rape and death threats online, it is even more difficult.
After I began teaching, I added to my definition of feminism by practicing intersectionality. Because many of our marginalized students are ignored or silenced by the climate of a conservative religious institution, I’ve learned the importance of spaces and voices for those with disabilities, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. As an ally, I often have to straddle the difficult line between speaking for those who have been silenced and unintentionally appropriating those voices. Black Twitter has taught me much about that distinction.
So you can see how difficult the definition of “feminist” is. In academia, we talk about “feminisms” – the multiplicity of meanings and identities and intersections of marginalized peoples. What that means in practice/praxis is that different people have definitions. My favorite basic definition of feminism is Susan Gubar’s – Do you believe men and women should have equal opportunities for happiness and fulfillment in life? Then congrats, you are a feminist.
Until recently, I was convinced that the vast majority of the first world population believed that statement. I felt that most people were feminists when it got down to the nitty-gritty of equality. I even believed that most people applied that statement to other marginalized peoples, that most people believed that ALL humans are equal and deserve equal opportunities for health, education, careers, and personal fulfillment.
But now I don’t.
Neither my naïve 90s self nor my smugly enlightened grad school self would have envisioned a 2014 in which women are systematically harassed for expressing opinions online. Neither self could have even conceived of a 2014 in which birth control was labeled not as fundamental women’s health care, but as optional and for “sluts.” I couldn’t have imagined a world in which voters decide the basic human rights of a group of people. I could not foresee a world in which protesting as a person of color constitutes a state emergency. I couldn’t have foreseen that only 60% of people in 2014 identify as feminist (in spite of Beyonce’s proclamation).
I would not have imagined just one routine grocery trip to Walmart in which I was questioned by a cashier over my 6-year-old son’s choice of a Hello Kitty Happy Meal. (Never mind the questioning over allowing him to have a Happy Meal in the first place.) As he played with his Hello Kitty, we saw a display of educational toys. We talked about the cool toys then looked on the other side to see if more were displayed there. Instead we found a pink side full of craft kits. It was the embodiment of the binary. Until we saw the pink side, we assumed the educational kits were for kids. Seeing the flip side made us realize the educational kits were for boys.
I went home sick at heart. I’m so tired.
I’m tired of women and POC expressing ideas online and getting harassed and threatened. I’m tired of LGBTQ people who are just asking for their rights as humans being degraded and called abominations. I’m tired of explaining to my son that it’s okay if he wants to polish his nails or play with Hello Kitty. I’m also tired of asking him if any girls make the Minecraft tutorial videos that obsess him. I’m tired of being labeled as “pushy” if I speak too much in a meeting. I’m tired of making less than my male colleagues. I’m tired of my husband having to answer questions which imply sexual impropriety as a man in middle-grades education. I’m sick to death of pink and blue and the incredibly stifling binary enforced by limiting our children to two choices.
Today in my British lit survey we talked about “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. He describes the infuriating futility of not wanting to shoot the elephant and knowing he has to shoot the elephant, of being stuck in a system that he hates yet cannot change. He despised a system in which he was forced to participate. Damn that elephant.
How do we step outside that system, that elephant in the room, that Foucauldian web of power, and change it all? That’s always been the question. Now that question for me takes on more urgency. As I try to live in this world as a woman, as I try to raise a son who embraces and celebrates multiplicities and identities, as my friends of color and my LGBTQ friends STILL work for human rights, as I try to help my students see the web of power and never unsee it, I am more convinced that we have to break the system. Smash it. Like Irigaray, I and many people know the system is rotten. I can’t answer the question about what we do to change it, demolish it, of exactly how we smack it with a giant hammer. I don’t know how we allow those smashed systemic fragments to multiply into diversities and identities. But it must be done. We create systems. Let’s destroy this one before it destroys us.