Feminism. It’s a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different folks. To me it means the fight for equality, not just for women, but for all people that are marginalized and oppressed. Others see it as a scam or a conspiracy theory designed to cover up “female privilege” and/or subjugate men.
Unfortunately patriarchy (which, by the way, also hurts men) is alive and well, and one of its effects is the demonization of feminism. Anyone who dares to publicly support it risks opening themselves up to criticism, ridicule, slander, exclusion, harassment, threats of physical harm and sexual assault, or other, often subtler, forms of punishment, especially if they happen to be a woman. The more vulnerable or underprivileged we are, the more dangerous it is to self-identity as a feminist, and the less likely it is we’ll be able to recover from our wounds.
It’s no surprise then that many women avoid having anything to do with feminism. The stereotypes and misinformation that are actively promoted and spread by governments, mainstream media, religious organizations, men’s rights activists (MRAs), and so on don’t help either. In an attempt to combat these stereotypes, and perhaps avoid some of the anticipated backlash, many of us try to play down the more threatening elements of feminism, separating ourselves from the imaginary bra-burning, man-hating, “feminazi” militants that some people believe represent the movement as a whole. But while it’s true that there are many different strands of feminism, some of which are more radical than others, there are still problems with dismissing “that” kind of feminism out of hand.
First of all, we’re lending support to the “bra-burning” stereotype by promoting the idea that these women were/are irrational, that their actions were/are unwarranted, that they hurt rather than helped the movement, and that good feminists “know better.” This does a disservice to the women that, whether you agree with their methods or not, risked a lot to help secure the rights we now enjoy.
Secondly, we’re excluding women that are angry, and have every right to be, by advocating a more “moderate,” liberal approach, while subtly reprimanding those that refuse to remain “calm” and “reasonable” in the face of extreme suffering, exploitation, injustice, and oppression. It’s easy to stay calm when you’re relatively privileged, much harder when you’re at the bottom of the ladder, struggling to survive, and constantly being shit on by everyone else. Many people may have trouble connecting to liberal feminism, not because it’s too scary or angry, but because it’s too nice, too complacent, too tailored to mens’ expectations, too focused on incremental reform as the one and only method of bringing about change, not to mention that it often completely fails to address the experiences and concerns of poor, working class, non-white, and non-cis-gendered women. Some of these people may feel that liberal feminism is far too preoccupied with symbolic gestures that are designed to make patriarchy more appealing to women, rather than actually working to eliminate patriarchy, and the systems of social stratification that support it, and you know what, they might be right.
And really, in all seriousness, what is so bad about burning a bra anyway?? It’s just a piece of clothing! How could this possibly compare to the acts of violence that women around the world face every single day? But of course we’ve been fed the narrative about “crazy” feminists so often that we don’t even stop to think about it. This narrative has been around for a long time (just check out this New York Times article from 1912), in various forms, and it’s typical of the divide and conquer strategies that have been used to undermine collective struggles throughout history. Not only does it encourage feminists to turn against one another, but it also reinforces the message that it’s always better to play by the rules–even if the rules were created largely by and for men, even if they’re unfair, and even if that means accepting less pay for our work, keeping our experiences and opinions to ourselves, or putting up with harassment and abuse, because nobody likes an angry, whiny, unreasonable, uncompromising, feminist.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t welcome male allies, that men can’t be feminists, or that we can’t work together to further our goals, but neither should we be ashamed of our anger, or repress it in ourselves or others, or stop fighting for our rights because some people are upset by our anger or don’t agree with us. If the men that claim to be our allies are really on our side, they’ll feel angry as well, or at least support us in our anger, rather than trying to shut us down.
And really, no matter how much we try to act tame and “play nice,” it will never be enough, because feminism, like all social movements, is always going to be threatening so long as it represents a change in the status quo. The moment it stops doing that is the moment feminism dies, or at least ceases to serve its purpose. That doesn’t mean we all get to keep the rights we currently have either, because those rights weren’t granted to us by benevolent government officials out of the kindness of their hearts; they had to be fought for, and unless we continue to fight, they will be taken away. The process is already in motion. The expansion of the prison industrial complex, the suppression of wages and attacks on unions and collective bargaining, cuts to public services and a push towards privatization, government spying, the introduction of laws that allow for the suspension of basic rights and freedoms (usually justified by vague threats to “national security”), and the rising popularity of fascist parties, all point to a less than pretty future, and not just for women. While this list may seem to have little or nothing to do with women’s rights, intersectional feminism is concerned with all forms of oppression and inequality, and the ways in which they connect to and reinforce one another. If we start with the understanding that everyone, regardless of sex, gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and so on, has a right to respect, dignity, and a decent quality of life, we can start to see how these developments might negatively impact on those rights.
If we’re going to stand against this, let alone fight back, we’re going to need to embrace our anger, and the anger of others who, like us, are tired of the double standards, the excuses, the fear, and the hardship. Rather than dismiss it, we need to learn to use that anger, and turn it against the system that oppresses us; we need to make it work for us, rather than against us, as it so often does. I say this not because I think anger is a wonderful thing (it’s not), but because the alternative (passivity) is much, much worse.