Photo Prompt: Your Reflection
Soundtrack: Ani DiFranco, What is no one’s watching?
Background: I had the very cool opportunity today to talk to the activists performing in the campus production of That Takes Ovaries. I was asked to talk about what feminism means and why we still need it. Here’s what I said:
Before I tell you why I think we need feminism—and why feminism needs us, you and me and everybody in this room—I want to ask you to do a little brainstorming at your tables. Make a list, please, of the issues you think feminists are still working on. In other words:
What do feminists care about?
Now make a second list: What are some strategies feminists use for making change in the world? In other words:
What do feminists do?
Now let’s talk about your lists, starting with feminist issues. (And here, as you might imagine, they shared their thoughtful and wide-ranging lists of feminist issues, including everything from access to education to reproductive rights to sex trafficking to domestic violence to marriage equality. Nothing unexpected, given that I was in a room full of people who had auditioned for a performance of That Takes Ovaries.)
So these are all great examples of the kinds of issues feminists are working on, and on some level, they answer pretty clearly the question of why we still need feminism: there’s obviously some work to be done. But I want to suggest that feminism has a value beyond even these issues, and to get there, I want to talk about my own journey: how I came to feminism, and what feminism has meant for me.
I started identifying as a feminist in high school. I didn’t have a particularly well-developed sense of what that meant, and I didn’t know anyone else who identified as a feminist, but I had read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and I was pro-choice, and I had a vague sense that somewhere out in the world there were other people who thought this way. That even though this feminist identity wasn’t really doing me any favors in high school—and in fact made my adolescent boyfriends and their church groups pretty uncomfortable—I assumed that like everything else in my life, this would get better when I went to college.
And it did. I had amazing Women’s Studies professors as an undergrad, women who supported me and challenged me and nurtured me. I went to Kalamazoo College, which had a really exciting, active, radical feminist community, and a growing LGBT community, and a very strong peace movement as well. Those four years of my life were packed full, overflowing, exploding with opportunities to think and write and speak and do feminism and to think about how feminist movements were connected to other activist movements, like anti-racist movements and peace movements.
I took Women’s Studies classes: feminist political theory, women’s literature, women in the modern western state, women and religion, a capstone seminar about feminism and race and racism. I marched and chanted at Take Back the Night rallies and at protests on campus. I organized discussion forums about pornography and the football team’s offensive t shirts and sexism in the media. I used my powers as an RA to make bulletin boards in my dorms about how men can challenge rape culture. I went to Meijers at midnight with This Insults Women stickers and stuck them on Cosmo magazines and Barbie dolls.
Activism made me feel powerful. Not necessarily because our protests were “effective” but because when I was marching or leading a discussion group or stickering at Meijers or singing Ani DiFranco with my roommates, I knew I had a voice. Whether you’re talking about protests or blogging or theatre like That Takes Ovaries or feminist parenting or writing letters to corporations about sexist ads or to politicians about sexist laws—activism is powerful not only because of the effects it can have in the world but also because we are transformed by doing that work. Becoming an activist changes us, even when it doesn’t change the world.
Becoming a feminist activist changed how I understood myself and my place in the world. I found my voice, my power, my community in activism.
And I was lucky enough to have professors and mentors who not only encouraged our activism but also pushed us to ground our feminism in a deep understanding of theory. In one of the first Women’s Studies classes I took, we read Marilyn Frye’s book The Politics of Reality and even though Frye’s work is problematic in a lot of ways, her essay about Oppression remains a touchstone for me in my own understanding of feminist theory and feminist activism.
A few minutes ago you all made lists of feminist issues. Maybe some of those are issues you’ve always recognized and cared about; maybe some of those are issues you began to identify and understand as you came into feminism. For many of us, coming into feminism means recognizing that the world is riddled with problems we may not have known existed or we may have thought were individual issues, not necessarily women’s issues or gendered issues.
But just seeing laundry lists of problems is overwhelming. It can make the whole world seem like an emergency that we are not equipped to handle. And the list view can leave us stranded when we try to talk about feminism and feminist issues to people who don’t see the world through that lens. So I would find myself in these circular conversations with my family, my friends from high school, my friends on campus who weren’t taking women’s studies classes or who were active in the peace movement but not the feminist movement. And the conversations would always go like this:
I would identify something I was frustrated or upset about: a sexist comment by a professor, or an offensive editorial in the campus newspaper, or a misogynist tv commercial.
They would ask, why does that bother you?
I would explain why it was sexist.
Sometimes they would disagree, but more often, they would agree, yes, this comment or ad or article is sexist, but then they would say,
SO JUST IGNORE IT. WHY ARE YOU MAKING A BIG DEAL OUT OF THIS? IT’S JUST AN AD. IT’S JUST A JOKE. IT’S JUST A T-SHIRT.
And then I would feel crazy and frustrated, like somehow the problem was with me, like I cared too much or I didn’t have a sense of humor or I wasn’t cool enough to let it go.
And then we read Marilyn’s Frye’s essay about oppression.
The core of the essay is a metaphor: a bird cage.
Frye explains that if you are trying to understand why a caged bird doesn’t simply fly away, you will never figure it out by examining a single wire. You can study that wire close up, you can examine every single detail with a magnifying glass or a microscope, you can know that wire inside and out. But still, you’re left with the question of why the bird doesn’t just fly around it.
You could even examine the wires one by one, day after day, until you understood every wire in that way. But there is nothing that you would find about any individual wire that would explain how the bird would be impacted by it except in the most accidental, or the most self destructive, way.
Think about, for example, the way popular news and media talk about sexual violence. Everybody agrees that rape is terrible. We know what it is, we have a name for it, we have laws against it. But mostly, we talk about rape as something that happens to women like a terrible accident, or as a result of their own bad decisions–we blame the victim. And when we try to imagine a path around that wire, we come up with solutions to prevent the bird from accidentally smashing into the wire (emergency phones on campus, self defense courses, coasters that detect date rape drugs), or we offer the bird well-meaning advice about not flying self-destructively into the wire (don’t drink too much or flirt too much or hang out with a bad crowd or wear a low cut shirt). All of which assumes that there is plenty of space for flight if you can just avoid this one little wire.
You can study a single wire with great depth and even with good intentions, Frye says, and never understand why the bird couldn’t have avoided it and flown free.
But when you step back and stop looking at the wires one by one and instead see the whole cage, the way the wires cross and connect and link to one another, then it’s absolutely clear why the bird doesn’t go anywhere. You don’t need a magnifying glass or a microscope—you need just the opposite. You need to see that the bird is surrounded, as Frye says, by a network of systematically related barriers. Once you start to see the connections, you can understand how self defense courses and victim blaming aren’t solutions at all: they’re as deeply embedded in rape culture as rape itself.
The birdcage metaphor gave me a feminist lens that was infinitely more powerful than the laundry list of issues or the ever-present examples of sexism. Once I understood that all of these issues are related, connected, linked, I knew I wasn’t crazy for caring about the little things. Why care about that tv commercial or that sexist joke or that racist t shirt or that uninformed editorial? Because every one of those instances is one wire, inextricably linked to the rest. Sexist media is linked to violence against women is linked to stereotypes about domestic violence survivors is linked to calling tank tops ‘wife beaters’ is linked to poverty is linked to government policy about welfare and health care is linked to women being underrepresented in public office.
Crossed wires. Systematically related barriers. Oppression.
But now we’re right back to the world being in a state of emergency that we are ill-equipped to handle, even if we are better equipped for those conversations about why does this offensive thing matter. I know for myself, and I suspect for a lot of us, when we come into feminism, that’s how it feels: everything feels like an emergency. That’s not necessarily untrue. Violence is happening all the time. Sexism is happening all the time. But experiencing the world that way is inherently exhausting and usually counterproductive. That kind of feminism leads to burn out, to bitterness, to emptiness, to staying up all night because someone is being offensive on the Internet. If the whole world is in a state of emergency, we cannot possibly be enough or do enough.
But what we need to learn to say to ourselves and to one another is just the opposite: that we are enough. I am enough. You are enough.
I spent a lot of time and energy in my early 20s trying to be what I thought was the right kind of feminist and trying to make one kind of feminism work in every space in my life and identity and it was such a losing battle. I was always beating myself up, struggling, feeling like I wasn’t doing enough, like I wasn’t enough, like I was never going to be smart enough for this prof or strong enough to do the shit that really needed to be done in the world to beat patriarchy or cool enough to hang out with the women I admired. And what I really needed was to realize that I could have a feminism big enough to move around in, a map, a terrain that was my own, and then I would have the space to do the work that I was meant to be doing, and not waste time and energy beating myself up over not following somebody else’s passion or calling. Because here’s the thing: we all have a passion, a calling. And that’s what the world needs from us: for each of us to live out our feminism in the way that is meaningful and productive and life-giving for us.
Just like we need to see the issues as connected, we need to see the birdcage and not the individual wires, we also need to see our strategies and our feminisms as connected so we don’t get stuck or isolated or repetitive or exhausted. You made lists of feminist strategies, feminist actions. None of those are right for every issue or every person. You don’t have to do 10 of them at once in order to be a legit feminist. Instead, we can see ourselves as part of this larger fabric of feminism, like a quilt. So we can give ourselves permission to try new strategies or take a break or reach out to new people because just like the problems are all linked, our solutions are all linked. We don’t all have to do feminism the same way, and we don’t have to keep doing it one way over and over. We can give ourselves, give one another, permission to grow and change, to read the situation and choose the response that feels right in that moment for ourselves, not measured against some imaginary “is this what a feminist would do” yardstick. My blog and your zine and her protest and her feminist parenting and this theater performance are all part of a network that is dismantling the cage a little bit at a time, bending the wires, breaking apart the connections, prying open the door.
Seeing the strategies as connected is empowering because we know when we act, we are never acting alone, but as part of a movement, a network, a fabric of activism. And we need to see the moments when we step back, choose our battles, disengage as part of that fabric of feminist activism as well. We need to take care of ourselves and one another. Activism is empowering, transformative. But it’s probably not going to be enough to sustain us for the long haul. We might also need dancing and coffee and sweet desserts and time spent with friends not talking about oppression and a day at the beach listening to the waves break on the sand.
So when I said that I believed that we still need a vibrant, dynamic feminist movement, this is what I meant. We need feminism because there are still issues to be worked on, problems to be solved. But more importantly, we need feminism because it enables us to see how and why those issues are connected, and how we can weave our strategies and solutions together into an activism that continues to make us stronger, braver, and more whole. That’s what feminism has given me: a voice, a calling, and a community. I hope that your work, your journey, opens those doors for you as well.
This post is Day 1 in a 30 Day series of photo prompts, which I am going to use as prompts for writing and soundtracking as well. Today’s prompt: your reflection.