In my time on the feminist internets, I often hear arguments for why EVERYONE should identify as a feminist. “If you think women are people, congrats, you’re a feminist!” “Quit saying ‘I’m not a feminist, but….’ You are a feminist!” Etc., etc., etc. There was a time, when I first became a feminist, when I would have shared quotes saying something similar.
But lately, when I see these arguments trying to shame people into identifying as feminists, I get a little uncomfortable.
This meme is one example that particularly bothers me:
In case you can’t see the image for some reason, this is a quote by Dale Spender which reads:
Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety on the streets, for childcare, for social welfare, for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says, “Oh, I’m not a feminist,” I ask, “Why? What’s your problem?”
I have two problems with this quote that I want to address. I’ll address the first problem today, and the second in a different post.
1. Actually, feminism isn’t perfect
I haven’t read much of Spender’s work, and only know this quote because I’ve seen it shared on various social media. But when Spender says that feminism has “practiced no cruelties,” my first thought is that she’s being a little too selective in her reading of feminist histories (and presents for that matter).
Feminism has fought for the vote. Yes, great, right? But we can’t forget how some white feminists went about fighting for the vote. Angela Y. Davis reminds us in Women, Race, and Class of some of the motivations and tactics that white suffragists to ensure white women the right to vote. Her book draws our attention to the following quote by one such white suffragist, Belle Kearney:
The enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy.
Belle Kearney’s words express a method many white woman suffragists used in their attempts to convince white men to give them the vote: “If you let us vote, we can help you outvote black men.” And as Davis exposes throughout the rest of her book, white feminists have often thrown women of color under the bus to achieve rights for themselves.
You don’t have to look very far to learn that white suffragists weren’t the only feminists of history who tried to gain rights by stepping on the backs of other women. Branches of feminisms have supported and continue to support racism, eugenics, class oppression, and homophobia. There are still feminists today who not only exclude trans* women, but who actively work to put trans* women’s lives and careers at risk.
It isn’t just the fringe feminists either. Mainstream feminist Caitlin Moran recently summed up bluntly the way a lot of privileged feminists feel about the issues less privileged women face when she stated that she “literally couldn’t give a shit about” the representation of women of color on television.
There are many women of color, queer women, working class women, disabled women, etc. who identify as feminists and who work hard to make sure privileged women aren’t the only ones running the show.
But, privileged feminists like Caitlin Moran still hold a LOT of power. Can you really blame someone if they aren’t interested in a movement where some of the most powerful leaders “literally couldn’t give a shit about” their issues? Would you ask “what’s wrong with you?” of someone who doesn’t associate with feminism because of the horrific way they were treated by trans*-exclusionary feminists? Can you really tell someone whose family was hurt by the eugenics movement, supported by feminist Margaret Sanger, that they shouldn’t say “I’m not a feminist, but…”
Some people who have been hurt by privileged feminism continue to call themselves feminists because they want to assert that privileged women do not own the term. Others say “fuck it” and continue to fight for justice in all areas of their lives, without bothering with the word feminism and the baggage it carries with it.
I really can’t blame them for that.
So that’s reason #1 why I don’t care if you call yourself a feminist or not. I do care that so many people feel that they have to say “fuck it” to feminism, because of how much harm privileged feminists have done to less privileged women. It bothers me so much that feminism is often used as a tool of oppression.
But it is used that way, more often than I want to admit. So I respect those who can’t use the word “feminist” to describe themselves. I’m not going to tell them they must call themselves a feminist, because feminism isn’t perfect. We need to get our shit together instead of worrying about what other people are calling themselves.