The Public Humanist

Teaching and Learning the F Word


"I'm not a feminist."

In classes I teach, a female student invariably tosses this one into conversation, using the phrase to make sure that, despite what she is about to say, no one should think badly of her. And I have taught many different kinds of students, from a variety of backgrounds in a variety of settings. Still the same sentence:

"I am not a feminist."

The statement is always striking-- not only because students rarely come up with anything self-consciously radical in many classroom conversations, but also because the very fact of the student's presence, from her butt in the seat to her hand raised in the air, actually signifies feminism's ideal. In the moment of her declaration she is asserting her right to participation; she is making her voice heard. And that is important to feminism, no?

At the same time, she very likely has a point. True, she is making her voice heard, but she might also be concerned that her voice will be over-heard, in the sense that it will become overdetermined in its association with a discourse with which she is uncomfortable, or even concerned that her voice might be appropriated by that discourse. And I totally think she is right to feel that way. I know I do.

When discussing topics that reflect feminism's basic tenets, everyone generally is down with the program, as long as I don't give it a name. But if I call anything "feminism," almost all will turn away. And indeed, only very recently have I come to refer to things I do and say as specifically feminist, even though for years I have been teaching classes on women and power, come from a family of powerful, "I'll shoot your damn balls off if you cross me" women, and have generally held as gospel the notion that women are equal to (or better than most) men. But, to me, that wasn't feminism; that was just who I am. Sometimes I would call it womanism.

Backlash, or some bad PR for feminism

acmi, Illie, age 9Born after ERA, the vision of "feminism" I grew up included unshaven legs, really bad fashion sense, and an "irrational" and mean-spirited hatred of men. I believed this even as, on the level of rights and the kinds of identities access to rights make possible, I had been afforded every opportunity feminism had made possible. And these opportunities were further enabled by a media apparatus that feminism had itself enabled, movies like 9 to 5, The Color Purple, and Thelma and Louise. My girlhood was heavily affected by such films, and even though I could today offer sophisticated critiques of each, I know that, in its moment, each film impacted my nascent womanself in positive ways. They contributed to a sense of self that I have absolutely been allowed to take for granted.

But, again: I have a sneaking suspicion that if you were to ask any of the film's protagonists if they are feminists, the answer would likely be "no." For in their cultural moments-- the late eighties into the late nineties-- feminism did not mean "sisterhood," or black, or any of the themes such films identify and celebrate. Now that I have a little bit more perspective on that era, however, I think that we can read this disjuncture between act (being a powerful woman) and its description (not feminism) as symptomatic of a wide-scale conspiracy to undercut the advancements made by women in the seventies.

Okay, maybe not. But I do see two things happening to feminism at once. The first involves feminism falling victim to a kind of backlash grounded in mainstream anxieties around the social transformations the seventies signified (we also see this in media representations of race in the same era). The second is a matter of feminism suffering from its failure to adequately recognize its own implication and participation in other kinds of social oppression, particularly vis-à-vis race and class. Feminism's inability to broaden its recognition of women's struggles forced the movement to close ranks around female difference as its signature difference. I don't blame the backlash on feminism, but this enclosure likely contributed to its reputation as a limited movement set against a limited term, men-- and not as a vital social movement with concerns against a broader term, patriarchy. In the popular imagination, feminism isn't against "oppression"; feminism is against men.

The problem of difference

A misrepresentation indeed, but feminism's problems-or rather my problem with it- isn't all about one big misunderstanding. That second thing, the failure to recognize diversity in female struggle, really hurts. Indeed, as I write this, I can't help but think about how a good portion of my identity as a woman of color has been constituted, ironically, against mainstream feminism-particularly after I came to feel that the black working class background that established my sense of difference from feminism was precisely the kind of identity mainstream/academic feminism imagined itself through. I found it tiresome and dispiriting. I became thoroughly displeased with what I saw as the production then appropriation of my alienation.

I remember sitting in a woman studies class as an undergrad, the only black student there, and it being announced that "everything Marisa says is very, very special" (wait: it is!). I remember taking another such class in graduate school, again the only black student. After gritting my teeth through a semester of smiling, white matriarchy, I received a B+, my only, and was told that they (it was team taught) were "disappointed" that, after a "stunning" presentation on race and bell hooks, I left "that line of inquiry" behind to do something "more unexpected but too classical" (a paper on gender and justice in The Oresteia). The kicker, of course, is that not only had I been judged for not performing as expected viz. race, but I had never done a presentation on bell hooks. That was my friend Mike, and he is white!

Needless to say, I declared myself done with feminism. Now, quite a few years later, I am back in the fold, but only because I have become comfortable with my reservations and my assertions thereof.

A final example: Upon being asked if she would identify herself as a feminist, Michelle Obama gave the following response:

"You know, I'm not that into labels," Obama said. "So probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it," she said. "I wouldn't identify as a feminist just like I probably wouldn't identify as a liberal or a progressive."

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Like many of my female students, powerful and thinking hard about their futures, Michelle Obama here reduces feminism to a label. For much as many students probably aren't going to sit in class and (consciously) speak through what they imagine to be an exclusionary discourse, Obama's response is quick and diplomatic, acknowledging that she's down for women's rights, but also trying to dissociate from any perceived negative affiliation. Her response offers yet another way of thinking about why a class filled with women-- poster children for feminism and its achievements-- shun the term. "Feminism," it seems, has become tainted, resonating more as an -ism and less as a way of naming women's right to make choices for themselves, a right that has been hard won and is always at risk of slipping away.

There is danger in refusing to give woman-centered action a name. Michelle Obama is big and fancy, but in our daily lives such diplomacy puts us at risk for losing sight of our interests as women. After all, conceding important rights and concerns to those of others, in order to keep the peace? Now that's stereotype to look out for.

To end, I must admit that calling myself a feminist requires an uphill battle, a battle to nevertheless hold the trust of other women of color and also to set forth the terms through which I would like to be recognized by white feminism. I am still uncomfortable. But I have come to believe that this is a battle worth fighting, for the costs of not making connections across gender, race, and class are too high, and will likely be borne on the backs of the very women kept at a distance from the term's nascent power to force recognition, to make alliances. As I've said elsewhere, I might sometimes leave the term behind, but not the game.

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