Saturday, January 19, 2008

How Many Feminists Do You Know?

I am quite late posting into this new year, but alas it has already been a mighty busy one. So I thought I would post an old reflection I wrote a couple of years ago, born of the frustration that would come out of people who would either get defensive about my studies, as if I just said the most offensive thing on the planet, as well as people who would seek to undermine my education armed with only their random opinions, rather than experiences and facts. I can't tell you how many people, despite never reading any feminist work, never meeting any feminists, never discussing feminist ideas or intersectionalities will tell me they know the "truth" about feminists and what they are really about, they know more than I do, even though this is what I study (and *try* to practice). Lately too I am coming across questions like "if we're talking about racism, then why do you need feminism?" Entirely frustrating not only because my feminism doesn't just inform my feminism, but because to frame a question like that is to pose the world's various oppressions as "either/or" rather than as living side by side, interconnected, as well as denying the space for the various feminisms that (importantly) exist to grow. I am the first to admit that feminism is not perfect. But what I find important about it is its ability to change, to grow, to give space for everyone to talk about the various things that I or anyone else may miss. Feminism is not to be dismissed because a couple of uninformed (refuse to be informed) people think all we want is women to control men, or that it is completely irrelevant to people's lives.

I should warn you, this old prose probably needs some updating and editing. I think I've come a lot farther in my thinking since this was originally written. But alas, I've got lots of homework right now to get to.

This is perhaps a shared experience amongst students of women’s studies. You are at work, at home, at a bar having a casual drink, or even at school itself. Someone asks you what you are studying and you tell them “I’m getting a degree in Women’s Studies.” The reactions can be as wonderfully diverse as congratulations, genuine interests, to blank stares, patronizing smiles, utter dismay, and in the worst case, total ignorance and indignation. “So, what, you’re studying how to hate men?” usually comes from the least informative. “What an ego you have” I say, when it is a man who says that to me. “Now, why would I fork over that much dough, just to spend all my time talking about you?” All I can hear in my head is Carly Simon whispering “you’re so vaaaaiiinn….” It can be pretty frustrating at times, trying to explain to people what it is exactly that you are learning about and why. For the most part, when people say stupid things to me about feminism, I can roll it off my back with a witty reply and leave the conversation with not much damage done. It is when people make general statements that are often ill-informed, about feminists and the nature of feminism overall, and I can see that they believe what they are saying to their core, that my blood boils and I get frustrated and I wonder why I bother to get into these kinds of conversations at all. No one seems to get as pissed off at me when I tell them that I’m also studying Visual Arts. What seems to be at the heart of a lot of peoples’ perception of feminism is a lack of education about it, a lack of clarity about feminist thought or experiences from which they can draw at the very least better arguments about why they feel they way they do about it. All I want to do then is take the blinders off their eyes about feminism.
I had a manager once who when he first found out that I was studying for a degree in Women’s Studies, seem to take a mild offense to it. Things like “Be careful now, Mo’s a feminist, she’ll tear you a new one” in random conversatons would pop out his mouth as if my chosen field of study were a type of vicious heresy against the world, and something that was turning me into an unreasonable monster. Once you are a Feminist, you are a suddenly a Type of person, usually militant and aggressive, which are bad things only if you happen to be female. Hairy legs and anger are common characteristics of the Abominable Feminist. (And you know what? So fucking what if my legs are hairy and I'm angry!) I’ve even had an old friend that I hadn’t seen in years comment not too long ago, “Now I know why you are so bitter. You’re a feminist!” No, fool, I’m not bitter because I’m a feminist. I’m bitter because that’s what everyone keeps saying to me when I tell them about my studies! No one can come up with anything more creative to say to me! And now everything I have to say about the world is invalidated by my seeing it through feminist lenses, as if they are foggier than any other way in which to view the world. I have to ask myself, why shouldn’t I be angry or bitter about the world? It’s not always especially hospitable to the women that populate it. Why should I be complacent about injustice and oppression and all the other multi-faceted issues that we Feminists talk about? Why is it not okay to be an angry Feminist anyway?
I’ve gotten into arguments with a co-worker about how ‘feminism today’ is about putting women on a higher pedestal then men. I almost choked when he told me that. I asked him where he got that idea from, to which he answered vaguely “oh you know advertisements on T.V.” I pummeled him with question after question. I asked him which ads and why did he assume they were feminist? I told him about activist after activist and the work they were doing today in various fields all over the world. He retorted back that he was only talking about North American feminism and that I can’t talk about the rest of the world. Puzzled, I thought why can’t I talk about the rest of the world? I can’t speak for all women, certainly, but as a Feminist I am obligated and interested in listening to as many voices as I can. After all, women live all over this planet. There may be several countries, but there is only one world. How many feminists do you know, I wanted to ask him. How many feminists can you list off the top of your head, how many theorists have you read, how many magazines have you picked up, how many women have you talked to, how many activists have you seen work that that was the opinion you came up with? Seriously, how many feminists do you really know that make you think the way you do?
This same co-worker proceeded to tell me that what I am studying is not the ‘real world,’ that I am not studying what is actually going on around us. He said that to me, quite seriously, as if I am studying a fake world instead. No one would dare tell a doctor that he wasted his education studying fake human anatomy or fake science. I wonder then, where did all the theories I have studied emerge from if they did not come from the real world. And why are you assuming that I have not eyes and ears outside the classroom in which to take in the world? Why are you assuming I have no ability to question, analyze and decide for myself what I think about what I am learning? I am completely aware of the dangers of secluding myself in academic towers. I am not a drone of sorts that just recieves orders and cannot compute on her own. He is not the first to question the educational authenticity of my Women’s Studies. Another friend in another place asked me once if I really believed in feminism or if it is just something I picked up because of school. Does a doctor not just ‘pick up’ his medical degree from school? He’s not less a doctor because the poor fool needed to be taught how to perform surgery. Why is my feminism less authentic because my professors have inspired it? Am I not going to school to learn in the first place?
My friend who asked me about the authenticity of my feminism is someone who is so in control of her life, a motivated go-getter, intelligent, witty and with a no-shit attitude that I just love. I was quite surprised to learn her dismay about feminism. Actually, I am continually surprised when I come across women who live in ways that they consider free, who are educated and can pursue their dreams with vigour and determination, and they reveal that they don’t really think we need feminism anymore, and that they certainly are not feminists. Clearly, then, this is a privileged stance to take about feminism. Another set of blinders here need to be taken off. There is this Western assumption that women in our neck of the woods are completely free of oppression (at least genderwise anyway) and therefore choose to not see the problems that are right under our nose. Its also a dangerous position to take for feminists as well, as it can lead activists to thinking that they must save women in other parts of the world from their cultures, and themselves, as if privileged women/people have all the claim on agency in this world. A classmate once told me with disdain that she thought our professor in our art class might be a feminist. “We don’t really need feminism anymore,” she said. I thought, well, you like being able to breathe don’t you? You like your right to choose, don’t you? You like being able to express an opinion in an educational institution and have that opinion heard, don’t you? What about the rest of the us? What about all the women whose voices are still silent for various reasons? Is this really as far as you think we need to come? Is this all your willing to hear from women? Really? If I am asking the men how many feminists do they know, then I must also ask the women where have they all gone to? Where are they hiding, and can I join their club?
I will admit that sometimes, when I am tired, and just want to relax, I won’t admit the total truth of what I am studying. Sometimes, I am weak, and I just decide that today, this isn’t a battle I want to pick when someone asks me about my degree. But only sometimes. It is often hard work, with so many different voices that need to be heard but don’t always agree, though always compelling. I am not afraid to name myself Feminist, at the risk of hairy legs and angry messages (which isn’t really a risk if you ask me), and I am not afraid to be the Feminist that you do know. I’ll even tell you where I am should you find yourself in need of my feminist services. But I can’t be the only one.

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