Feminism and Womanism

12 05 2009

The discussion/debate on why people don’t identify as feminists is ages old, but it’s a topic that’s worth revisiting. There’s an older post on Oh, You’re a FEMINIST?! that addresses this, and Womanist Musings has an interesting post up today called “I Am Not a Feminist”.

The post on Oh, You’re a FEMINIST?! opens with, “My question to ya’ll: If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but doesn’t identify as a duck, is it a duck?”  She then goes on to discuss the “I’m not a feminist but…” label and lists reasons why people fail to identify as feminists:

1. “Feminism has an image problem” – Feminists are stereotyped as fat, hairy, ugly, man-hating lesbians with no sense of humor.  And with these stereotypes running around along with the whole “feminiazis” label, many women are hesitant or reluctant to identify as feminists:

Are people so scared of all the negative stereotypes and so insecure with themselves that they aren’t willing to embrace all the positives of being a self-proclaimed feminist? Identifying with something and self-labeling means that you are surrendering part of your identity to that specific group and allowing the group to define you. This is in terms of what those within the group and those not within the group want to believe of the group. As far as feminism is concerned, although many feminists realize how empowering it is to self-identify, due to the negative stereotypes associated with feminism, others chose to reject the label.

But the point is, “feminists can look and act however, it’s the beliefs and social action that count.”  This is true.  As long as people are turned off by feminism because of all the negative stereotypes associated with it, the stereotypes will continue to work their power.  It’s important for people who identify as feminists to not be afraid of or deterred by these stereotypes.

2. Younger women are afraid of the word “feminist” – In an older interview with Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti, Valenti said, “Part of me gets so angry at younger women who are nervous about feminism because they’re afraid that boys won’t like them.”  This statement is heteronormative, but reflects “a fear that people will think you are too intense or ‘read into things too much.’ You’ll scare others (boys and girls) away because you’re constantly looking at things differently, and critically.”

Based on personal experience, I have encountered that this holds true.  I’ve had friends who’ve said things like “we can’t watch this with you here because you’ll probably get too offended”, or “you’d probably read too much into this and talk about the power dynamics or whatever instead of just enjoying it”.  On a similar note, it can be frustrating and annoying to be the token feminist in your classes or among your group of friends.  In non Women’s Studies classes I’ve taken, whenever I pipe up about feminist issues I have often witnessed eye rolls or looks of “there she goes again”.  I have even been called “the gender girl” by some people I’ve had classes with.

3. Many people do not want to confine themselves to a label because it can be restricting or limiting:

…it is difficult to navigate through the mess of titles and identities in order to chose the best fit for yourself. Should I say I’m “liberal” or “progressive;” “feminist,” “womanist,” “humanist,” or “pro-feminist”. There are an overwhelming amount of titles with which one can align and this affiliation is important because it determines our social action and activism.

This point sheds light on the idea that a label, what one calls oneself, is less important than one’s personal ideology or activism.  At the same time, if you don’t consider yourself a feminist, it’s important to ask yourself why not?  What’s holding you back?  Who benefits from you not identifying as a feminist?

My personal belief is that if someone prefaces a feminist thought or idea with “I’m not a feminist but…”, they are essentially making a concession to the dominant paradigm.  It’s sort of like saying, “Yes, I have progressive values and believe in X, Y and Z, but I know that you’d disapprove, and it’s socially unacceptable in your eyes for me to be open about my beliefs, so I won’t align myself with those politics.”   Prefacing a feminist thought with “I’m not a feminist, but…” makes it seem as though one is apologizing for having those thoughts, when in reality, there is nothing to apologize for.

Meanwhile, Renee’s post from today makes the case for womanism, not feminism.  It starts off with her saying:

I am not a feminist. I can declare this boldly without fear and with a certainty of will.   I believe unequivocally in women’s rights and the equality of all beings but have found after various years of interaction, that feminism has no room for women that look like me or have similar experiences to me.   I cannot knowingly participate in a movement that claims to be open and yet daily either appropriates or minimizes my struggle for the gains of others.

The feminist movement and hence the label “feminist” have alienated people of color, lower-income people, as well as the queer community.  Alice Walker, who coined “womanism”, said “the word feminist had become too divisive and culturally loaded.”   Feminism tends to be associated with white, heterosexual, upper/upper-middle class, well educated women, and one of its principal aversions is that it is elitist and blinded by its own privilege (white privilege, able-bodied privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege) and ignores the lives and experiences of women who do not share that privilege.

Renee continues:

I am not a feminist because I have seen how white feminists are routinely offered opportunities that are denied women of color and yet we are asked to support their efforts to succeed because it apparently benefits all women.

…It is not okay to hold us to a completely different standard than you hold yourselves up to, constantly moving the goal posts to ensure that we are forever on a quixotic quest to achieve any form of  social change. We are mammy when you need comfort and angry harridans when you need someone to blame for your own short comings.  We are Jezebel to your Ruth; the perfect foil to your constructed fragile beauty and perfection.   We are the eternal other, moving through the world bruised and battered from the whips of oppression that continually lash at our tender flesh. (Bold emphasis mine).

I think this speaks to a larger issue that all social movements struggle with, which is the issue of inclusion.  Within the feminist movement, many women of color have often felt sidelined and excluded, or when they are involved they feel tokenized or used for show.  Racial stereotypes and controlling racial images impact the lived experiences of women of color who are active in the movement and affect how they are perceived and treated and what their roles in the movement are.  This applies to many other social movements – people are marginalized because they do not come from the same privileged background as others in the movement do.  This is detrimental to the movement as a whole and costs it useful, powerful and  valuable allies that could’ve contributed a lot to the movement’s growth and progress.


All  women are lumped into one group as though we experience gender oppression in the same way.  To be erased from existence is worse than  the vicious vitriolic attacks that patriarchy aims at feminists.  Feminists are attacked because even at the most basic level patriarchy recognizes a threat to its existence whereas; women of color are already understood as conquered and colonized beings.

Homogenizing women, or any group for that matter, as one and the same is dangerous and erases identities.  There is no such thing as a monolithic whole – every woman, every person, every body, experiences and engages in life differently based on his/her social location: geographic location, class background, educational background, ethnic background, gender identity, sexuality, etc.

To close she writes:

I am not a feminist and could never be one because it does not speak to who I am as a woman.  There can be no sisterhood as long as women of color continue to be silenced and ignored.   For feminism to really be inclusive those that own the label must commit to relinquishing their privileges. Feminism must make room for all voices to speak openly without fear of chastisement.  We have different histories and different lives but we can be sisters if we stop allowing whiteness, heterosexist, abelist, cisgender and class privilege to come between us. The monolithic woman is our true enemy. (Bold emphasis mine.)

It’s very easy to be blinded by privilege, especially if one is not very conscious of it to begin with.  It’s important, it’s necessary and crucial, for all progressive activists (what ever we self identify as) to make a commitment to seeing past our privileges in order to create a strong, united front where we can efficiently fight to dismantle the oppressions that keep us down and hold us back.  In being allies, we need to see past our privileges and educate ourselves about the experiences of others who’ve navigated the world differently than we have because of their skin color, body size and shape, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.



One response

1 08 2009
Still shying away from the F word « The Gender Blender Blog

[…] the F word that people do not want to associate or identify with, which I’ve written about before.  It’s always interesting to see how celebrity or high profile women respond whenever the F […]

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