Though it’s officially defined as a belief in gender equality, the word “feminist” seems to mean different things to different people…
Who doesn’t believe in equality? Assh*les, that’s who. But tell that to your brother when he wants you to stop pointing out every misogynistic moment in Two a Half Men, or your Mom when she wonders why you’re so angry or Scott Baio, who thinks feminists are all lesbian shitasses.
Maybe you get judged for being a feminist, maybe you don’t bring it up with your family, or maybe you’re way past that and you’re introducing feminism to your own children. Or maybe you don’t even identify as a feminist at all.
Autostraddle was founded way back in March 2009 in part to push our radical lesbian feminist agenda, obviously.
But for those of us who do, especially those of us also campaigning actively against racism and homophobia in our own lives, we often wonder: What is the purpose of all this shouting and “consciousness-raising”? How do we turn our anger into activism? How do we make it work?
Feminism has undergone profound change since first-wave feminism started burning up the 19th century in Europe and the US. Back then, when men owned their wives and women were deemed unfit for education, there was a ton of shit that needed to change and FAST. And in that regard, feminists have made such swift strides in some areas that many believe the work is done — and it’s not. Furthermore, many women of color, queer and/or working class women still feel feminism is still a rich white woman’s movement that doesn’t address their concerns.
Autostraddle was founded way back in March 2009 in part to push our radical lesbian feminist agenda, obvs. Where other lesbian media often develops in tandem with gay male media & gay male issues, we wanted AS to develop from a different angle — a LADY angle — in tandem with feminist media & feminist issues. And so it’s time we officially start talking about that with you.
This “job”/volunteer opportunity tends to make you hyper aware of the daily frustrations of fighting for equality, which means we have a LOT of feelings to vent.
So we’re splitting this roundtable into three posts with a different question each time. Oh! Like the three waves how clever! If you’re new here, check out some of our previous Autostraddle Roundtables, like:
What Does a Lesbian Look Like
What We Talk About When We Talk About Healthcare
When Did You Know You Were Gay?
Is There a Lesbian Generation Gap?
So … Prop 8 Was Upheld. What Do We Do Now?
I’d Rather Laugh With the Sinners than Cry With the Saints
Adam Lambert – First Gay American Idol?
We also brought in a guest blogger to share his thoughts…. a boy! He’s queer, his name is JC Gonzalez, and he blogs at Bright Pink Tears. And hey, if you read this and think there’s a valuable perspective missing, hit up sarah [at autostraddle dot com] and/or laneia [at autostraddle dot com] about participating in Round 2 as a guest.
This Roundtable is SUPER LONG ’cause there’s a ton of people working here now, and we don’t even include everyone.
Today, we’re going to start with the basics:
Are you a feminist? If so, when did you start identifying as one, and what was it like when you first got a grasp on what feminism really means? If you ever did NOT identify as a feminist, why not?
TAYLOR, TECH EDITOR: From my early teens on, I felt this unnamed oppression — that I had something very dangerous to conceal. And subconsciously, I felt that letting on that I was a feminist would’ve let the cat out of the bag.
Thinking back (just now actually!), I realize that I had a lot of weird proto-feminist shame as a teen. And that’s really sad and also really f*cking stupid. I was definitely stifled by this ridiculous cartoonish stereotype (that I honestly must have conjured out of thin air) where a feminist was impossibly militant, fiercely man-hating and probably a big scary dyke. I don’t think I’ve ever verbalized how I felt during those years, or really realized it at all. I certainly identified as a feminist to myself, but it was a dirty word. To others, mostly guys, I played down my identification with the word, which in retrospect is really kind of tragic. I mean, if anyone properly explained that feminism was about equality and not superiority or anything absurd like that, then I think my peers (in suburban Texas) would have been really pretty receptive. Everyone was actually surprisingly open-minded, but we were all held back by this ambiguous, dangerous specter of feminism that sure as hell didn’t have a face in our community. Like, where exactly were these horrible man-hating lesbians? They didn’t frequent our mall, I’ll tell you that much. They were the stuff of legend, I guess.
Throughout those years, music was the way I both expressed and was shamed by feminism. I’ve always listened to a lot of female musicians, you know, women being half the population and all. Lady rockers became my biggest role models, and I found my way into some Riot Grrl stuff, thank god. Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre and PJ Harvey were instantly my feminist confidantes. But sadly, that’s where the shame comes in. Any power the music infused me with was tainted by the shame of identifying with this dangerous, raw feminist energy. It got kind of complicated. I’m not sure how my developing queer little brain handled that.
“I began to hear some very damaging comments about why I liked ‘angry chick music.’ I can’t even hear that phrase any more. I actually may have to maim someone, it’s so infuriating (maybe that’s why those chicks were so f*cking angry, huh?)”
Even though only roughly half of the music I listened to was by women, that was enough to rouse suspicion. I began to hear some very damaging comments in middle school and early high school, deceptively simple questions about why I liked “angry chick music.” I can’t even hear that phrase any more. I actually may have to maim someone, it’s so infuriating (maybe that’s why those chicks were so f*cking angry, huh?) I’m just not sure why high school boys felt so threatened by women in bands and women playing instruments. Even my dad condescendingly inquired about it, accusing me of “hating men” since I listened to “so much girl music”. I got pretty sick of it in late high school, when I finally starting steeling myself against the barrage of sexist/homophobic absurdity. The turning point was probably when my best friend and I started riding around in his shitty convertible through the suburbs blasting Sleater-Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” and singing along at the top of our lungs. It was very freeing. Maybe that kind of primal energy was what everyone was so afraid of?
I think music was so important because as a teen, you really wear your heart on your sleeve with what you listen to. And I didn’t want that heart to look gay or like a feminist or anything suspect at all. It’s pretty powerful stuff during those years, when the voice coming through the speakers might be the only one you can relate to or confide in. And it can make you extremely vulnerable. I remember one really close, fairly enlightened friend telling me that he “didn’t feel like listening to girl music” in his car one day when we were trying to figure out what CD to play. I was betrayed. He and I had listened to that kind of music before. And I was like “I didn’t know gender was a genre?” But of course, tragically, I didn’t say that — I didn’t say anything. I just boiled over silently with a toxic mixture of rage and shame.
In late high school, I finally came into my own and learned to stand up for small outrages like this, but I think at the time, I conflated feminism with my sexuality. I wasn’t comfortable or even aware of my sexuality until I was about 18. But I think from my early teens on, I felt this unnamed oppression — that I had something very dangerous to conceal. And subconsciously, I felt that letting on that I was a feminist would’ve let the cat out of the bag. That somehow my listening to female musicians belied my sexuality in an obvious way. Even though those two things weren’t at all related for me.
GLENNISHA, MUSIC WRITER: It was nothing new to me to want equality.
I definitely identify as a feminist. I think I’ve always have had sentiments of a feminist, but I didn’t actually identify as one until I was about 20 years old. When I first got a grasp on what feminism really meant, it wasn’t a big deal to me because I always had those views. It was nothing new to me to want equality. It was also nothing new to me to stand up for what I believe in. I come from a family of very strong women. Growing up my mother always taught me to stand up for myself and more importantly to know and understand my value.
ALEX, DESIGN DIRECTOR: My “female voice” class planted a pretty little seed in my 17-year old head, and that made all the difference.
There was this amazing teacher in my high school who established and taught an English elective called “Female Voice.” All the cool girls (like me) and even a few boys took the class, and it was definitely there that I learned to view the world through a “feminist lens,” (as our teacher put it.) We read The Yellow Wallpaper and The Handmaid’s Tale (among others) and deconstructed racial and social stereotypes in movies like Pretty Woman. At the time, we begged our teacher to spare ruining one of our favorite movies of all time — “why can’t we just enjoy it for what it is! Wahhh!” Silly us.
That’s funny and ironic now because I work for Autostraddle, where we socially deconstruct everything. And I’m totally fine with that.
I think a little bit of female history (and even some gay history) taught in high school classrooms would do everyone a favor. Critical thinking skills, people! WE NEEDZ TEHM. My “female voice” class planted a pretty little seed in my 17-year-old head, and that made all the difference.
RACHEL, EDITORIAL ASSISTANT: I don’t know when I started using the word “feminist,” but I’m going to keep using it until all this shit stops happening.
I was, believe it or not, kind of a tomboy when I was young — I played on a boys’ baseball team, rocked Cleveland Indian t-shirts exclusively throughout the fifth grade, and I was always ready to rumble on the playground if you had a bad attitude. I was into “girl power.” And when it became clear that this was all weird and borderline unacceptable behavior — that the boys on my team thought I was weird for caring about sports, that my classmates thought I was a smartass for knowing the answers, that I was considered unladylike before I was old enough to wear a bra — it made me angry, and I’m still angry today. I remember in my Advanced Placement physics class in high school listening to the guy behind me joke about how right Larry Summers was, that girls really are just worse at math and science. I turned around in my seat and told him that that seemed weird, considering I had a better grade than him.
“I didn’t get an idea that real feminism could be about a lot more than girl power until college, when I took some classes and found some readings that made me realize equality is about more than splitting the check at dinner.”
I don’t know when I started using the word “feminist,” but I’m going to keep using it until all this shit stops happening. I didn’t get an idea that real feminism could be about a lot more than girl power until college, when I took some classes and found some readings that made me realize equality is about more than splitting the check at dinner. When I was 19 or 20, suddenly it was like “Oh hey, there are three times more animal shelters than battered women’s shelters in the US, forced sterilization of women of color is still happening every day, and the rampant misogyny endemic to our culture is hurting EVERYONE, punishing queer people for nonconformist gender presentations and making us stigmatize women of color as unfeminine and hypersexual….” the list goes on. It’s one of those things where, once you start to really think about it, you can never stop, you know?
The amazing writers, speakers, and thinkers who have inspired me since then is practically neverending. I love love love Anne Lamott’s essays and all of Traveling Mercies; Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy changed the way I think about everything, as does everything of James Baldwin’s. Cherrie Moraga’s work is a must-read especially for queer women, and when I read the anthology Jane Sexes It Up at like 16, I remember feeling like my life had changed completely, like I would never think about sexuality in the same way again.