So, from the beginning: I am a feminist.
I have always been one, all of my life. I was the daughter of a feminist activist and spent large chunks of my childhood on demos, painting banners, shivering in makeshift benders on Greenham Common, and acting as guinea pig in the women only self defence classes my mother taught. As an adult I went on to become both a paid, and unpaid, advocate in the field of domestic abuse. Feminism for me has never been just an abstract label I choose to stick on myself. This stuff is in my bones and will always be something I am committed to.
So in that sense I consider myself very much a feminist writer. My writing may cover many subjects but it is infused throughout with feminist flavour. It couldn't not be when those are the values that I hold dear.
I am also a white woman, a heterosexual woman, a cisgendered woman, an able-bodied woman, a thin woman. Ergo I benefit from a great deal of privilege. I know this to be true. On the other hand I am also a single mother who could well be described as "economically disadvantaged" (for that you can read poor single mother on benefits.) So there are some ways in which I can feel held back and discriminated against too. Either way, my experience of being a woman in this world is my own, and unique to me.
I have always considered it my responsibility, as a feminist, to educate myself about the experiences of other women too. I do this because it helps me to understand that which I could not otherwise. I do it because I believe feminism has to be as inclusive and representative as possible or what's the point? I do it because I give a damn. I cannot claim to know, for example, what it might feel like to be a lesbian woman of colour living in an American inner city. No doubt we would suffer much oppression in common by virtue of both being women, but in other ways I imagine living in a patriarchal society to be a very different experience for her. The bottom line is that I have never had to deal with racism or homophobia, therefore I can not truly know what it is like. So I read. I read widely. I seek out the opinions and viewpoints of those who have real, tangible experience of that which I cannot claim to know, and I listen and learn.
And of course what I generally learn is that even the sharing of many factors in common does not guarantee that any two people will think alike. Obviously. Because every woman's experience of living in this world is also unique to her. There are wildly differing views running the full length of the feminist spectrum, and this is where things can become complicated, and disagreements inevitable.
I remember well the first time I was ever called out; I was still a child. I had used the word "hysterical." A close friend of my mother - a woman I desperately looked up to - gently but firmly explained that hysterical had its root in the Greek word hyster, which meant womb. When was the last time I ever heard a man being described as hysterical, she asked. I have never forgotten it, and to this day avoid ever using the word hysterical to describe a woman's emotional state.
I have been called out more recently on Twitter too. Most notably by a woman who objected to my critique of the 365 feminist selfie project. It was not about being beautiful, but VISIBLE, she argued. I disagreed. I still do. At which point she became extremely hostile and implied I had a vested interest in the continued exclusion of marginalised women from public spaces.
However in this instance I stood my ground. Firstly because, a) She was wrong (my objection to the project had always been that I felt it represented a growing trend towards the dumbing down of feminism, and that selfies - rather than furthering any womans journey towards equality - would only ever serve to trivialise their subjects.) And because, b) She was every bit as white and privileged as I, and being that the post had been widely read and not one other person had voiced the same objection, she really was in no position to be presenting herself as some kind of representative, or speaker on behalf of, more marginalised women.
All that showy, displaced outrage, did however serve to bring into focus a particular problem I have witnessed as arising from call out culture. And that is the desperation of some straight, white feminists to stay out of the firing line and ingratiate themselves with more marginalised online communities by falling over their own feet in an effort to loudly and publicly demonstrate how intersectional and supposedly right-thinking they are, thus proving themselves as "allies."
I'll admit, this makes me uncomfortable. It can so very easily come across as self serving, fear based, approval seeking, and yet still, somehow, oddly superior - none of which suggest any real assumption of equality. I have to say I am personally ambivalent towards the term "ally" anyway. What I want is to stand, work, and relate with other women honestly, as true equals. What I am not is anybody's saviour, and as such I do not presume that I am needed to help fight battles with which I have little to no personal experience. Does anybody really need my "allyship"? Or would just some simple, genuine respect be better?
By the same token I recently read a post on a fellow feminist bloggers website that had a section entitled:
"Being aware that the last thing the world needs is another white, cis, straight feminist blogger."
I was interested in what she wrote about her desire to make her posts as inclusive as possible, the difficulties that she sometimes experienced trying to get that right, and how in her earnest attempts to make it so, she could find herself concerned with sounding a little too self consciously "politically correct." I could relate to it. After all it is not possible for anyone to represent all of the people all of the time. And who would want to presume to do that anyway?
But again, the section title had me feeling a little uncomfortable. The echoes of self abnegation and pity did not sit easily with me. As a feminist who looks to acknowledge and understand the degree of privilege she receives, and who tries to check it on a regular basis, I can, and will, apologise for making mistakes in how I behave and what I say. I can, and will, apologise for causing offence and showing ignorance. But I cannot - and will not - apologise for who I am. The world cannot get enough feminists in my humble opinion. We cannot possibly have too many feminists. Let's inspire more women and girls to become feminists!
And yet I fear the whiff of McCarthyism around internet feminism and call out culture; that seeming drive to root out ideological impurity and hold it up to shame and villification, the vitriolic attacks on other feminists deemed to have said the wrong thing, and the lack of room for simple, civil disagreement, will not inspire them much.
To conclude; the feminist movement, as a reflection of society at large, has a terrible history of suppressing and disregarding women of colour, lesbian and bi-sexual women, transgender women, disabled women and sex workers. Those of us who have not had to deal with those oppressions need to understand that ours has always been the biggest platform and therefore the dominant narrative, and that in order for feminism to grow in strength and relevance this absolutely has to change.
But please. Let's support that change without turning it into either a noisy, vindictive, self seeking and other woman bashing performance, or by engaging in unnecessary, overly indulgent self flagellation.
Let's support that change whilst supporting each other, so that we can all come together and finally, finally, smash the patriarchy to smithereens.
Originally published at www.gappytales.com on 14/02/2014