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 intoconversation, using the phrase to make sure that, despite what she isabout to say, no one should think badly of her. And I have taught manydifferent kinds of students, from a variety of backgrounds in a varietyof settings. Still the same sentence:

“I am not a feminist.”

The statement is always striking– not only because students rarelycome up with anything self-consciously radical in many classroomconversations, but also because the very fact of the student’spresence, from her butt in the seat to her hand raised in the air,actually signifies feminism’s ideal. In the moment of her declarationshe is asserting her right to participation; she is making her voiceheard. And that is important to feminism, no?

At the same time, she very likely has a point. True, she is makingher voice heard, but she might also be concerned that her voice will beover-heard, in the sense that it will become overdetermined in itsassociation with a discourse with which she is uncomfortable, or evenconcerned that her voice might be appropriated by that discourse. And Itotally 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 ita 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 andsay as specifically feminist, even though for years I have beenteaching classes on women and power, come from a family of powerful,”I’ll shoot your damn balls off if you cross me” women, and havegenerally held as gospel the notion that women are equal to (or betterthan most) men. But, to me, that wasn’t feminism; that was just who Iam. Sometimes I would call it womanism.

Backlash, or some bad PR for feminism

acmi, Illie, age 9Bornafter ERA, the vision of “feminism” I grew up included unshaven legs,really bad fashion sense, and an “irrational” and mean-spirited hatredof men. I believed this even as, on the level of rights and the kindsof identities access to rights make possible, I had been afforded everyopportunity feminism had made possible. And these opportunities werefurther 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 couldtoday offer sophisticated critiques of each, I know that, in itsmoment, each film impacted my nascent womanself in positive ways. Theycontributed to a sense of self that I have absolutely been allowed totake for granted.

But, again: I have a sneaking suspicion that if you were to ask anyof the film’s protagonists if they are feminists, the answer wouldlikely be “no.” For in their cultural moments– the late eighties intothe late nineties– feminism did not mean “sisterhood,” or black, orany of the themes such films identify and celebrate. Now that I have alittle bit more perspective on that era, however, I think that we canread this disjuncture between act (being a powerful woman) and itsdescription (not feminism) as symptomatic of a wide-scale conspiracy toundercut the advancements made by women in the seventies.

Okay, maybe not. But I do see two things happening to feminism atonce. The first involves feminism falling victim to a kind of backlashgrounded in mainstream anxieties around the social transformations theseventies signified (we also see this in media representations of racein the same era). The second is a matter of feminism suffering from itsfailure to adequately recognize its own implication and participationin other kinds of social oppression, particularly vis–vis race andclass. Feminism’s inability to broaden its recognition of women’sstruggles forced the movement to close ranks around female differenceas its signature difference. I don’t blame the backlash on feminism,but this enclosure likely contributed to its reputation as a limitedmovement set against a limited term, men– and not as a vital socialmovement with concerns against a broader term, patriarchy. In thepopular imagination, feminism isn’t against “oppression”; feminism isagainst men.

The problem of difference

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

I remember sitting in a woman studies class as an undergrad, theonly black student there, and it being announced that “everythingMarisa says is very, very special” (wait: it is!). I remember takinganother such class in graduate school, again the only black student.After gritting my teeth through a semester of smiling, whitematriarchy, I received a B+, my only, and was told that they (it wasteam taught) were “disappointed” that, after a “stunning” presentationon race and bell hooks, I left “that line of inquiry” behind to dosomething “more unexpected but too classical” (a paper on gender andjustice in The Oresteia). The kicker, of course, is that not only had Ibeen judged for not performing as expected viz. race, but I had neverdone a presentation on bell hooks. That was my friend Mike, and he iswhite!

Needless to say, I declared myself done with feminism.Now, quite a few years later, I am back in the fold, but only because Ihave 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. “Soprobably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agreewith a large portion of it,” she said. “I wouldn’t identify as afeminist just like I probably wouldn’t identify as a liberal or aprogressive.”

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Likemany of my female students, powerful and thinking hard about theirfutures, Michelle Obama here reduces feminism to a label. For much asmany 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 downfor women’s rights, but also trying to dissociate from any perceivednegative affiliation. Her response offers yet another way of thinkingabout why a class filled with women– poster children for feminism andits achievements– shun the term. “Feminism,” it seems, has becometainted, resonating more as an -ism and less as a way of naming women’sright to make choices for themselves, a right that has been hard wonand 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 diplomacyputs 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 anuphill battle, a battle to nevertheless hold the trust of other womenof color and also to set forth the terms through which I would like tobe recognized by white feminism. I am still uncomfortable. But I havecome to believe that this is a battle worth fighting, for the costs ofnot making connections across gender, race, and class are too high, andwill likely be borne on the backs of the very women kept at a distancefrom 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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