Why I’m Not A Feminist (& It’s Okay If You Are)
The thing about having a kid in crew is that you spend A LOT of time standing around at regattas while your kid is doing nothing worth watching. Rigging boats, loading and unloading boats, de-rigging boats, cleaning boats. Which means you spend a lot of time talking to other parents. Sometimes that really sucks, which is why I usually bring a book. Very rarely, it’s awesome. Like when a brilliant woman you don’t know engages in hours of conversation about meaty subjects, and doesn’t shut down when you say something that makes her hair stand on end and clearly hits her in her core.
Like when you say, “I’m not a feminist.” And mean it.
I’m used to this reaction – shock, then horror, then anger, then the insistence that if I just REALLY understood feminism, I would call myself a feminist. What I’m not accustomed to is the open exploration this allowed, with defenses down, that actually helped me clarify my reasons for not calling myself a feminist.
I’m going to call the woman Catherine, because it’s my middle name, and although I feel a kinship with the name, I do not identify myself that way, so it seems appropriate.
Catherine and I had both heard all the arguments before…
She felt that by not calling myself a feminist I was somehow not acknowledging the accomplishments of the feminists before me who fought for my rights. That could not be further from the truth.
My right to NOT call myself a feminist was fought for and won by countless people before me who have identified themselves as such. They fought for my rights as a woman in a time when, historically, women had no rights. I am very clear that my rights were fought for, and I am grateful for them.
In my mind, appreciating and using the power given me by the feminists before me is not that different from using the power given me by scientists who unpacked the mysteries of nutrition, health and fitness. I am not a nutritionist, but because of the work they have done, I am able to make decisions that profoundly impact the health and well-being of myself and my loved-ones. Further, I live by example and try very hard to help others see how making different decisions might improve their lives as well. I am a living example of the power of their work. And I don’t need to be called a nutritionist to validate their efforts. I simply have to be strong, healthy, autonomous, make good decisions that others can observe and benefit from. It is a lifestyle, not a label.
So too with feminism. I celebrate they work that was done to get us here. I promote the ideas, the people, the freedom that I have as a woman to decide how I live. This also is a lifestyle, not a label.
Indeed, the fight for freedom has, as is almost always the case, left camps quite divided. Not over whether or not the rights won were deserved, but about what it means for everyone “else.” And it is that “else” that gives me pause. I don’t think there can or should be an “else.”
But many people feel that when anyone demands attention for the rights of one group of people, it will threaten others. As if human rights are a zero sum game. They are not, and I’ll get back to that idea in a bit. But the stirrings of my dissent from the word – not the ideals – for me start there.
Because I have the luxury of freedom that was fought for me, I do not want to squander it letting anyone else feel that their freedoms are at risk. I will, because I can, stand strong that, as many feminists say, women’s rights are human rights. As such, I simply stand at the tail end of that sentiment. I stand with human rights. Mine, yours and theirs.
Catherine had heard this before, of course. And she didn’t like it any more, out in the sun on the banks of a lollygagging river, any more than any other time she had heard it. It was as if I had told her that I simply did not believe the ideas in her holy book, and I thought she was wrong.
But that’s not it.
I stand there because that is, I believe, the core issue. And until we understand that we cannot deny any human their basic rights, for any reason, we have not come far enough. Because of the work of feminists before me, we have women running countries and companies and communities. I believe that we owe it to ourselves, and everyone else, to take this movement to the next level, rather than sticking with the original battle we had to fight. Or the original doctrines we used to do so.
By the time I came of age, found my voice and my power, feminism seemed like a very focused, very scripted, very old set of ideas that people were clinging to and using as a label – a seal of approval – more than as a fluid set of ideas to apply to an ever-changing set of obstacles we face.
Either you were or you weren’t a feminist. If you were, these were the things you had to say, do and believe. If you weren’t you were the enemy. She asked, as many have, who I was referring to when I said that. And I answered, as I always have, that it is a sense I have. That in watching many of the battles waged by feminists, I sensed some hypocrisy, blame, and anger as they fought for “their position,” unable to look further out from their own perspective that THIS is what freedom and strength looks like. Whatever THIS is. It didn’t resonate for me. It wasn’t how I felt and I didn’t want to pretend otherwise.
It felt like a religion to me. One that I couldn’t just take part in without question. It felt like it required me to give up my “self” in order to be one of “them.”
I can’t put my finger on it much more than that, but I do know that it is a feeling that many people I know, both men and women share. It is a feeling that shuts people down, rather than opening them up and inviting them in.
She assured me, as others before her have, that feminism is a big tent. There is room for everyone under it.
I wanted to believe her, as I always have. But I simply have had too many experiences to the contrary. Times when I have spoken my mind, or friends of mine have spoken their mind, and gotten a feminist tongue-lashing, in some cases very publicly.
The most current and public example I could come up with was when my friend Hugo was the subject of vile and violent feminist vitriol when he wrote about details from his past, which included a violent and drug-fueled relationship with a woman. Hugo has been, for years, one of the most outspoken feminists I know. He has a brutal past, which left him wise beyond his years and well beyond the narrow perspective of a privileged white male. His story is one that COULD have been looked at as a cautionary tale about mental-health, addiction, learning, growing and embracing higher meaning. Instead, the feminist blogosphere called for the removal of his writing from a number of sites, and that the title of feminist be stripped from him.
The irony was that it was Hugo, a privileged white male with a history of drugs and violence, who came closest to making me comfortable with the moniker of “feminist.” I thought, “if there’s room for him, there’s room for me.”
When it turned out that there was NOT room for him, it was clear that there is not room for me. Or if there was, it was not space that I wanted to occupy. I do not, EVER, want to side with the angry people who ostracize others while turning a blind eye to their accomplishments and their humanity. I won’t do it. (It is not lost on me that Hugo will probably be the first person to chime in and tell me I am wrong, and that I should be a feminist.)
So as Catherine tells me that it’s a big tent, I am not sure that I believe her. But even if it is, it is not an inviting one.
And besides, how big would that tent have to be? In order for it to accomplish anything, it would have to openly invite everyone on this planet. In which case, erecting a tent is pointless. One doesn’t need a tent to protect us from the world we want to change, we need a world that can openly and freely spread and germinate our ideas.
Do we need a tent simply so that someone can say they built it? And claim membership under it? So that we can keep people out? How does that work?
I’m just too lazy, I tell Catherine. I’m lazy in that I don’t want to learn the rules, apply for membership, do everything right. But it’s much more than that.
I think that spreading these ideas is the most vital task that any of us have – whether we call ourselves feminists or not. And the simple truth is that her magical tent is not big enough to hold everyone, and not everyone wants to be under it.
I don’t want to be a messiah, I want to be a missionary. I want to work with the non-believers, in quiet and subtle ways.
Because, like it or not, for a lot of people, the word “feminist” has a really negative implication that causes them to put their defenses up. Once their defenses are up, it takes A LOT of work to get them down. To convince people that you’re not angry at them, you’re not out to hurt them or deny them their rights. That even though they have perceived a threat, there is not really any threat at all.
The word, just the word, has become something alarming. So why would I use it if I know it’s going to make my job harder? Maybe it’s sneaky and duplicitous, but if I can do the same work, achieve the same goals and open more minds without using the word, that’s what I’m going to do. If “denying my feminist roots” helps me achieve the feminist agenda, I’m totally willing to do that.
The point that Catherine then made is the one that took me the longest to digest, and ultimately refute, for myself. Circling back to the idea that feminism has become a religion, filled with dogma and also misconceptions, she asked if people had both a right and a responsibility to declare their religion in order to help eliminate misconceptions. Indeed, if the Westborough Baptist Church and Rick Santorum have made a horrifying mockery of Christianity, don’t all the “good” Christians out there have a responsibility to stand up and defend the ideals they hold true – to defend them against the dogma?
That one hit hard. She is, in so many ways, absolutely right. Maybe what the feminist movement needs is a wider variety of people to stand up and identify themselves as feminists. To say that there is room for me and Hugo and strippers and housewives and men and all the other people who feel they have been marginalized by the movement. Maybe it is people like me who are the problem.
And then I remembered a conversation I often had with a friend of mine who is a minister. He used to jokingly call me the best Christian he knows. And I would always remind him that I do not believe in Christ or organized religion in any way shape or form. But that I do what I do simply because it is right. It is right to be honest, compassionate, generous, helpful and to serve others as I would serve myself.
“You’re a good Christian,” he would always reply. “I am a good human,” I would always respond.
It was always friendly, but I always stood my ground. Because being good is not an idea that belongs to Christians alone. The idea of being good is larger than any religion. It predates Christ and organized churches. Each and every human on this planet has an obligation to treat the planet, and every creature on it, with respect. Not because a church told you to, but because it is the right thing to do.
I am not Christian. I am not a feminist.
This is not a land grab in which the victor claims the moral high-ground. No one group needs to hold the title of “protector of all that is good.” The need to take credit for the behavior others – whether in a congratulatory or a coercive manner – is precisely the thing that starts wars. It is why many of the world’s religions, which have many of the same values, fight with each other. It is why our political parties war with each other for victory rather than serving the needs of the people – which are damned close to universal. They all want the biggest tent, with the most people who they can call their own. My way or the highway.
I choose my way. And the high road.
Yes, it’s okay if you call yourself a feminist, a Christian, a Jew or anything else. You have that right. If you feel that it gives you strength and support to work tirelessly for human justice, then you do it. I will support you, because you are human, and I believe our goals are the same. No matter what we call ourselves.
But I can’t do it. I don’t identify that way. I identify as human more than I identify as a woman, or even an American. And thanks to freedom fighters who came before me, I have the right to say that.
If you are fighting for human rights, I am with you. If you are fighting for women’s rights, then I am with you. Because they are human rights.
I am not a feminist, I am a humanist. I believe in human rights, for all humans. I will fight for women’s rights, because women are humans. I will fight for gay rights, because gay people are humans. I will fight for children’s rights, because children are humans. I will fight for the rights of any race, religion, creed, sexual orientation or age, because they are all human. You get the picture.
I may not have a big tent, but I have a whole lot of humans to work for. And with. No matter what we call ourselves.