Feminist ‘click’ moment: Not admitting to being feminist

The moment I realized I was a feminist was peculiar — it actually came from me not admitting to being a feminist. I was a sophomore in college, and it was the first day of the second women’s studies class I’d ever taken, and I was excited to see what the class had to offer. I had loved the intro level class and how it had introduced me to this thing — feminism — that helped me understand and interpret the world so much better, through a perspective that I could identify with and that was critical and thought-provoking.

But when my professor of that second women’s studies class asked the feminists in the room to raise their hands, I didn’t raise my hand. In fact, I don’t think anyone did. No one, myself included, wanted to be associated with the word “feminist” — this was entirely the point of the exercise of course, because then we all got the “thank a feminist” worksheet that detailed all the progress feminists have made for women. Then, everyone raises their hands when the professor asked again who was a feminist.

This was the “click” moment for me. Here was a movement that I was fascinated by, that I agreed with, yet that I couldn’t publicly support without seeing other hands beside me proclaiming their support, too. It clicked that the reluctance to be vocal and open about my own feminism was a symptom of everything feminism tries to change; my feeling uncomfortable identifying as “feminist,” my being submissive and not wanting to be the assertive one in class taking a stand, my lack of independence — these were all symptoms of a society that had taught me throughout my life to be quiet and agreeable, not questioning of the status quo.

That day I thought to myself, I am never going reject the label of “feminist” again. It has a stigma, that if you’re a feminist you must be angry, or a bitch, or a lesbian, or some combination of insults that are hurled at women to challenge their socially-constructed femininity, but it’s a label I’m not going to shun simply because of what other people might think. That day, it “clicked” that the stigma around feminism is so strong that even women who believe in its ideals and goals sat silently, refusing to take the label. Most of the people in that class were intelligent, strong, and vocal feminists — but when asked point blank to admit it, initially everyone hesitated.

So I suppose my “click” is also an “anti-click” because I think what led me to realize that I was a feminist is the same thing that prevents other women from identifying with the movement, too. For me, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t felt confident enough to, without hesitation or looking around the room, raise my hand — and I know countless other women feel that same way. They don’t like being catcalled; they don’t like being afraid to walk alone at night; they don’t like feeling like they need to fit a certain beauty standard; they don’t like their reproductive rights being decided by a bunch of old, white men. It was this hesitation that to me was like a quintessential example of oppression — women feeling like they can’t even openly support equality of opportunity because they feared society’s backlash.

The movement isn’t perfect by any means — far too often the perspective of the heterosexual, white woman takes center stage and other perspectives and problems aren’t heard enough. Lately I’ve seen an uncomfortable amount of feminist in-fighting — feminists telling other feminists they aren’t true feminists because they wear make-up, have children, stay at home, get married, shave their legs, etc. And the feminist judges act as if these “offending” feminists need to be re-certified or OKed as feminists by their peers in order to stay in the club — it’s disheartening to see women pointing out the flaws in other women because they don’t fit a certain “feminist” mold … who exactly decides what the mold is?

So that’s both how I came to identify as a feminist and a few general problems I’ve had with the movement lately. It seems like I have a thousand more stories to tell regarding how I came to better understand and identify with feminism and other feminists, but the crucial moment was when I was faced with admitting to being a feminist.

For more “click” and “anti-click” moments, visit the Feminist Portrait Project Blog Carnival (at Bitch)

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2 Responses to “Feminist ‘click’ moment: Not admitting to being feminist”

  1. Sungold Says:

    Great story – and one I’ll keep in mind while I’m teaching! I know that your initial way of thinking is widespread. Give yourself a few more years, and you’ll probably feel more sympathetic to your younger self, not because that self was right, but because she was still so very young. Teaching and writing about any sort of social justice issues is like planting a seed. That may sound like a cliche, and yet I don’t know of any better metaphor. Sometimes the seed sprouts readily, like a tomato. More often, it’s a redbud seed that needs to be eaten by a bird and come out the other side before it can germinate. (Hmm, maybe we should have stuck with the simple cliche? But again, it’s true.)

    As for why women don’t identify with feminism – there’s a whole ‘nother category of folks who reject it because it has not adequately addressed their situation in terms of various intersecting oppressions. I’m very sympathetic to those positions. Ideally, I’d like to see people try to expand feminism from within rather than reject it entirely, but that’s also got to be each individual’s decision.

    I hope all is going well in your life, Cathy!

    • cathyjwilson Says:

      Thanks! I see the same hesitation in the environmental movement too — most people would agree that clean air is important, that clean water is important, that safe living environments are important — but then when asked if they were an environmentalist, I’m sure many would hesitate to say “yes” because of the stereotypes associated with “environmentalist.” Maybe it’s because -ist has a radical connotation, and they don’t think you can be an -ist unless your views are extreme and radical?

      Life is good, and I hope you’re doing well, too!

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