Once someone accused me of thinking I was a better feminist than her because I don’t shave my legs. I stared at her for 15 straight minutes trying to figure out what the hell a better feminist is. Like, maybe there was some new agency I didn’t know about, sending people out to keep track of our fem-points. “You don’t shave your body hair, but you do wear eyeliner soooooo…think about your choices, that’s all I’m saying.” “You watched an interview with Simone de Beauvoir, but you also laughed at that joke in Knocked Up that time so step up your game, I mean, really.”
Easier, it seems, than deciding where one falls on the good-bad feminist spectrum is simply denouncing feminism altogether. When I was 20, I told someone — a man — that I wasn’t a feminist because “feminists believe in women over men.” It’d be hilarious to reflect on if it weren’t so goddamn lazy and misinformed.
I have a lot of female friends who tell me they aren’t feminists. And I’m like, oh. Wait, really? That’s suuuper weird because literally everything you do in each day of your life is either a direct result of the work of feminists or is in itself a feminist act, and usually both.
When you wanted to go to college, did it feel pretty good to believe it was your unquestioned right to do so? And how about getting out of the house today to drive yourself to work in a field you chose, at a job you care about? Or, alternately, staying at home today to be a mother to your children not because you believed you had no other choice, but because you truly wanted to? And oh hey, how about, ya know, *not* being pregnant every month for the past decade or so because of that birth control you have legal and affordable access to? And then when you did decide to get pregnant, did you enjoy not being fired from your job because of it, or was that something you could just sort of take or leave?
And while of course I sound here like I’m being snarky and condescending, my point is not that these feminist-resistant women are stupid or somehow inferior. No, my point is that the power of the patriarchy is monstrous. It causes women who are otherwise intelligent, women who are utterly self-possessed — women who are, yes, feminists — to want to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the ideology that says, “You are valuable and equal and worth more than what you’re living right now.”
Many women suspect that if they identify with this movement that has lifted them up, they will lose some deeply-felt security and acceptance, and that they will have to fight even harder to be heard and taken seriously. They’re already accused of being overly-emotional, why would they willingly take up the stereotyped mantle of angry feminazi, too? They’re already called sluts and whores, why would they ever dream of publicly admitting to their sexual desire and demanding its safe expression? They’re already talked over in the boardroom, why would they further destabilize their position in the patriarchy with an admittance of feminism?
Women fear things like this will happen and they’re right. Things like that do happen. But feminism in this era, in this country, is not a choice the way that many think it is. I daresay that every last woman in this nation — barring, perhaps, extreme cases of religion or culture — is living a feminist life. When you put on a pair of pants and a tank top, the work of feminists is implied. When you believe you deserve to be considered for a job you are qualified for, feminism is inherent. When you say that you don’t need feminism because you like men like Christian Grey, you are claiming your sexuality and making choices about your preferences, which is radically feminist behavior.
So while feminist living is not a choice, openly identifying with feminism (or not) is and either option comes with its costs. Claiming feminism means you will be mocked, mercilessly, by men and women, and experience push-back after push-back until either cram yourself into the smallest corner you can find or decide you better strengthen your spine. It means you will have to hear your heart break more times than you believed you could ever bear as you educate yourself about the seemingly-endless gender injustices in this world of ours and feel deeply into the collective feminine wound.
It means you will have to finally admit to yourself all those things you already knew were true but didn’t want to believe. It means you will have to face and feel all those times you were treated less-than-human that you tried to laugh off or dismiss as harmless or just the way things are. It means you will have to wake the fuck up.
Denouncing feminism, on the other hand, means you get to remain a part of the old boys’ club. It means you get to hold onto your place of psychic safety and that you can still be lauded as the cool girl and you will still be patted on the head when you scoff at the women who call themselves feminists.
But it also means that you have to swallow a steaming mountain of poison each day. It means you have to do things like pretend you don’t mind when your sexual partner orgasms every time and you don’t, and each time he rolls over and does nothing to make certain you are just as satisfied as he is, or even to acknowledge the situation at all. It means you get used to the fact that you start feelings less like you’re participating in the mutually-created act of sex and more like someone is masturbating into you. It means you must believe that your pleasure and fulfillment are of no value.
It means you must tell yourself you are overreacting if you’re bothered when your co-worker finds a way to touch you at least once each day, and starts making a habit of noticing every time you have to go to the walk-in freezer in the back, and then starts following you in there and standing between you and the door he’s closed behind him.
It means you have to call other women sluts and say things like, “she was asking for it,” and then live in fear that other women are saying those things about you when you’re not there. It means you must believe you have absolutely no worth if you don’t look a certain way. It means you must alienate yourself from those who wish to reach a hand to you.
It means you must subscribe to the idea that there is one right way to be a woman, and everything else is a death sentence.
So yes, claiming feminism is hard. Your heart will stretch until you think it might snap. But I promise, I know from experience, that trying to swallow the patriarchy is harder. It is too weighty and too big, and the edges are jagged. They scrape on the way down, and the worst part is that the bleeding happens on the inside, not the outside.