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When I say I’m a feminist…
I see the blank, awkward looks. Toes scuffing the dirt; you shuffle your weight and stare at your shoes. Perhaps, you sip your latte/soda/water and wish the awkward pause away. But the F-word hangs in the air like smoke from a Pall Mall cigarette. Neither you nor I can escape it, and I don’t want to. It’s who I have become, who I was, who I’m constructing myself to be.
Every time, I label myself with the F-word; I see the gap between us open wide like a moon crater. Maybe, you will change the subject. Something comfortable like the weather or politics or faith. Something to move away from this label because we’ve weighed it down with images of bra burners, men haters, radicals. And I don’t fit that description.
So when I call myself a feminist, you’re never sure what to say or do. The word carries such a burden, but what great “isms” don’t? Somehow, we have this metaphorical dance of awkward pauses and gaps, but what we really need is to sit down and listen to what I mean when I say I’m a feminist.
When I say I’m a feminist…
I want you to see the little girl struggling to unify that Jesus loves everyone equally, but only men can preach and teach. The important church things. Women just take turns in the nursery. There’s a “natural” trajectory for a little girl’s life–grow-up, marriage, babies. The same for all little girls, doesn’t matter if they want to do something else or worse still don’t even want babies or marriage. It becomes hard to reconcile such a Creator who gives us all talents and gifts, but expects the same life plan for half the population. I struggled as a teenager to overcome my body and hide it at the same time. Too much knee, too much neckline, I cause others to sin because I have breasts and hips and a body that refuses to look good in ankle length skirts.
I want you to see college girl who learned early to shut up, be quiet, your voice is worthless. For the first time, an English professor with red curls and ice blue eyes tells me that my voice, my agency matter. She takes me under her wing and allows me to spend hours talking about poetry and novels and writing in her office provided I overlook the piles of ungraded papers. She listens and treats me as an equal. When she labels herself a feminist, I do too. A bit of a bandwagon conversion, but if feminism allows me to speak up for myself, for others, then I want in too.
I want you to see the graduate student. Far removed from her childhood faith, diving into theory and literature, breathing in the intellectual discourse like oxygen. Christianity and church fade into Derrida, Foucault, then bell hooks, Elizabeth Flynn, and Adrienne Rich. All of my professors treated my words as important and worth listening to. When I wasn’t treated as an equal outside of academia, I could find solace within its graduate seminars.With each course, I began hearing the cries of my feminist foremothers begging for me to speak, to use my agency, to rail against hegemony. In this time, feminism reconstructed my tarnished and battered view of being a woman, how a woman relates to the domestic and public spheres, how woman lives in the tension of place and purpose. Slowly, as feminism taught me my worth as a human, not just as a woman, I found my way back to the faith that I threw off so haphazardly.
When I say I’m a feminist…
(Maybe, I should have begun with this caveat. This is my practical vision of feminism rooted in the theories of bell hooks, Judith Butler, Elizabeth Flynn, and Gaytari Spivak. I understand that feminism is far from a perfect ideology, but if we can accept the messy and brokeness of the church, I think we can accept feminism’s incongruence as well.)
No one definition embraces its full scope. No one woman embodies its full vision. No set of words capture it—no matter how raw, graceful, or elegant. It does not exist in unified form; yet, it serves to unify the silenced, the abused, the First World, the Third World, the lesbian, the housewife, the academic, the high school drop out, the faith-filled, the agnostic. Underneath its wings, women grow stronger, more self-aware. They find voices to speak back to power and hegemonic authority. They find the strength to push against the wall of patriarchy and its abuses. Couched in all of its ideological weight rests Feminism. Loved and shunned. Embraced and rejected—Feminism.
Refusing to be hemmed into a succinct definition, feminism’s history is a piece quilt of the women who embrace it and who shun it. We feminists revel in the glory of suffrage. Our fledging step onto the stage of the public sphere. We take pride in those women who broke through the gender role barrier during the 1960’s. Those women who sought for gender equality give us hope. We celebrate the women who forced academia to consider gender differences in learning, to rewrite the literary canon so women writers could take a seat, to allow more women to showcase their intellectual triumphs.
Yes, these are wonderful depictions of feminism, but they don’t fully show the daily tension that I live within. I’m always already in a place of power and being othered. As a white, heterosexual female, I live with the tension of privilege and power in one hand, but the experience of being silenced in the other. It is not an easy tension to negotiate or to make into some semblance of an ordered theoretical framework. Quite frankly, I feel like my understanding of feminism looks like a patchwork quilt with crazy blue and red and green and purple squares. If you’re hoping that I would definitively explicate the theory of feminism and its truest meaning, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. But this is how I frame my feminism, this is what I want you to hear.
When I say I’m a feminist…
I embrace the experience of being a woman. Not limited to gender roles, but neither excluding those women who choose to stay within society’s prescriptive mandates. A woman has the right to choose her path without fear of scorn for her choice.
I embrace the grand meta-narrative of humanity. Both female and male voices speaking together without clamoring over one another. A beautiful dialogue of harmony, peace, and love.
I embrace the mystery of faith. A faith grounded in love. A faith rooted in the ideology that we speak up for the poor, the widow, the orphan.
I embrace ethical living. My lifestyle should never inflict suffering on others within my immediate community, my home nation, or the world.