Feminism: Embracing the Contradictions

I never intended to be a feminist. As a kid, I assumed the big battles for equality had all been won, leaving us to achieve world peace and move on to something more interesting. I knew feminism was out there, but I was more inclined to call myself a humanist. After all, I wanted to cultivate peace and equality, not to participate in a crusade that might hurt someone.

The problem arose sometime in high school, when I realized that the baseline condition of the world I lived in was not
equality. Claiming neutrality tends to have the unfortunate side effect of
reinforcing existing problems, so I started getting more specific. I could call
myself a humanist all I wanted, but it was only by practicing feminism, using
it as a method for addressing sexism, that I’d be able to do anything. 

In her 1984 book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell
hooks suggests the phrase “I advocate feminism” rather than “I am a feminist,”
a rephrasing that helps me think about feminism as part of
my functional toolkit for navigating the world rather than as an abstract
identity marker. Of course, calling myself a feminist is also important:
I’m able to link my concerns to others’ experiences, so adopting the label adds active meaning to the way I live my life and the kinds of conversations I have
with my friends.

In this context, I’ve found that
feminism, far from subsuming me into an abstract, partisan political movement,
has turned into something I shape even as it shapes me. Rather than assuming
that the broadening scope and appeal of feminism mean that feminism has lost its
relevance or power, I think its impetus toward intersectionality has strengthened the movement. What makes inclusive 21st century feminism compelling to me—and also incredibly challenging—is that it involves constantly opening
myself up to new perspectives in the hope that, whether other people’s
experiences align with mine or not, I can figure out how they resonate
with me.

The thing about social change is that
it requires the nuance of multiple perspectives. It’s important to
keep different and even conflicting experiences represented in any movement, otherwise you
end up with something like the horrifyingly one-dimensional “Same Love” ally
posturing of the 2014 mainstream gay rights movement. 

Camille Goering PO ’16
pointed out last week in her column “It’s Time to Get Men in the Game” that today, “adopting feminism means both celebrating the beauty of
one’s body as well as the right to modify and distort it, defending both the
bikini and the hijab, condemning the objectification of women’s bodies yet
celebrating our right to expose ourselves without shame or self-restraint.” 

While I
appreciate the acute difficulty of supporting totally opposite actions with one
philosophy, I’m also convinced that the initial confusion and challenge in
supporting conflicting practices is a strength rather than a weakness of the
feminist movement. Rather than wondering why nobody has published
a Thought Catalog-esque set of bullet points saying what modern feminism is and
isn’t, we get to consider that maybe the movement is interesting, valid, and
effective precisely because it defies convenient categorization.

My preteen self hadn’t been ready for all the baggage that came with being a feminist. Now I’m
confident I’ve made the right decision in choosing to practice feminism rather
than humanism and hoping for the best. So far, intersectional feminism
has been the best weapon of self-defense I could have asked for, and I’m proud to claim it as my own. Actively pushing back against
people who think I deserve less because of my gender, the way I dress, the
people I date, or the physical and mental illnesses I’ve struggled with has kept me safe, healthy, and strong. Furthermore,
feminism has brought people and experiences into my life that make it more
wonderful and fulfilling, and I’ve learned how I can practice better activism for issues that don’t directly affect me.

Maybe I ended up becoming a humanist after all,
but it was only by picking a side and choosing to practice a more provocative
ideology that I got here. Neutrality doesn’t cut it. My feminism is all-encompassing. My feminism
has teeth. What about yours?

Julia Austenfeld PO ’15 is a music major from Fribourg, Switzerland and Raleigh, NC.

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