A social theory or political movement supporting the equality of both sexes in all aspects of public and private life; specifically, a theory or movement that argues that legal and social restrictions on females must be removed in order to bring about such equality.
I believe wholeheartedly in the equality of the sexes and the need to advocate for the removal of legal and social barriers to that equality. If you want to know if I support feminist ideology, then the answer is a resounding YES.
But if you ask me about the feminist movement, then I am considerably more ambivalent. My blogsister Renee's recent post on the Guardian's Comment is Free site struck a chord with me:
I'm not a feminist (and there is no but), because my life experiences lead me to believe that feminism was not created for women like me. The name of the first feminist hero mentioned by my professor in my first women's study lecture was Simone de Beauvoir, and the trend of focusing on white women would continue throughout my education. Inclusivity to the women's studies department that I was a part of meant using the work of bell hooks occasionally. However, she quickly became an additive, thrown in to give the appearance of intersectionality. I would have to scour the library and online journals to learn names like Patricia-Hill Collins, Audre Lorde and the woman who would become my inspiration, Alice Walker. And so I followed indexes and bibliographies, desperate to read journeys that mirrored my own.
I sat in seminars where I became the "token black woman" when they deemed it necessary to actually consider something outside of the white woman as monolithic representative. Despite feminism supposedly being a movement to end women's oppression, women's studies seminars and lectures are where I learned to recite "Ain't I a Woman" out loud to protest the assumptions about my race and my culture. It is where I learned that the sisterhood and camaraderie lasts only as long as you don't insist on interrogating oppression from multiple sites. Read more...
It was during the 2008 presidential election (Read here and here and here) that I decided to throw off the "feminist" label and instead call myself a "womanist." There is something particularly crushing to the spirit about discovering that those you thought were working alongside you for your mutual liberation, really are not so interested in your freedom, especially if it requires an examination of their own privilege and role as an oppressor. As a collective movement, feminism still has not adequately embraced intersection--the ways that oppressions like sexism and racism overlap. Oh, the movement has come along way since the "second wave," but better doesn't mean that feminist spaces are generally affirming and welcoming and understanding of women of color.
Lest anyone misunderstand, this isn't a white woman problem. This is a privilege problem and a kyriarchy problem. Because I could make some of the very same criticisms about the civil rights movement and black women's place in it.
I think that black women should ally with broader movements for gender and racial equality. There is strength in numbers. But it is abundantly clear that we also need our own spaces and movements--otherwise, who is going to advocate for our needs? And where can we go where we don't have to suffer the dull aches of either racism or sexism?
Renee weighed in on the feminist blogosphere--the one feminist space that many GenX and GenY are exposed to every day:
Today, feminism has moved out of the academy. The conversations that occur in the feminist blogosphere serve as modern-day consciousness raising sessions, as they formulate new theory and supposedly make room for voices that have previously been silenced. The internet has been constructed as the great equaliser, yet blogs which are largely run by white women like Feministe, Feministing, Pandagon and Bitch PhD dominate the blogosphere, thus replicating the very same hierarchy that academia has been perpetuating for a very long time.
Many black women I know have a love/hate relationship with the big, feminist blogs. I am a regular reader of several. The blogs host some wonderful writers, including writers of color, and possess the resources to tackle a variety of feminist issues. And the feminist blogs that I read do work to address intersection. But invariably an issue will arise where sexism intersects with race and the comments section becomes a morass of privilege and race bias, toxic to women of color. Too often, a handful of readers of color are left to defend themselves against a majority intent on silencing them. Indeed, check out some of the reaction to Renee's post--sort of proves her point.
What would a safe online/offline feminist space look like? For me:
- It would possess a leadership/editors well-versed in privilege and intersecting oppressions and dedicated to educating its membership/readership about intersection.
- It would have cultivated a membership/readership well-versed in privilege and intersecting oppressions. In my experience, it is often a feminist site's readership, not its editors and writers, that make it hostile to WOC.
- It would proactively seek to showcase a diverse group of voices (not just racially diverse)
- It would have a well-moderated comments section with active participation by editors. Marginalized readers should not be left to fend for themselves in a hostile thread.
[One blog that I think does the above very well, BTW, is Shakesville.]
A few of the tactics above are not so easily employed. For example, it is hard to dictate who your readership is and where they are in understanding oppression and privilege. And few bloggers, myself included, would turn away readers simply because they still have some learning to do. And so, for WOC who read the big, feminist blogs, there will always be those days and those conversations that leave us feeling alienated and frustrated. For the forseeable future, we're going to need our own spaces, our own safe havens to talk about gender and race. I've had to duck out of some other blogs that I love, like Ta-Nehisi Coates' spot at The Atlantic, when discussions of race seemed to lack a gender politic.
Womanism is meant to be a safe space for black women. We can be prefer the womanist movement, while still embracing feminist ideology and allying with the feminist movement.
I'm not sure that the womanist label fits me comfortably yet. I have chosen to drop the labels all together. If you ask, I am pro-gender equality...and racial equality. I am anti-oppression. I believe in justice for ALL. And I think the way to get there may be through mini-movements, as much as big movements.