Last week, Feministing blogger Chloe Angyal penned a piece for the Guardian laying out her answer to the question, "Why don't young women identify as feminist?" Renee Martin of Womanist Musings wrote in the same publication a response explaining why she, as a woman of color, rejects the label "feminist" in favor of "womanist." Jezebel then issued the equivalent of a "but we have black friends" response... and we in the feminist/womanist/gender justice blogosphere drew our battle lines and started clawing at each other. Here is my entry into the fray -- an examination of my conscious choice to identify as feminist in the reproductive justice movement.
If you asked me to describe myself in one word that word would, without a doubt, be FEMINIST -- in all caps, and bold. It's in the odd job title I use -- itinerant feminist organizer -- to describe what I do as I travel across the country to help young people organize campaigns for reproductive justice. Feminism is what I think about, write about, speak about all the time -- some of my friends might say I'm a bit obsessed.
This unequivocal identification with the F-word is without a doubt a generalized manifestation of my privilege - white, middle-class, cisgender women have never been locked out of and have historically and currently control mainstream feminism. Unlike many other women, the feminist movement as I know it has enveloped me with warm arms and encouraged me to explore, challenge, and expand who I am and what I believe about the world.
It's with the understanding that feminist is not a safe, happy, or useful word for all people -- not despite it -- that I choose to use it to describe myself and my work. I believe this choice comes with responsibilities, all of which I try to meet and all of which I fail to at one time or another. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
I have a responsibility to know and accept that my identification with and ability to use the word feminist is in large part because of my privilege. I have a responsibility to own, examine and be transparent about my multiple privileged identities and how they impact the work I do.
I have a responsibility to reexamine these privileges and their effects often. I have a responsibility to disallow these examinations from devolving into counter-productive and self-indulgent "privilege guilt" or serving as an excuse to stop working, learning, and making inevitable mistakes.
I have a responsibility to understand and acknowledge the feminist movement's and the word feminist' history and present, warts and all. This means both accepting and refusing to defend the fact that racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism have been employed in the movement since it's inception to marginalize, tokenize, silence and otherwise oppress women who are not white, cisgender, wealthy, heterosexual and/or able-bodied.
I have a responsibility to acknowledge this silencing was and is sometimes perpetrated by some of my most beloved heroines and figure out how to interpret their work and words without either dismissing them outright or glossing over their transgressions.
I have a responsibility to fill in the gaps in my education by seeking out the words and works of women whose lived experiences are not represented in the mainstream narrative. I have a responsibility to do this myself, without imposing my ignorance and privilege on marginalized persons by asking them to educate me.
I have a responsibility to know that my very presence in some spaces makes that space unsafe for others and, since it would undoubtedly be hard for others to tell me that, I have the responsibility to check the appropriateness of my presence often and with a willingness to hear and abide by the answer.
I have a responsibility to center, not simply include, the lived experiences of marginalized women in my work. I have the responsibility to ask, not assume, what a person or community needs and respect whatever role said person or community would like me to play in organizing to fill that need.
I have a responsibility to actively use my privilege to uplift other women's voices, work and writing. This means, by way of example, refusing to speak on panels or in spaces that are not diverse, recommending some of the many talented women I know for jobs or speaking gigs, and partnering with women whose privilege set does not match mine to do wide-ranging gender justice work.
Finally, I and every other person who does social justice work has a responsibility to remember what is arguably the most important lesson of the long, wonderful and difficult history of social justice organizing: one oppression can't be uprooted without at the same time and with the same intensity, battling all other oppressions that make life less fair for all people.