Katherine Fenton is a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher you probably didn't know before Tuesday, when you might have seen her pose the Binder Frenzy kickoff question at the town hall presidential debate. She asked in public, the audacity, about the gender wage gap and what Mitt Romney would do about it? It was a reasonable concern in the wake of Romney's elusive position and his endorsement of people who say things like "money is more important for men."
You know what she got for her efforts? A good and proper Slutshaming 101 from conservatives who dug up her Facebook page and her Twitter account to reveal that she has in the past used alcohol and maybe suggested her interest in sex. Like Sandra Fluke, she's a whiny, entitled trollop who should shut up and go home. Now, Fenton might not have memorized the Slut Manifesto, but she sure as hell knows that a man asking this exact same question would not be treated this way. Just like Jim Lehrer's weight hasn't become an Internet discussion point, while Candy Crowley's has. As Chloe Angyal so succinctly put it earlier today in Feministing, "This shit is sexist, and feminism is the fight against sexism."
But, ask many women and men, like Fenton herself, and you're likely to get a "I'm not a feminist!" What they actually are, however, is "I'm not a feminist, but..." They believe, at a bare minimum, in women's rights to vote, unbiased hiring practices, equal pay for equal work, freedom from sexual double standards, their right to decide not to be mothers, their right to decide when to be mothers, their ability to make individual decisions, the idea that what they wear is not a blanket license for rapists, and well, while we're at it, their right to put on pants, jog in public and drive. If they're men, they might enjoy being actively engaged in nurturing their children, or the freedom to openly embrace cooking for their families, god forbid. Actually, what am I doing?? I don't need to create this list. Here's a fantastic one, written at Dammit Janet that should be posted in schoolrooms, gyms and office kitchenettes everywhere:
If you are an anti-feminist woman and you vote -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman and you enjoy the rights of contract and property law -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman but sadly divorced yet benefitting from family law reforms (allowing you to have custody of your children, for example) -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman who practices safe, legal family planning including contraception and abortion (we won't tell anyone) -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman who wants to or needs to work 'outside the home' -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman who works and is paid the same as the man in the next cubicle -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman who has achieved higher education -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman in a profession formerly seen as 'male' -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman with recourse to sexual harassment/discrimination remedies in the workplace -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman who needs daycare for her children -- you didn't build that. If you are an anti-feminist woman who took maternity leave to have those children -- you didn't build that. And if you are an anti-feminist man whose mother, sister, daughter, wife, girlfriend, and female friends benefit from any of those things -- you certainly didn't build that.
Too aggressive for you? Maybe makes you a bit uncomfortable? Because, well, you know. But, consider just exactly who gets the angry-and-aggressive hall pass in our culture. It's certainly not girls and women, and it's not black men either. Sometimes anger is justifiable and has a place.
There is no Feminist Politbureau, to quote a friend, that everyone has to report to. (Although, it would be nice if the mainstream media got a clue -- hard to do with the prevalent lack of media diversity.) Nor am I "feminist-shaming" Katherine Fenton. Besides, just because a woman asks about fair pay does not mean she is a feminist. However, I am asking people to consider what they are doing when they denounce feminism with disgust or even shock that anyone would consider them a feminist. Marissa Mayer, whose success would not be possible without the work and lives of outspoken feminists who came before us, just did it, for example. I won't even get into the irony of Phyllis Schlafly and her contemporary "mini-mes" in the magical land of choice feminism.
When people say "I'm not a feminist" or "I'm a feminist, but..." they invariably imply that it's undesirable error made by an unhinged fringe. This is a testament to the success of at least 40 years of conservative backlash branding feminism the devilish work of man-hating, barren, aggressive, ugly (no greater sin), humorless, lesbian, she-devils. If anyone but women (with the help of their male allies) had accomplished the social revolution of the past 100 years every school child would learn it as a matter of rote. But, whereas we love our founding fathers and have grown more and more comfortable embracing our racial and sexual civil rights leaders, we haven't even begun to recognize our women's rights visionaries and revolutionaries. But, it's early days. What we have is a thin veneer of equality which has freed a generation of women to lead lives that women have never before been able to lead on massive scale. This enables younger women and men to disavow the word. Older ones are less likely to. Studies pop up now and then explaining this phenomenon, as though it is a reflection of the movements failure. But, these studies are never longitudinal and do not measure shifts in people's thinking as they age. It may be because people do not have to consider systemic barriers or how freely made their individual choices actually are until they've lived with consequences for a while. Regardless of age however, people have a seriously hard time imagining what actual liberation even looks like.
Feminism is a transformative, revolutionary human and civil rights movement and we should be proud of its accomplishments. There should be fireworks and barbeques and parades. There should be statues and songs. As it is, we don't have one easily recognized national celebration or public marker of any kind testifying to the sacrifices made in the movement to secure women's civil rights or to celebrate its achievements. Instead this history is buried under a thick tome of historical denial. We've left an entire generation bereft of the knowledge of a powerful legacy and sedated by the idea that, as XOJane put it, "anti-feminist behaviors are feminist because feminism is about choice." And, while a veneer is better than no veneer, it is a veneer nonetheless.
Whether we care to recognize it or not, Feminism is part of our collective cultural genome and democratic legacy. It's messy, fraught, conflicted, periodic in its enthusiasm. But, regardless, it's made everyday life easier, simpler, safer, fairer, more productive, more pleasant and more pleasurable for everyone, except maybe a relatively group of massively entitled and powerful men. Just because it scares thugs and hypocrites who depend on denialism and manipulation, and prey on people's fears, doesn't mean people should cave to their backlashy tripe and loud intimidation tactics. That only ends up being a wasted effort to be polite or seem somehow less objectionable to bullies.
In the U.S. and other "developed" nations, we may feel equal, but our education, history, media, language, all conspire to make sure that messages of male superiority and female inferiority percolates with sly malice under the surface of everything. You know why girls and women in these countries have the relative "luxury" of a perfection problem? It's not because of skinny models or a biological predisposition to anxiety. It's because any mistake girls and women make, any human flaw, any accidental misstep is a validation of culture's message that they are intrinsically flawed and inferior. Not worth equal money, equal air time, equal representation, equal moral authority, equal humanity. Perfection is the problem that results from having gained legitimate ground in the fight for equality in a culture struggling to keep up and ruled by people clinging for dear "life" to their power. Remember this the same culture, replete with Lilliths, Pandoras, Eves and Jezebels, that revels in making women the instruments of their own undoing... everything from blaming them for their own rapes to denying them reproductive justice and then castigating them for "personal irresponsibility" to making their lifetime economic vulnerability not the result of economic systems optimized for male breadwinners but, instead, a matter of their own bad choices. That's how you get binder tabs that take you from gun control to single mothers or equal pay to slutty whores.
Words are powerful, and this one no less than any other. (Indeed, "feminism" can even shrink men's penises.) But, despite fears about the word, there is no monolithic "feminism," and I don't remotely pretend to speak on behalf of "All Women" or "All Feminists." Just me, sitting alone at my computer. I know that within the massive, worldwide movement for women's equal rights there is no one way, no best way, no official way, to be an advocate or activist for women's freedom from subjugation. There are as many ways as there are people. As a writer, I daily grapple with words and their meaning as they pertain to privilege, power and oppression. Even among the infinitely diverse people fighting for equal rights the word is loaded and polarizing. But, while there are uncountable feminisms, what they share is the belief that we are, while not the same, equally human. I mean no imprecations or denigration of the experiences of Womanists/Feminists or others by using the word feminist in stand alone manner here. The broad assumption I am making, to address a reality where the real and tangible benefits of the fight for women's right to be recognized as fully human are daily disparaged by people who benefit in every possible way from them, is that our common enemy is patriarchy. And that feminisms undo it.
Patriarchy is oppressive to all but a very few in the world -- and by that I actually include most men, too. But patriarchy is a system built by humans and it's a system that can be dismantled by them, too.
This is why I'm a Feminist with a big, fat, loud, imperfect EFF.