I came to feminism late. I made it all the way through college and a slew of life experiences before I embraced it with a fervor, and a smattering of years later, I walked away from it with a fervor almost as intense.
There’s a lot of speculation1 about why people don’t identify as feminists -- I’m often challenged on why I don’t consider myself a feminist, asked to justify myself and explain my reasoning, just like feminists are challenged by people outside the movement for daring to think that women are people.
That speculation often assumes that non-feminists just aren’t educated enough, don’t know what the movement is about, are alienated by stereotypes; it assumes that we don’t actually know what feminism is.
The idea of walking away from the movement entirely, like I did, of making a conscious choice not to be feminist, seems to be particularly alien and scary.
When I started being more outspoken about my concerns with the mainstream iteration of feminism, the public face presented to the world, the feminism being advanced in academia and large venues, I was attacked. By feminists. And when I decided it wasn’t a movement I felt comfortable in anymore, I was attacked again. By feminists2.
So, people say. Why aren’t you a feminist? What gives? Do you hate feminism? Or feminists?
The early roots of feminism are tangled in a lot of dubious origins. Some of the heroes of the movement were, sadly, the same people advancing arguments like that white women should have the right to vote to ensure that white folks could outvote Blacks in elections, and that birth control would prevent “the unfit3” from reproducing.
Classism, racism, and ableism were deeply intertwined in early feminism, even though people of all classes, races and abilities participated in emancipation marches and fought for civil rights.
This isn’t just history -- these are issues that continue to the present day, an ugly fact that many feminists don’t like to be confronted with. It comes up with racist signs at Slutwalk, with casual ableism in feminist spaces, with classist comments about who should be allowed to “breed.” The concept of intersectionality, of considering other lived experiences, is present in some forms of feminism, but it’s not universal, and sweeping these issues under the carpet both doesn’t make them go away, and, yes, alienates people who feel excluded by spaces where it’s made clear that they’re not welcome.
Feminism is a heavily sex and gender-focused movement. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sex and gender-based oppression are things that happen and need to be addressed. Unfortunately, my view of the world doesn’t split identities that way; I can’t just look at women, for example. I see the whole body, the whole picture, and that means that sex and gender aren’t one size fits all. That if you focus solely on these issues, you leave out other people, other bodies.
These things are about more than gender. When you focus on reproductive rights solely from the perspective of cis white women, for example, you miss the larger picture of reproductive justice, and the issues that impact people with disabilities, people of color, nonwhite people, low-income populations...and inevitably, you leave people out and make them feel excluded.
These are not small populations or minor issues that can be addressed later, not when things like forcible sterilization and incentive programs for poor people who get sterilized are still happening, right now, in the United States.
My experience as someone who has spoken out about feelings of exclusion is that I’ve been told to shut up and wait my turn, which doesn’t really endear feminism as a whole to me. My experience as someone trying to bring nuance into discussions dominated by feminists has been being told to stop splintering the movement with fringe issues.
That doesn't stop me from contributing to those discussions; I'm a member of the Tiger Beatdown team, for example, but it does make me very, very wary in feminist-dominated environments.
These are my issues, and I don’t appreciate having them called “fringe issues” any more than feminists like being told to stop fussing about gender and go get in the kitchen and make a pie already. Nor do I appreciate being told that I’m dividing the movement or providing conservatives with ammunition to attack feminists.
The answer to being told your dirty laundry smells isn't to yell at the person telling you, folks, it’s to do your damn laundry.
To me, lived experiences are too complex to carve apart. And maybe feminists do need a space that is just about gender, but that’s not a space for me, because nothing in my world is that simple. That's OK. I don't need to be in every space.
People often assume I’m feminist because of my politics, but I’m not, and when I point this out, people seem to think their assumption should be taken as a compliment.
“You’re a feminist in all but name,” they tell me.
But I’m not. Because my politics are about so much more than gender, and I see prominent feminists representing their movement as rooted in anti-sexism. Sexism is a great thing to fight, but it’s not the only thing I fight, and I can’t be part of a movement that focuses on it to the exclusion of other things; I am also anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-ableist, to name just a few things.
Oddly, leaving feminism has made it much easier for me to work in solidarity with feminists I love and respect. I no longer experience that sense of internal tension that happened when I was identifying with a movement that often actively excluded me, that hosted hateful conversations about people like me, that questioned my fundamental humanity.
Instead, I can focus on working with people within the movement who are doing great work, who are challenging the dominant narrative of what feminism is, who are working to reshape it into something else.
I don’t know what to call myself; people always want to know, if I’m not a feminist, than what am I? Sometimes I like to say I’m a give-a-shit-about-each-other-ist, because that’s what it boils down to for me.
1. Among feminists, anyway.
2. Some of whom kindly told me that I hadn’t even been a feminist in the first place anyway because feminism is only for women. It was perhaps the only time in my life when a large group of people has respected my gender, and it was done only to exclude me. High five, feminism!
3. By which they meant people with disabilities, poor people, people of color, and nonwhite people.